A woman's naked, strangled body washes up on the shores of the Thames - the Necktie Murderer has struck again. That same morning, argumentative Ex-R.A.F. man Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) loses his job as a barman and has to go to his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) for help. But when the Necktie Murderer rapes and kills her the next day, Blaney is the chief suspect, and has to go on the run...
Written by Anthony Schaffer, this sour, blackly comic thriller was Alfred Hitchcock's first film in Britain for over twenty years. Just to make sure we know it's set in London, the opening has a majestic shot of Tower Bridge, and throughout there are reminders of the local colour, from pubs and red double decker buses to typical English, heart attack-inducing, fried breakfasts and that painting of the green lady.
It's also a return to the familiar Hitchcock storyline of the innocent man being hunted down by the law, but here, as if to compete with the new permissiveness in the cinema of the day, there is greater explicitness in the violence and sexual content, plus some self-conscious bad language (shit, arse, bastard, etc). This means some sequences of rapes and murders in dubious taste, and a tone as bad-tempered as its unsympathetic protagonist. But then, murder isn't pretty.
Women get a poor deal in Frenzy. Blaney's ex-wife runs a dating agency, and the price she pays for having a successful business and being independent from her husband is apparently death. The wife of Blaney's friend (Billie Whitelaw) is an aggressive shrew who is convinced of his guilt. When one man is reminded that the killer rapes his victims, he observes "Every cloud has a silver lining." Even the comic relief character of the police inspector's wife offers up terrible cooking that her husband (Alec McCowen) must politely endure.
In amongst all this ill-feeling there are some parts that remind you that you're watching a master at work. The real murderer, Bob Rusk, is superbly played by Barry Foster as a slick, smooth-talking businessman ("Don't do anything I wouldn't do!") and he gets some of the most memorable, and nastiest, scenes, such as the one in the potato truck where he attempts to get back his lost tie-pin from a fresh corpse bundled into a sack (even sticking his face between her legs to find it).
At another point, Hitchcock lets his camera retreat from the horror of a murder, which certainly shows cheek considering how he doesn't shy away from the act elsewhere in the film. Frenzy has a particular unpleasant flair, but its unlikeability could be mistaken for an uncompromising nature when it simply could be a film trying to outdo its competition by seeing how much it can get away with. The thrills may be there in some form, yet the suspense is lacking. Music by Ron Goodwin.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.