Have you ever wondered about what a famous artist’s work would be like if they were living in the present age? Imagine Van Gogh living in Los Angeles, or Dante writing of the military debacle in Iraq. Well, imagine what Alfred Hitchcock- either of the early British thrillers or 1950s vintage era Hollywood classics, would be like if he were given a free hand in the 21st Century. Fortunately, cineastes need not strain their imaginations too much, for his penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy- his first film made in England in over twenty years, gives hints as to what a 21st Century Hitchcock would provide; and it’s assuredly good. In fact, save for a too rushed last fifteen or twenty minutes, it would be the equal of his three or four greatest films. As it is, however, it’s still a near-great thriller, and thoroughly modern in its usage of sex, nudity, violence, and profanity; so much so that it was the only film of Hitchcock’s to earn an R rating, and likely owes that to its being filmed outside the U.S. What sets the film apart from lesser films that exploit such seamier aspects of the human condition is that Hitchcock knows where and when to place such scenes, how to film them, and when to show restraint and not.
The plot of the film is standard Hitchcock fare. In a sense, the old canard that Hitchcock only made one film and made it over and over again has some merit. Similar things have been said about Japanese film director Yasujirô Ozu, and the fact that he made mostly films that depicted Japanese family life, but it’s a testament to Hitchcock’s craftsmanship that all of his crime pictures and thrillers approach such similar subject matter in disparate ways; much as Ozu’s families, while similar in many surface details, were different under the familial flesh.
Frenzy is about serial murder (The Lodger, Psycho), sexual deviance (Psycho, Strangers On A Train, or Rope), it is about a wrongly accused man (Strangers On A Train, The Wrong Man), as well as being about betrayal, and oneupsmanship. The film has often been lumped in with Hitchcock’s other post-The Birds films as somewhat of a failure, but, in reality, it was critically hailed, a box office hit that was lacking in star power and filmed on a low budget, and represented somewhat of a comeback film for Hitchcock, whose three box office failures in the mid to late 1960s- Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz- had made him become perceived as ‘outdated’ in Hollywood. Thus, the return to England, and London specifically, was viewed as a homecoming and a needed artistic rejuvenation. It worked. In spades. Frenzy opens with Hitchcock’s cameo, as he and a crowd watch a local politician demagoguing about pollution in the Thames River. Suddenly, a naked corpse floats by, and people see it’s another woman killed by The Necktie Murderer, as the latest serial killer has been dubbed.
The main suspect soon turns out to be a brown-haired and mustachioed Richard Blaney (Jon Finch)- a bitter ex-Royal Air Force officer who seems to be a career stumblebum. He is fired for supposedly sneaking drinks on the job, at the bar where he works with his girlfriend, a barmaid named Babs Milligan (Anna Massey). The lecherous bar owner also likes her, so cans Blaney on the pretext of alcohol thievery. He then goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a marriage matchmaker, for the first time in a year, after two years of divorce and a decade of marriage, and they quarrel in front of her secretary (Jean Marsh), who misinterprets Blaney’s slamming his hand on Brenda’s desk for hitting her. They later go out to eat, and Brenda slips some money into his pocket surreptitiously, so as to not humiliate him. He spends the night at a Salvation Army flophouse, and only discovers her gift when an old bum tries to rob him.
We also meet his good friend and would-be mentor, a blond Covent Garden green grocer named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster- a British Gene Wilder or young Michael Caine), who gives him racing tips, and calls himself Blaney’s ‘Uncle Bob’. Rusk is the actual killer, and has been going to Brenda’s service under the name of Robinson. He has been looking for women with sexual fetishes, and has been cold shouldered by Brenda and her agency. He waits for her secretary to go to lunch, then rapes and strangles her in a beautifully filmed, yet graphic scene, that ends with her face twisted into death, and her tongue sticking out. It rivals the famous shower murder scene in Psycho for memorability, but is even more graphic.
Meanwhile, Blaney goes to her office, just seconds after Rusk leaves it, knocks on her office, but leaves, thinking no one is in. As he leaves, the secretary sees him, and when she goes upstairs, Hitchcock- after such graphicness in the rape and murder scene, never lets the camera follow her to her grisly revelation. It waits outside the building for a long time, until screams are heard. Having seen the death in such detail, there is no need for a double dip. The scream is the payoff, for the audience has already been where the secretary is. Even better, at the scream, two women are passing by the building, hear it, then keep on walking, as if nothing has happened- a great commentary on modern callousness and indifference to suffering. Earlier in the film, two cops make a similarly callous remark on the murders, stating that the fact that the girls are raped before being killed means that there is a ‘silver lining’ in everything. If latter day films, like the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, learned that, they would be all the better for it. Of course, she accuses Blaney, to the police, including Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan), who meanwhile has trysted with Babs at a hotel, where the staff call the police after they identify him as the murder suspect when he wants his clothes cleaned. He goes on the run, and evidence mounts against him. Babs believes in him, and assists him, but unfortunately runs into Rusk, who offers to help her help Blaney. The moment is perfectly framed, as Babs exits the bar she worked at, and as she turns around, we see Rusk glaring at her, and he almost seems to emerge from within the space she occupies in the frame. The audience knows she is doomed.
He takes her to his apartment where, as they enter, he utters the phrase he did just before killing Brenda, ‘You’re my type of woman.’ Again, Hitchcock shows restraint, for instead of another graphic rape and murder scene, the camera merely pulls back down a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and out into the street. We know Babs is doomed, so there is no need to look again. This shot reminds one of a scene in Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is on a payphone in a tenement hallway, and being rejected by the girl he likes, after taking her to a porno film, and the camera pulls away to show the desolation of the hall and outside world. Just as the viewer’s watching the psychopath’s pain would be too much, so would watching a second graphic murder be too much. Yet, Hitchcock does even better- he adds comedy to the sequence. That night, Rusk dumps Babs’ body in a potato sack and hauls it to a truck. Then he discovers- through flashbacks to her death, thus showing for narrative necessity what was unneeded for shock value- that Babs tore off the tie pin that Rusk always took off when he strangled his victims.
Thus, he goes back to the truck, jumps inside to undo his handiwork, and the truck takes off down the road, and has to retrieve the pin from Babs’ rigor mortised clutch, by breaking open her fingers, after a funny scene where her dead foot keeps kicking him in the face as the truck jostles down the road, and he breaks his penknife trying to pry her clutch open. Since the truck’s back door is open potatoes fall out and the truck driver locks it, then stops at a pub, where Rusk gets out. Eventually, the body falls out, and the pressure mounts on Blaney, who is no longer aided by the couple- military pal Johnny Porter (Clive Swift), and his antagonistic wife Hetty (Billie Whitelaw), that was hiding him. He turns to Rusk, who hides him in his apartment, then turns him over to the cops. Then, the film falters, by rushing the revelation that Rusk frames Blaney with Babs’ clothes, Blaney’s trial and imprisonment, and faking of a suicide attempt that lands him in the state hospital. All sense of time- is it a few months, a year, that has gone by?
Meanwhile, Oxford is nagged by doubts about Blaney’s guilt, and his cries of vengeance against Rusk. There are a couple of wonderfully comic scenes between Oxford and his wife (Vivien Merchant)- who serves inedible cuisine, and helps the Inspector riddle out the real facts of the case, and Rusk’s likely guilt. She cannot buy Blaney would rape and kill his ex-wife, especially after so long, even if the divorce decree states he was cruel- a ruse to rush their divorce through. When the final piece of evidence comes in, Blaney has made good on his escape from the hospital, and is heading after Rusk. Oxford figures that is exactly where Blaney will head, to make good on his threat to kill Rusk, and he does beat Oxford there by a few minutes. He sees what appears to be the blond Rusk sleeping in his bed, and takes a crowbar and bludgeons him. Unfortunately, it’s not Rusk, but an anonymous naked blond woman Rusk has killed. Blaney is horrified, as Oxford enters, and momentarily may think Blaney killed the girl. Blaney starts to explain, but there is a clunking sound coming up the stairs. Oxford shushes Blaney, hides behind the door, and Rusk enters with a trunk to dump the newest corpse in. He sees Blaney, then Oxford, who exclaims that he’s not wearing his necktie. The killer is caught, and says nothing, just dropping the trunk to the floor, in a terrific last few minutes that almost redeems the rushed post-frame-up scenes.
The film was adapted from Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Picadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and it’s a very good screenplay, despite the nearly two hour film’s need for an extra fifteen or so minutes of later character development toward the end- a rarity in an age where so many films need trimming. The film so well portrays the impulses and frenzy of a serial sex killer, that the formulaic rush toward the great end suffers by comparison for its lack of realism, and formula plotting. It briefly becomes an off the rack plot-driven revenge thriller rather than the superb character study it had been to that point. Had it extended the study aspect a bit longer and more realistically Frenzy would have been a great film.
The DVD, part of The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, is very good, with a film trailer, but no film commentary track. The film is well presented, and aside from the fashions could have been shot this year. It looks and feels ‘modern’. There is a good forty-five minute documentary ‘The Story of Frenzy’ by Laurent Bouzereau, with interviews from the actors (Finch looks better today than in the film), screenwriter, and others. The film’s score was originally done by Henry Mancini, but it was too soft and banal. Hitchcock then hired Ron Goodwin, who added a more British flavor to the score, and it works well.
While many of Hitchcock’s earlier films on murderers are outdated, due to psychological and forensic advancements- even Psycho seems somewhat quaint, Frenzy is fully modern. Rusk keeps trophies of his victims, and even revels in the framing of his friend, to prove his ‘superiority’, especially to Blaney. There are also very subtle clues to Rusk’s deviance early on- such as a glimpse of his wacky mother (ala Psycho and Strangers On A Train), and the plot does unfold believably, not at a Hollywood modern computer game pace, which only points out the flaws toward the end. Hitchcock also revels in real locations like never before. 1970s London looks and feels the way Charles Dickens may have viewed it had he lived a century later. The city is, perhaps, the central character of the film, and lends a realism to Frenzy that many earlier Hitchcock films lack. The only backscreens used are in a few shots from moving vehicles.
Yes, there are a few other flaws, such as Brenda’s odd impassivity as she is being raped and killed, and a few logical problems, mostly plot holes that are ‘resolved’ by the lowest common denominator law of ‘the dumbest possible action’; but compared to standard Hollywood fare, Frenzy is a near-masterpiece, not only as a genre film, but it is the rare Hitchcock film that probes its characters’ psychological depths with a modern realism. That such a formulaic (in the best sense) director was still evolving and adding things like forensic psychology and new camera tricks to his repertoire so late in his career only makes one wonder just how far his oeuvre would have come were he still alive and making films today. Now there’s a really scary thought!
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.