Alfred Hitchcock, 1972
Starring: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Anna Massey
Starring: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Anna Massey
"If you can't make love, sell it."
A serial murderer is raping and killing women in London. Because he strangles them with a tie, he becomes known as the "Necktie Murderer." When he kills a woman who runs her own matchmaking company, her ex-husband, Richard Blaney, is arrested due to circumstantial evidence. Blaney's close friend, Bob Rusk, is actually the murderer and is all too happy that someone else has taken the fall. Though Blaney is innocent, he is an unemployed alcoholic with a violent temper and a streak of bad luck a mile wide. The detective inspector, who is being driven crazy by his wife's new cooking hobby, begins to suspect Blaney is the wrong man.
Even though this is Hitchcock's second to last film, it is one of his best and ties for my favorite with Shadow of a Doubt, a completely different kind of serial killer film. The screenplay was written by Anthony Shaffer (The Wicker Man and a number of well-regarded Agatha Christie adaptations) and is based on Arthur La Bern’s novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. This is Hitchcock's last film to use his beloved "wrong man" scenario and while I usually dislike this trope, it works particularly well in Frenzy.
The film was considered particularly controversial for the use of nudity and violence, though this reputation is exaggerated by today's standards. While it is Hitchcock's only film to receive an R rating, the only murder shown in-camera is Blaney's ex-wife Brenda, while the others are merely implied – though what we don't see is equally grisly. Critics have made complaints that Hitchcock loses his touch here and abandons the "less the more" philosophy that made films like Psycho and Rear Window so suspenseful and terrifying. I would argue that by graphically showing the first murder and denying our voyeuristic gaze for the rest of the film, he fulfills two functions. First, he is not afraid to show how ugly and horrible death can be, particularly sex crimes. Second, there is nothing gratuitous about the rape and murder, it is meticulously planned. Hitchcock sets up a pattern where he shows us more than we planned to see and then fills us with a repeating anxiety that it will occur again. Brenda's death is an intensely personal, brutal and claustrophobic event we cannot look away from and we cannot help but relive throughout the film.
The sickening violence is both balanced and bolstered by an unpleasant but affective amount of black comedy. Much of this involves food, which is one of the major themes of the film. The Chief Inspector constantly argues with his wife, who has taken up gourmet cooking classes, but produces unpalatable French dishes when he only wants simpler English fare. Their scenes indicate that the only positive, normative relationship in the film is still a political act based on irritating compromises rather than genuine affection.Continuing with the food theme, Rusk is a fruit and vegetable dealer. There is a particularly grim but humorous scene where he tries to retrieve a clue from the hand of a corpse and gets carried off in a potato truck while the body is seizing into rigor mortis. He is forced to cut off the woman's fingers to rescue his tie-tack.
There is a lot of humorous dialogue, though it is rife with nasty, mean-spirited comments. Mirroring a scene in Shadow of a Doubt where two side characters have an enthusiastic conversation about murder, there is a scene where two men graphically discuss sex crimes and another where two others relate that the killer rapes his victims. One replies it is "good to know every cloud has a silver lining!"
I regard Frenzy as one of Hitchcock's best films, partly because it is his most misanthropic. It culminates in a number of themes he explored throughout his career and is a film about rage, perversion, the futility of hope, and the meaninglessness of life. Society is corrupt at its basest level and marriage is a sham meant to keep people permanently unhappy. Sexual relationships are about exploitation and control and love is an illusion. These themes are touched upon in nearly all of his films to varying degrees, even the comedy The Trouble with Harry, but they are at their most extreme here.
Women are whores or victims, sometimes both, while the men in the film are deeply flawed at best and are indiscriminate sexual predators at worst. Bodies are reduced to their basest levels. It is odd that so many parallels are drawn between Frenzy and Psycho, when a more fitting parallel exists between Frenzy and its direct predecessor, one of Hitchcock's earliest films, The Lodger (1926). In many ways, Frenzy is a more brutal remake of the silent film, including the ill-fated, wrongly accused man, his naive girlfriend, a serial killer, and the setting of London on hard times.
It is particularly fitting that Hitchcock returned to England after nearly thirty years to shoot this film and that much of it was done around the Covent Garden market area his father worked in. In Frenzy this area is full of the lowest common denominators of London society: gangsters, whores, alcoholics and poor tradesmen trying to scrape a living. Many other scenes occur in bars filled with similar clientele. In many ways, it shares a tone with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd musical from later that decade, also about a wrongly accused man, serial murder, misogyny, and the filth of the city. Sweeney sings that "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it/ and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit/ and it goes by the name of London." I can't help but feel that most of the characters in Frenzy would agree.
As usual, the cinematography by Gil Taylor, a regular Polanski collaborator, is breathtaking and technically stunning. There's a masterful scenic opening shot of the Thames, which we soon learn contains the dead, floating body of one of Rusk's victims. There's also a particularly amazing tracking shot where Rusk takes a victim to his apartment. We see them go up the stairs, knowing what will occur, but the camera goes back out onto the street where the poor woman's screams are ignored by passersby.
The performances are good, but are occasionally weakened by the writing. Jon Finch (Macbeth) stars as Blaney, an almost impossible character to play. He is essentially sympathetic, but he is so down and out, so tripped up at every turn, that it is hard to actually like him or identify with him. Instead, Barry Foster's Bob Rusk, the charming, blonde serial killer, is more likable and I felt uncomfortable rooting for him as much as I did. Michael Caine was supposed to be cast in the role and would have been perfect, but found the part too repulsive. Foster is excellent as both the comedic and terrifying backbone of the film. Anna Massey manages to be a mixture of sexy and naive, even if she is not one of Hitch's traditionally hot blondes. Alec McCowen's Inspector is my favorite role in the film. Like many a Hitchcock Chief Inspector before him (Dial M for Murder’s Chief Inspector Hubbard takes the cake) he manages to be the seemingly bumbling, charming, funny, moral center of the film.
It takes a while to get to know Frenzy, but it is the culmination of Hitchcock's themes and interests as a filmmaker. There is a mix of the foulest macabre, blackest humor and a "wrong man" driven into the corner when he's dealt a lousy hand by fate. Though there are a few flaws, plot holes, and a lengthy two hour running time, Hitchcock rises above an overly filmed premise to bring us one of his most interesting and unsettling films. Pick up the single disc Universal DVD or find Frenzy in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection box set, which is the disc I am reviewing.