Frenzy: Alfred Hitchcock returned to Britain (and returned to vintage form) and created his last great macabre thriller

Frenzy (1972) was the great director Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate movie. This serial killer thriller, starring Jon Finch and Barry Foster in lead roles, finds the British director returning to his homeland to create his best film since the 1960’s Psycho.

Film Director, Alfred Hitchcock, started making films in Cinema’s silent era, in the 1920s. After making films for more than a decade in his homeland Britain, Hitchcock was wooed by Hollywood Showman David O’ Selznick to America. The 1940 Oscar winning adaptation of Daphne du Maurier‘s “Rebecca” was Hitchcock’s first American film. Throughout the ’40s Hitchcock worked as Selznick’s contract player and made such memorable crime dramas as “Notorious,” “Spellbound” and “Shadow of Doubt.” After his contract with Selznick ended, Hitchcock went independent and started producing and directing his films himself. The ’50s was Hitchcock’s golden period, when he made one great film after the other- the period bookended by two of his most acclaimed films: “Strangers on a Train” and “North by Northwest.” In 1960, he made the low-budget slasher thriller “Psycho,” financing the picture himself after the major studios refuse to finance such a risqué film. The film, without any prominent stars and shot very quickly by employing a TV crew, became a sleeper hit; and, today, is perhaps the director’s best-known work. “Psycho” marked the zenith of Hitchcock’s career; post-Psycho his career started to wane. His two follow-up films to “Psycho,” – “The Birds” and “Marnie” – were pretty inventive and featured some of his best filmmaking, but they were critical and commercial disasters. After that he turned to making big international espionage thrillers, “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz,” but they were even more poorly received, despite the former featuring then hot stars, Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Now, having lost much of the clout he had in his prime as a filmmaker, Hitchcock was forced to make a film on a low budget and devoid of stars. But Hitchcock took up this challenge head on; he used this an opportunity to return to Britain, and to his childhood stomping grounds of Covent Garden– he was the son of a Covent Garden merchant – and make a thriller film there; very cheaply and in the vein of his classic 1927 silent serial-killer thriller, “The Lodger,” that established Hitchcock as a prominent British filmmaker. Though the film titled “Frenzy” was an official adaptation of the 1966 novel “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern, it was also going to be a reworking of a film idea that Hitchcock had in the mid ’60s; Hitchcock had come very close to filming a very violent and sexually explicit psycho-thriller named “Kaleidoscope-Frenzy” that was to be filmed avant-garde style with no stars and on location; but the studio, fearing that the film will ruin Hitchcock’s reputation, had pulled the plug on that project.

“Frenzy” begins very similar to “Psycho”- with a sweeping helicopter shot , this time through the Thames; and it ends at the tower bridge- with Hitchcock’s director credit superimposed on an image of the opening bridge; announcing, if it wasn’t already obvious, that the ‘Master of suspense’ is back in his homeland. This is very much a British film in its look and feel; apart from the fruit\vegetable markets of Covent Garden, much of the locations used in the film, like the pubs, apartments and streets, are all exquisitely working class\middle class British neighborhoods. It’s after a long time that one gets the sense of place in a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock had this bad habit of sending second unit to shoot the outdoor locations, and then he would film the dialogue scenes and close-ups of actors on studio soundstages with location images (or matted images) back projected. This is one of the elements that visually date a lot of Hitchcock films- the painted image of a ship at the end of “Marnie” is notorious. But this film doesn’t have any such problems and even the interiors looks like as if they were shot on real hotels and houses. Another notable point: even though Hitchcock films have previously toyed with risqué and taboo subjects, this is the first time a Hitchcock film is rated ‘R.’ Hitchcock always wanted to portray female nudity on screen , especially in “Psycho” – where the shower murder scene feels rather explicit but there was no real nudity – but he was always stifled by the censors. Here, he finally got an opportunity to shoot a very disturbing, no-holds-barred rape\murder sequence without worrying about censorship- the Censor rules had been relaxed by this time. Hitchcock maybe the only filmmaker who started out in the Silent era and finished his career by making an R-rated film. Another novelty of this film is its casting; breaking away from his usual tradition of casting drop dead gorgeous blondes like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren and handsome male stars like Cary Grant and Sean Connery, Hitchcock opted for very ordinary looking actors like Jon Finch, Barry Foster and Anna Massey to play the lead roles in this film. Not only that he has shot these actors rather unflatteringly, shooting in natural light and muted colors; a far cry from the way his camera and glossy lighting serenaded a Kim Novak in “Vertigo” or a Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief.” The film is still filled with his virtuoso camera moves and framings, but this is the most down & dirty film Hitchcock has ever made, at least in color.

Hitchcock has also gone in for an all-British crew for the film. The script is written by Anthony Shaffer, who was coming of the Tony award winning play (and its film version) “Sleuth.” The script is extremely well written,; it’s economical, pacey and filled with colorful\quirky characters; there’s absolutely no ‘dead air’: no bloat, no boring or dead scenes; every moment keeps the plot moving forward. John Jympson’s editing is also topnotch, never letting the pace flag. After working on a couple of big (and i must add bloated and boring) international productions that must have tested his patience and wasted his creative energy, Hitchcock must have relished being back home and working in a tightly controlled and confined location. It is very obvious that is a low-budget, small-scale production- the entire action taking place in the suburbs – and it must have helped him concentrate more on the actors\characters and the telling of the story. This also means that there are no elaborate Hitchcockian set pieces (maybe save for one) in the film – like the crop-duster scene in “North by Northwest” or the grand ball that closes “To Catch a Thief,” but that’s alright; the finesse with which the film is made more than compensates for the absence of such grand and elegantly choreographed sequences. Thematically and plot-wise, the film is a grand culmination of traditional Hitchcockian themes and characters. Like the best Hitchcock film, “Frenzy” effortlessly blends murder, sex, food and humor with Hitchcock’s visual artistry. Despite being a macabre serial-killer thriller, Hitchcock wanted this to be a dark comedy in the vein of “Psycho.” Though very thrilling and even disturbing on one level, the film is very very funny.

This is very evident in the opening scene itself, where we see a politician giving a rousing speech to a crowd of citizens; he is promising to clean up the Thames and its canals, and then a corpse washes up near them; The nude lifeless body of the woman (with a necktie around her neck) floating out from the Thames is the latest victim of the “necktie murderer.” Hitchcock then mischievously cuts from this scene to our main protagonist, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), tying his necktie- just to put the idea in the viewer’s head that he maybe the murderer. But like all great Hitchcock mystery thrillers, this is not a “whodunit?.” Hitchcock is never interested in the concept of unmasking the killer for the audience in the last reel; on the contrary he always show who is the real killer in the first or second reel itself. So, the suspense for the audience is “will\how this real killer be caught?.” So I am not spoiling the fun for anybody who has not seen this film by stating the following: Blaney is not the killer; he is in fact Hitchcock’s “Wrong man on the run.” – like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”; who is wrongfully blamed for the murders that’s taking place in the city. The real necktie murderer is Blaney’s friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who runs a produce stand in Covent Garden. The character of Rusk is a combination of several crazy killers featured in Hitchcock’s films – mainly Joseph Cotten in “Shadow of Doubt,” Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train” and Anthony Perkins in “Psycho.” The one (and only) big set piece in the film concerns Rusk trying to extricate his tie pin from the hands of one of his victims in a truck filled with sacks of potato- a scene very similar to the scene in “Strangers on a Train,” where Robert Walker is on his way to plant false evidence on Farley Granger, and he accidentally drops Granger’s lighter down a storm drain and struggles to retrieve it. The scene mixes grotesque imagery and baroque humor, as we see Rusk having to break the fingers of the dead victim to retrieve his pin.

The plot development is on expected lines of a ‘wrong man’ thriller. Blaney is a hot-tempered, disgruntled working class English guy, who has just lost his job. He visits his ex-wife (who’s now quite well off, running a matchmaking agency) and gets into a loud argument with her, which is seen by one of her employees. Later, the same employee also notices Blaney coming out of his ex-wife’s office just before her dead body is discovered. Obviously, she fingers him to the police. Now Blaney is on the run, with the police hot on his heels. What nobody knows is that between Blaney visiting his ex-wife and Blaney being discovered at the murder site, Rusk had visited the ex-Mrs. Blaney; Finding her alone, Rusk (who was previously turned away by her agency because of his creepy sexual proclivities) rapes her, then strangles her with his necktie, revealing himself to be the “Necktie Murderer.” Of course, Blaney doesn’t know this, and he takes Rusk’s help to extricate himself from his predicament- only to be pulled further and further into the mess Rusk creates and , finally, to be betrayed to the police by Rusk. In the face of this treachery, Blaney realizes that Rusk must be the murderer. At the trial, the jury finds Blaney guilty and he is sentenced. The man who will save Blaney and ultimately catch the serial killer will be Chief Inspector Timothy Oxford (Alec McCowen) – another typical Hitchcockian cop character, very much on the lines of Chief Inspector Hubbard, played by John Williams, from “Dial M for Murder.”; the last minute unmasking of the villain and the wry quip that abruptly ends the film is also reminiscent of that film.

But the most entertaining and striking aspect of “Frenzy” (except for that gruesome rape\murder) lies in a subplot involving Timothy Oxford and his wife Mrs. Oxford, played by Ada Brand Thomson aka Vivien Merchant. Merchant has just three scenes in the film, but my god what scenes are they. I laughed more in in those three scenes than i have in the entirety of certain full-fledged comedies. When we first meet Inspector Oxford , he is voraciously devouring a rather large breakfast, and we soo find out why. His wife is taking an “exotic cooking” course and the meals she prepares are unappetizing to the point of being grotesque: soup with raw fish heads, pig’s feat etc.; and Oxford has a hard time eating them , or rather dumping them in the sink when his wife is not watching. Remember the scenes in “Rear Window,” where Thelma Ritter, while serving food to James Stewart, starts talking about the grisly details of the murder that may have taken place in the opposite building; and how that pretty much kills Stewart’s appetite?. Well, this Mr. & Mrs. Oxford track is an expanded version of that. Oxford discusses the gruesome details of the “Necktie murder” case with his wife, while she’s serving all these ghastly food. She has her own outlandish theories about the case which she shares with her husband; and it’s the mixture of her serving this food, Oxford trying and miserably failing to eat them, his clumsy attempts at getting rid of the food, and the discussing of the case between them that create the humor in these sequences. And above all there is Vivian Merchant’s performance; and what a performance: her every body movement, every line delivery and every facial expression is comedy gold. The manner in which she pronounces the exotic names of the food\drink she has prepared is literally to die for. Her very ostentatious, but at the same time very subtle and restrained performance comes across to me as a comical version of Judith Anderson‘s iconic Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca.” She not so much as walks, but floats in and out of the screen. Alec McCowen plays the straight man superbly to Merchant’s eccentric performance, and it’s the mixture of their contrasting styles that accentuate the humor. This subplot has its own brilliant climax, when Mrs. Oxford gets a dose of her own medicine, and is forced to run\float out of the scene.

After a decade of disappointments, “Frenzy” proved to be a much needed critical and commercial success for Hitchcock. A lot had changed in this decade. Though Hitchcock had been a very popular director with the masses, and he had also gotten a few Oscar nods for his direction, he was never taken seriously by the critics; he was always dismissed as a maker of popular entertainment. But after the advent of the cahiers du cinema and the auteur theory, Hitchcock was now looked upon in a new light- he was considered an auteur by the French critics; a director who put his personal stamp on a film, despite working in a studio environment. Two critic-turned-filmmakers, Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich also did their bit – by writing essays on Hitchcock’s films and conducting\publishing interviews with the director – to accord respectability to the director’s artistry. But the only problem was that , as Hitchcock rose in critical stature, the quality of the films he made went downhill. The Hitchcock cultists were desperate for a film from their idol that would justify all their worship, and with “Frenzy” they got that; the film had a premier at Cannes, and most of the critics praised the film as a welcome return to form for the director. Though I don’t consider the film to be in the top-tier of Hitchcock films – from a visual and thematic perspective, this is a film of very modest ambitions and it achieves them perfectly; it’s still a very efficient and very entertaining thriller that kind of sums up the great director’s career.

3 thoughts on “Frenzy: Alfred Hitchcock returned to Britain (and returned to vintage form) and created his last great macabre thriller

    1. Oh yes, a very clever shot that seamlessly moves from the studio interiors to the real outdoor locations managed with superb editing

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  1. Blaney is an ex fighter pilot yet he is in his 30s and too young to have fought in WW2 leaving me thinking that he was a Korean war vet.

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