In this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast, we covered the long, storied career of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, so it s only appropriate that I put the spotlight on one of his most underrated films. The 1960s started off with a bang for Hitchcock as he directed two of his most iconic classics, Psycho and The Birds, but the last half of the decade featured some of his more mediocre and forgettable efforts, such as Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. People were starting to wonder if “The Master of Suspense” had lost his touch, but in 1972, Hitchcock returned to his native England to direct the penultimate film of his career, Frenzy, and it provided one final reminder of why he was such a beloved filmmaker. Before this, Hitchcock had been dabbling in thrillers about espionage and political intrigue and the results were less-than-successful, but Frenzy can be classified as the last true “Hitchcockian thriller” which was actually made by Hitchcock himself. Frenzy contains a lot of the essential story elements that made Hitchcock’s thrillers so popular to begin with: the wrongly accused innocent man who has to go on the run to clear his own name; the seemingly normal everyday man who is actually a disturbed psycho killer; moments of terror and suspense intermixed with surprising moments of dark, macabre humour. Frenzy was based on a 1966 novel from Arthur La Bern called Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, and was adapted to the screen by renowned playwright Anthony Shaffer. This would also be the only Hitchcock film to ever receive an “R” rating, so the director had free reign to explore dark material which could only be hinted at in his previous films. So even though this is a classic Hitchcockian thriller in every sense, the director still manages to subvert your expectations at times.
As Frenzy opens, the city of London is being plagued by what may be their most worst sexual serial murderer since Jack the Ripper. The killer in question has been labelled “The Necktie Murderer” as numerous dead females have popping up all over the city after having been raped and strangled with a necktie. We are soon introduced to the main protagonist, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who has just been fired from his job at a pub. Blaney appears to be a fairly troubled individual who drinks too much and is prone to fits of anger, and his latest misfortune has left him broke and homeless. Obviously, this is meant to make the viewer believe that Blaney may be the Necktie Murderer, but it s revealed fairly early on that the real killer is Blaney’s seemingly harmless friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Rusk is a sexual deviant who has been harassing Blaney’s ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She runs a matchmaking service and wants nothing to do with him until Rusk shows up at her office and rapes Brenda before strangling her to death with her necktie. However, because Blaney had been seen in the company of his ex-wife just before her murder, a lot of circumstantial evidence points to him being the killer and he is pursued by the vigilant Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen). Once Blaney finds out that he has been falsely accused of being the Necktie Murderer, he goes on the run with his current girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) in an attempt to clear his name. However, Blaney has no idea that his very best friend is the real killer and that Rusk will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to pass all the blame onto him.
As I stated before, Frenzy marked the first time Hitchcock was not held back by the Production Code and was allowed to work with the freedom of an “R” rating. This becomes very evident during the sequence where Rusk rapes and murders Brenda, an extremely horrific and unpleasant scene which features one of Hitchcock s very few depictions of explicit sexual violence. However, this represents a perfect example of Hitchcock managing to subvert the audience’s expectations. Because after showing us all the gruesome details of Rusk’s first murder, the director then proceeds to show us NOTHING when the second murder occurs. As you could see in the previous clip, Rusk and his victim are shown entering his apartment and Hitchcock then pulls the camera out of the building in a long, unbroken tracking shot where you can only imagine the horrific events which are going on inside. Hitchcock always loved to discuss the difference between terror and suspense and in Frenzy, he uses his murder scenes to provide an effective example of both. His films often featured psychotic villains who appeared to be normal, easy-going people on the outside, with some memorable examples including Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, and Norman Bates in Psycho. The character of Bob Rusk definitely falls into the same category as he comes across as a very likable person most of the time, which makes the revelation about his darker side all the more shocking. In contrast, the character of Richard Blaney is a very flawed individual who seems rather unpleasant at the outset, though he does manage to capture the audience’s sympathy once he finds himself in his predicament. Yet Hitchcock still finds ways to subvert the viewer’s expectations, particularly in the movie’s most brilliant sequence, where Rusk realizes that he has left an incriminating piece of evidence with one of his dead bodies. His attempts to retrieve it somehow wind up setting off a hilarious chain of comedic errors.
The whole sequence is darkly funny yet still manages to generate a surprising amount of tension. Even though we know Rusk is the villain at this point, the situation is presented as such a hellacious nightmare that we re almost rooting for him to succeed. By this point, Anthony Shaffer had already written the Tony Award-winning mystery play, Sleuth (along with its successful screen adaptation), and would go on to write the cult classic, The Wicker Man, and the underrated Absolution. Shaffer’s works often contain a very effective undercurrent of lack humour and Frenzy is no exception, though some of his gallows humour may not be politically correct by today’s standards (during a discussion about how the Necktie Murderer rapes his victims before murdering them, one character actually says: “Well, I suppose it’s nice to know that every cloud has a silver lining”). Some of the biggest laughs are derived from a hilariously random subplot where Inspector Oxford’s wife takes a gourmet cooking class and serves him some very repulsive-looking meals. These scenes actually serve as a clever, entertaining way to provide exposition since Oxford is often explaining the plot while pretending to hide disgust at his wife’s cooking. On the surface, Frenzy might seem like a pretty routine story, but both Hitchcock and Shaffer are able to provide several ways to provide a fresh take on it. They tell their story very well and build it up to a very satisfying conclusion. Watching the movie, you know that you are in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he’s doing and has meticulously prepared every single frame. Given that Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, turned out to be pretty mediocre and forgettable, a lot of fans would prefer to think of Frenzy as the director’s swan song since it perfectly represents everything he did so well. Even though Frenzy has always been very well regarded amongst Hitchcock fans, it’s still not one of his more well-known films and remains criminally underrated. However, fans and non-fans alike are advised to check it out as it features one of cinema’s greatest directors providing the perfect capper to his career.