Over thirty years after leaving his native England to live and work in Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock returned home. The result is arguably the best film of his late career and easily the most brutal in his entire canon, Frenzy. The film was a return to form, exploring many of the enduring themes of his work while blazing new trails for the director and the horror-thriller genre. It combines the energy and experimentation of his early British films with the craft, budget, and prestige of his American classics. It is filled with droll, dark wit and humor combined with some of the most horrifying and suspenseful sequences the Master ever filmed. Even now, as Frenzy celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, it feels fresh, transgressive, and modern.
Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer had just had his first big success with Sleuth on Broadway and assumed someone was playing a joke on him when he was contacted by Hitchcock’s offices to adapt the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern for the screen. It was often Hitchcock’s custom to seek out hot young writers for his films and would work closely with them in shaping the scripts. As a result, Frenzy contains many of Hitchcock’s most revisited motifs, themes, and trademarks. As Francois Truffaut observed in his book of interviews with the Master, “Frenzy is the combination of two kinds of films: those in which Hitchcock invites us to follow the itinerary of a killer (Shadow of a Doubt, Stage Fright, Dial M for Murder, Psycho), and those in which he describes the troubles of an innocent man who is on the run (The Thirty-nine Steps, I Confess, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest).” In this case, those two types of characters are friends. The killer, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), is revealed about thirty minutes into the film, while the innocent protagonist, Dick Blaney (Jon Finch), is pursued by the police for Rusk’s murders. In addition to these two major elements and situations, we find the iconic city setting, in this case London, the regular presence of food, and of course Hitchcock’s brand of dark, impish humor.
The new ground explored by Frenzy is most prominently on display in three of the film’s best sequences. The first of these, the murder of Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), Dick Blaney’s ex-wife, remains disturbing even today. The scene takes place about a half hour into the film and unfolds slowly as the character of Dick’s friend Bob Rusk gradually reveals himself to be the Necktie Murderer that is wanted by Scotland Yard. The term “serial killer” had not yet come into common use, so the film uses “sexual psychopath” to describe Rusk, who uses Brenda Blaney’s matrimonial agency to find his victims. The scene lays out much of what defines this kind of sexual psychopath through the dialogue leading up to Brenda’s rape and murder. There is a ritualistic element to the scene including Rusk’s introduction of the phrase “you’re my type of woman” before beginning his attack. As he attempts to rape her, he repeats the word “lovely” over and over in a profoundly disturbing way. It is implied that he is impotent at this point, is frustrated by his inability to perform sexually, and the act of strangulation with his tie brings him to a kind of sexual climax. In another ritualistic touch, he removes his letter “R” tie pin from his necktie and places it on his lapel before using the tie to strangle Brenda.
Though far less graphic than the rape and murder scene in Wes Craven’s debut feature The Last House on the Left released only a month after Frenzy, this sequence has a similar repulsive power to it. In terms of Hitchcock’s filming of murder, it can be compared to the shower scene in Psycho (1960), using many shots, cuts, closeups, and various inserts to make the overall impact much stronger in the viewer’s imagination than what is actually shown. The differences, however, include more graphic violence and nudity. In Psycho, the knife is never seen puncturing Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) body, but here we see the tie tightening around Brenda’s throat. We see Brenda fighting against Rusk, trying to distance herself from what is happening by praying, and attempting to cover her exposed breast with her bra. The shot of her strangled corpse with lolling tongue is perhaps the most graphic and unsettling in all of Hitchcock. The scene also sends the film onto a new trajectory in that we now know who the killer is and that the wrong man is being pursued by the police.
The next key sequence that is inventive and modern while still being Hitchcockian to the core is the leadup to the offscreen murder of Barbara “Babs” Milligan, played by Anna Massey. Massey was no stranger to serial killer movies, having starred in one of the best, Hitchcock disciple Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom in 1960. The experimental nature of this sequence begins as Babs steps outside the pub where she works, and all the sound of the street is slowly drained away, and Rusk appears behind her. At this point, we know he is our killer and the two begin a long walk through the Covent Garden market to Rusk’s apartment, where he invites Babs to stay as he is going to be leaving town for a few days. As they reach his building, Rusk says, “you’re my kind of woman” just as they ascend the stairs to his apartment. The door closes and the camera descends back down the stairs and, in a mirror of the beginning of the sequence, the sound from the street slowly increases, covering Babs’s screams. The sequence is a showcase for Hitchcock’s narrative and technical mastery and is utterly chilling.
The third scene comes soon after this, the potato truck sequence. Following Babs’s murder, Rusk returns to his apartment after disposing of her body in the back of a potato truck to discover that his distinctive tie pin is missing. He returns to the market at night to find it, realizing that Babs grabbed it from his lapel as he was strangling her. For this scene, our allegiance transfers to the killer, though it returns to Blaney soon after. We feel the suspense as he searches for the pin, attempts to stifle a sneeze, is kicked in the face by Babs’s corpse, and struggles to pry the pin from her hand, breaking her fingers in the process. It’s a neat trick that Hitchcock had played on audiences before, perhaps most notably in Strangers on a Train (1951), where the killer Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) struggles to regain possession of a lighter he plans to use to frame the hero, and Psycho in which our allegiance is transferred to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as he cleans up after the shower murder. The sequence is also filled with a great deal of humor, which works particularly well as it is at the expense of a character we know to be a horrible human being.
The ”wrong man” narrative of the film also sets up a great deal of suspense as the already down on his luck Dick Blaney haphazardly finds himself in his unfortunate situation of being fingered, and eventually framed, for the necktie murders. As is often the case in Hitchcock, the hero is less interesting than the killer, more dour and less charming, with the colorful characters that surround him drawing our empathies toward him. It’s a case of “if these interesting people like him, maybe we should too.” What is unique about Frenzy is that Blaney is eventually arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for Rusk’s crimes. The inspector who arrests him, Tim Oxford (Alec McCowen) has a post-conviction hunch that causes him to keep investigating the case. The dinner scenes between Oxford and his wife (Vivien Merchant) not only help him crack the case but provide a great deal of humor. As they discuss elements of the case, Mrs. Oxford forces culinary experiments from her gourmet cooking class upon her husband that have stomach churning parallels to the discussion, most notably as she cracks a breadstick as he describes the breaking of the corpse’s fingers.
This kind of gallows humor is peppered liberally throughout Frenzy, making it one of Hitchcock’s funniest films as well as most brutal. The mixing of the humorous and the repellant is apparent right from the start and serves as the entry point into the story. In the opening sequence, a naked body is spotted in the Thames River during a political speech about how the party in power is bringing an end to pollution in the nation’s lakes and rivers. In the same scene, a woman calls the Necktie Murderer “a regular Jack the Ripper.” Another spectator scoffs saying, “but he used to carve ‘em up, didn’t he,” and goes on to talk about the Ripper sending organs to the police. It is only appropriate that Hitchcock chose such a droll scene for his cameo. The humor brings an energy to the film that, when coupled with the more serious aspects of the film, may well have prompted Truffaut and others to call Frenzy the film of a young man.
Much of the energy of youth had left Hitchcock by this point in his career but returning home to London and Covent Garden, where his father made his living, seemed to reinvigorate the director. To me, Frenzy is the film in the period following Psycho to his last film Family Plot (1976) that I find most exhilarating to watch, the one that feels like Hitchcock having fun again and enjoying the process of filmmaking the most of his late career films. He even made a Psycho-esque trailer for the film that included him floating fully clothed in the Thames and finding a leg in a potato sack. Still, despite its transgressive nature, modern sensibilities, dark humor, and undeniable energy, Frenzy still seems to be underrated in Hitchcock’s filmography. It is also one of the few, along with Psycho and The Birds, that can truly be classified as a horror film, despite the director’s reputation by some as a horror director.
Frenzy was a much-needed hit for Hitchcock who had not had a significant one since The Birds nearly ten years before. Though highly revered now, Marnie (1964) left audiences and critics cold at the time. Torn Curtain (1966) has one truly inspired scene, that humorously examines how difficult it is to kill a person, in an otherwise disappointing film. Topaz (1969) fared much worse with only one single shot of note in the limp and lifeless narrative that Hitchcock did not seem to have much interest in, and it shows. Frenzy signaled the welcome return of the Hitchcock touch. It is the Master unleashed from the bonds of the production code and able to explore his most revisited themes with wild abandon, though tempered by his trademark technical restraint and ultimate desire to entertain the audience. It deserves to be remembered, watched, and considered alongside his greatest thrillers.