Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 17 December 2011
Source Universal Pictures DVD
Categories Late Hitchcock
Frenzy was Hitchcock’s penultimate picture, and his first in the 1970s, a decade that saw a renaissance in American cinema—but it would curiously harken his return to Britain. He hadn’t made a feature in his native country for over thirty years, and the sweeping helicopter shots of the London cityscape that open the film suggest he was glad to be back. One can analogize Hitchcock’s return to London to Woody Allen’s late-career arrival there; for both directors, the move seemed to coincide with (or inspire?) a leap in creative thought, a quick jolt that reminded them that there are always new ways to tell the same old story.
In Hitchcock’s case, the story is a combination of his two prevailing narrative interests: the predicament of the wrongly accused man on the run, and the psychology of the killer. It’s the necktie-murderer here, and he’s filling the headlines of the London tabloids with a string of icky sex crimes: he rapes his victims, and then, yes, strangles them with his necktie. The strangler is the charming, successful, endlessly creepy businessman Bob Rusk. I’m not revealing anything by telling you this. As in most Hitchcock films, we find out this information quickly; uncovering the identity of the killer isn’t really part of the game. The “wrong man” is Richard Blaney, whose connection to Rusk — they were military buddies — leads to an affectionate respect for the man: Blaney never suspects his old friend. When Blaney’s ex-wife is killed the same day he is spotted leaving her office, he, of course, becomes the chief suspect in the necktie murders.
The delightful grit and freshness of Frenzy is introduced in these two characters, and the actors cast to play them, who, while certainly not obscure, were not movie stars of Stewart, Grant, or Newman status. Jon Finch gives a delightfully quizzical performance as Blaney. He is a kind of British Mark Ruffalo, a scruffy down-on-his-luck bartender who seems genuinely baffled by his plight. Rusk is played by an orange-haired Barry Foster, who stores a bag of psychosexual rage under his seemingly friendly and helpful public persona. He’s a man who has been turned down by every dating service in town, in search of “his type of woman” (one who likes to be hurt). Is Hitchcock saying that if London society were more open to sadomasochism, Rusk might be a well-adjusted human being?
Frenzy is funny. Something about dry British wit launches Hitchcock’s ever-present dark humor to laugh-out-loud status. Or maybe he was just having a hell of a time. He takes an Altman-like interest in the periphery: some of the film’s most enjoyable moments are with secondary, or even one-off characters. There’s the two gentlemen at a pub, excited about the serial killer, musing that there “hasn’t been a good series of sex murders” in a long while, that they are “good for the tourist trade.” There’s the stiff receptionist at Blaney’s ex-wife’s dating service, who describes the suspect in such astonishing detail, even the police chuckle a little. There’s the wife of Blaney’s friend, angry that her husband has offered their apartment as a hideout, mocking his nickname for Blaney, “Ol’ Dicko.” But the show-stealer of secondary characters is the police chief, whose scenes could be edited together into their own comic short film. He works diligently on the case, sure, but is preoccupied with his own problem: his wife’s cooking. She is going through cooking school, and serves him foul-looking French meals: tiny roasted birds, eclectic stews, and pigs’ feet. At the table, he recounts case details, dreams of steak and potatoes, and tries to slyly dispose of his dinner.
Frenzy feels like the work of a young director. Even Hitchcock’s self-appropriation, which can sometimes become tiresome, is rejuvenated in this new context. No new tricks, maybe, but this old dog is performing the old tricks better than ever. Perhaps the best ‘Hitchcock’ moment is when Rusk offers Blaney’s new girlfriend a place to stay, and he leads her up the stairs to his flat, saying to her as he closes the door, “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but you’re my type of woman.” The camera leaves the two as the door closes, and there is a long, silent tracking shot down the stairs and outside, as the London street noises slowly fade in to audibility. The shot pauses on the exterior of the building for a few seconds, and because we know what’s going on inside, it’s chilling, pure, perfect Hitchock.
The director is acutely aware of the freedom the new decade allows him, and this is his first foray into graphic nudity and violence. Unprepared Hitchcock fans may be taken aback by how soundly R-rated this film is. (So much for tightly-cut shower sequences that don’t show the knife penetrating flesh.) Frenzy has a long, disturbing rape scene and several naked corpses; Hitchcock holds the camera on the tie as it is tightened around the neck, and keeps it there while the victim’s tongue hangs out of her mouth, drooling. In one scene, Rusk jumps into the back of a potato truck to reclaim a piece of potentially incriminating evidence from a dead body he disposed of by tying it in a potato sack. He breaks each of the corpse’s rigor mortis-ridden fingers to retrieve his lapel pin, and it’s one of the most tense and disturbing scenes of Hitchcock’s career. It gives a visual dimension to the phrase “pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
As Hitchcock takes pleasure in his newfound explicitness, we are as well, but it raises an interesting thought. It is often said about the director that his films were suspenseful and shocking for what he didn’t show, for what he left to the audience’s imagination. Frenzy retains the tight, gripping suspense that Hitchcock is famous for, shows us (mostly) everything, and has a good, long laugh about it.