Saturday, October 13, 2012


I must confess; I felt dirty watching Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). To see a picture like this, it just seems so wrong and inappropriate. What could I have been thinking? I mean really, watching a Hitchcock movie on pan-and-scan VHS? Ugh.

Regardless of format, Frenzy remains a wickedly entertaining and morbidly funny film. Once again, Hitchcock draws on one of his favorite tropes - the man wrongfully accused - but instead of concentrating on the potential chase and man-on-the-run elements like he had in previous films (most notably in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps), he revels in the delicious irony of all the clues pointing to an innocent while nothing incriminating is tied to the real criminal, and he teases the audience with a number of standout suspense scenes.

A London serial killer is strangling women with a necktie, and all evidence points to Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a recently fired barman down on his luck. He was the last man seen near where his ex-wife was raped and murdered, and he's got a bad temper and a bit of a drinking problem. The problem: he didn't do it. The real killer is a friend of Blaney's, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a market salesman with a warped sexual compulsion hidden beneath his charming, helpful personality. In the middle is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), who discusses evidence of the case with his wife while trying to avoid eating her ghastly meals.

Frenzy is probably Hitchcock's most warped movie, or at least one of his tackiest. That's a bold statement considering three of his best films involve a transvestite who acts like his mother (Psycho, uh, spoiler), a detective who controls and shapes a woman to match his obsessive fantasy (Vertigo), and voyeurism (Rear Window). You could also argue it's misogynistic; the female victims are treated as discarded objects while some degree of sympathy is generated for their murderer. I suppose it's a testament to Hitchcock's skills as a filmmaker that he takes this subject matter and is able to apply his trademark black humor. Unlike the earlier pictures, Frenzy is also more graphic. We witness the murder of Blaney's ex, and there are  closeups of the tie tightening around her throat and of her terrified face as she gags and struggles. The bodies of other victims are found in the river and the back of a potato truck, naked, bruised, pale, and stiff. This is also reported to be the first Hitchcock movie to feature nudity.

The humor typically comes from dark irony. The film opens with long, sweeping shots of the London cityscape and proceeds to an outdoor press conference where a government official boasts about efforts to clean up pollution in the Thames River, only for someone to cry out there's a dead woman floating by. Later, Rusk, looking for a piece of incriminating evidence in a victim's hand, climbs into the potato truck, getting knocked around by all the sacks and growing increasingly frustrated and desperate; it's a sequence that's as humorous as it is tense. The public, instead of being shocked or repulsed by the murders, are actually fascinated by them, treating them as just the latest piece of gossip. One extra notes how the city could use a little excitement. More traditional humor comes from the dinner scenes between Oxford and his wife; he elaborates on the case while hiding his disgust for her cooking. Given that the film is about appetites - Rusk's depraved carnal hungers - it makes sense that the detective who eventually figures out the truth is the one who has trouble swallowing what's put in front of him.

Part of the reason I think Hitchcock succeeds is the casting. Finch as Blaney is not likeable like Jimmy Stewart, smooth like Cary Grant, nor honest like Henry Fonda; he's rather unpleasant, quick to anger and indignation, kind of self-pitying, and drunk at the worst times. It's very easy for the police and public to accept he's the culprit. Unlike other Hitckcockian protagonists, he does little to help his own cause, content to go into hiding rather than find the real killer as audiences might expect a hero to do. Foster as Rusk, on the other hand, is charming and personable (at least when he's not killing women). When Blaney is fired and homeless, Rusk offers him money, grapes, and a great tip on an upcoming horse race (which Blaney is too proud  to borrow money to bet on). We meet his mother, and Rusk always seems a bit more quick-witted and has a sense of humor. Even as a killer, when things don't go his way, he resolves problems by taking action and getting his hands dirty.

Being the master of suspense, Hitchcock shows he still knew how to turn the screws. The potato truck scene as I mentioned is a standout sequence, and the murder of Blaney's ex-wife is another great example. It's brutal, shocking, and drawn out. We watch her mind work as she tries to talk her way out of it and then try fight. When the deed is done and Rusk leaves, there's a long shot held on the building's entrance outside; we see the secretary walk inside, but we wait outdoors for the inevitable scream of discovery. Rusk later leads another victim up to his apartment, and when the door closes, the camera pulls back, down the stairs, and outside; we know what's going to happen, and we're helpless to stop it.

1 comment:

  1. That tracking shot in and out of the apartment is classic.

    You're right in that "Frenzy" was the first (and only, I think) Hitchcock movie to show explicit nudity... though there is a shot of Marion Crane's breasts in "Psycho." It's in the background and out of focus, though, so most people don't notice it (including the censors).

    Thanks for the review. "Frenzy" really took me by surprise, how good it was... all the suspense of "Psycho," but with a lot of humor that takes the edge off the uncomfortable scenes.