As the seventies began, the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock was making his last films before his death in 1980. For his penultimate film, he returned to his native England and the type of crime-psychological thrillers that made his name – in doing so, he produced Frenzy, the last great film of his long and considerable career. Although it hasn’t lasted quite as strongly in the cultural memory as films like Psycho or Vertigo, Frenzy is an example of Hitchcock on form and the film is a compelling watch.
London is held in the grip of a serial killer who rapes and murders young women by strangling them with a necktie – the police are eager to catch him, but have no real leads to go on. However, when short-tempered ex-Royal Air Force officer Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is seen near the location of the latest murder, he becomes the police’s only suspect. Forced to go on the run until he can clear his name, Blaney takes refuge with a number of friends, including the charming fruit merchant Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) – little does he know that Rusk himself is the unhinged killer.
When you watch this film, it is clear that a number of familiar Hitchcock tropes are out in full – the man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, the fascination with the macabre, a propensity of black humour and a cinematography that could not be confused for anyone else. This film is certainly a touch more risqué than some of his past works – it is the only Hitchcock movie to feature nudity, and whereas past movies would play more with inference, Frenzy plays it straight and openly shows us a horrific rape and strangulation that is filmed so beautifully as to make it a compelling watch (a comment that shows how Hitch really was a master of his craft).
The film reveals fairly early who the killer is, and thus plays more to a black comedy angle than a full suspense film (that’s not to say there is no suspense, of course, with some scenes as tense as anything Hitch directed). A horrible crime will be followed by a scene at the house of Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), whose wife continues to serve interesting meals for him and puts him off breadsticks for life by snapping them as he describes broken fingers. More amusing still is a sequence in which Rusk climbs into the back of a truck to retrieve some evidence – it is funny, palpably tense and, worst of all, forces us to align ourselves with Rusk.
As is so often the case in a Hitchcock movie, the innocent seem to be far guiltier. Rusk is a sexual psychopath and a slimy bastard, horrifying when committing his crimes but a genuinely likeable and friendly presence otherwise. By contrast, Blaney is neither charming nor witty, with a vicious temper and an appalling rudeness to everybody. Although it transpires that he is innocent, he certainly could be guilty, and it almost appears that the film could be setting him up as the killer right until the moment we learn who the real killer is.
The main trio is completed by Oxford, who is super-cool and an honourable man throughout – the plot twists and turns around these three men until the final scene, where they all come together for the first time. However, there is far more to the film than just these three – although now we may be more familiar with actors like Clive Swift and Bernard Cribbens, they were chosen at the time for a lack of name recognition, but whose talent and Britishness help bring London to life.
Frenzy is an interesting beast in the Hitchcock canon – less well known and darker than many of his films (it is the only one to ever receive an 18 certificate), but boasting many familiar elements and a mastery of the craft that few (if any) have ever surpassed. Frenzy is Hitchcock’s last great film, and well worth a watch.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Jon Finch (Richard Blaney), Barry Foster (Robert Rusk), Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Brenda Blaney), Anna Massey (Babs Milligan), Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford), Vivien Merchant (Mrs. Oxford)
Running Time: 116 Mins
Image credit: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/frenzy