“They’re particularly dangerous when their desires are being frustrated,” an idle gossiper muses early on in Frenzy (1972), Alfred Hitchock’s penultimate film. Spoken over shepherd’s pie and a pint in a Covent Garden pub during a discussion about the psychopath responsible for the recent string of ‘necktie murders’, this line alone could be used to describe any one of Hitchcock’s sexually repressed leading men – from Vertigo’s Detective Scottie to Psycho’s Norman Bates.
But more so than any of Hitchcock’s prior works about the lengths men will go to satiate their twisted appetites, Frenzy marks a new echelon of sexual sadism in his filmography. Fifty years on, we can view this as Hitchock’s nastiest film: a thriller that revels in decisively British black comedy, which contravenes the story’s sordid horror.
Frenzy fits into a trend of US-based directors travelling to, or back to, England to make a cold and cruel outlier in their filmography, with Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Robert Altman’s Images (1972) being other examples. After two consecutive critical and commercial failures, Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), Hitchcock was ready for a change when he agreed to direct Frenzy, adapted by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer from Arthur La Bern’s 1966 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. As it begins, the film feels like both a tourist video and a fanfare for Hitchcock’s triumphant return to London thanks to Ron Goodwin’s rousing score, played with majestic pomp as we swoop over the River Thames.
The story follows ex-RAF serviceman Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who is framed by one of his acquaintances, fruitseller Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), as the man responsible for a recent spate of slayings occurring in the capital. “We haven’t had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie!,” remarks one character blithely, “and they’re so good for the tourist trade!” After Blaney’s ex-wife and co-worker fall victim to the psychotic strangler, he must scramble to clear his name and convince Chief Inspector Timothy Oxford (Alec McCowen) that he’s not the man they are looking for.
Frenzy is Hitchcock at his most unrestrained – laying bare all his well-documented neuroses about how women should be punished on screen. With his predilection for humiliating blondes, he really got his rocks off in the film’s first murder scene, which sees Barbara Leigh-Hunt (in a Marion Crane wig) sexually assaulted and then strangled while her killer screams: “Bitch! You women, you’re all the same… I’ll show you!”
The deaths in the film are deliberately undignified, with Hitchcock’s camera showing us a corpse with the victim’s tongue lolling out of her mouth comically; later, a victim has her fingers snapped after rigor mortis has set in, a scene that Hitchock defended as “amusing”. Such set pieces are – as trademark – overlaid with a resolutely British sensibility of stiff-upper-lip nonchalance and deadpan humour, creating a queasy tone that wrestles with you throughout the runtime as you sit guiltily on the edge of your seat.
As Hitchock’s only X-rated film, Frenzy’s script was so distasteful that Michael Caine, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave all refused roles, unwilling to be associated with it. While no less suspenseful than his other works, here there’s a freewheeling feeling of a disregard for subtlety. Hitchcock had no need for tongue-in-cheek innuendo to illustrate his characters’ exploits; with the repeal of the Hay’s Code and introduction of the MPAA system in 1968, the days of North by Northwest’s train-tunnel ending to evoke sex were firmly over. In a 1972 article in the New York Times, Victoria Sullivan wrote that films like Frenzy “may be sicker and more pernicious than your cheapie hum-drum porno flick, because they are slicker, more artistically compelling versions of sado-masochistic fantasies”.
Hitchcock was aware but impervious to this kind of reception to his movies – in Frenzy, one woman says that “sometimes just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave!”, in what we can only synthesise as a knowing wink to the audience.
When asked in an interview with BBC Radio 4 why a film about such horrendous murders constituted entertainment, the director replied: “This is the same entertainment element that people pay for when they go into the haunted house in the fairground… when they pay money to go onto the roller coaster, and scream when it goes into the big dip.” This tracks, especially when you think of one of the director’s other, characteristically pithy quotes: “Some directors film slices of life, but I film slices of cake.” We’re not watching Frenzy for a moral lesson, but to be thrilled. When Martin Scorsese drew ire for likening Marvel movies to fairground rides, he later clarified: “in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks.”
For our sins, a late-career black comedy murder mystery from the Master of Suspense is exactly as much fun as it sounds, even if the result is slimy to the touch. Elegant tracking shots show the city’s dark alleys and grotty boozers, while tense scenes of our killer methodically plotting his next move juxtapose with gallows humour. Scenes in which Inspector Oxford is forced to eat several congealed, “avant garde” dishes prepared by his wife are particularly funny, distracting us from his, and the film’s, job at hand. For its flaws, Frenzy is fascinating proof that the indomitable Hitchcock was Hitchcock until the end.
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