This review contains major plot point spoilers. Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the film.
Frenzy is, in my humble opinion, Hitchcock’s most intense and disturbing film. Because it was made long after the production code had folded, it has all the graphic imagery that the 1970s, with its lack of overarching censorship, would allow. And so all the things that Hitchcock could not show in the past, all the things he could not do due to studios deciding star personas, are made possible.
Frenzy tells the story of habitual loser and alcoholic, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) who has been fired from yet another job. Since the RAF, things have folded like a pack of cards for Richard, and they’re about to get a whole lot worse.
A killer is on the loose, and his MO is murdering women by strangling them with a necktie. The beginning of the film features the naked body of a woman washing up on the side of the Thames, and guess what’s around her neck: a tie.
There are two types of frenzy in the film: that of the fever-pitch of fear that the residents of London reach, and the killer when he murders his victims. The scenes which depict the murders, are so visceral that I thought about them for days afterwards.
One of the murders has the killer using the word “lovely” as a horrific refrain that worms its way into your soul and stays there. It’s like some demonic incantation that shows the deep malicious psychosexual urges of the murderer. The entire characterisation of the murderer is carefully constructed around his dismissive attitude towards women. The way he uses them as a way to realise his escalating unnatural urges. This escalation is eventually his undoing in a scene that is brilliant, humorous and very satisfying.
At the end of the movie, Blaney has been convicted for the murders, but the real culprit is his friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster). Blaney breaks out of prison to get his revenge of Rusk, as he finally realises that his supposed friend is really the murderer. Blaney goes to smash a sleeping Rusk in the head, but it’s actually the corpse of Rusk’s latest victim. Just as Chief Inspector Oxford arrives, and Blaney protests his innocence, Rusk comes up the stairs with a large trunk. We all know what he intends to use the trunk for. Quite calmly, Oxford says “Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie.”
The film is incredibly clever in terms of plot and dialogue. With an atmosphere that keeps you intrigued thanks to strong thriller aspects and the exploration of immorality and amorality in a world that either doesn’t care, or accuses the innocent. Barry Foster gives an incredible performance, exploring the possibilities of the strong script and bringing the slick, sick character of Rusk to vivid life. The phrase that becomes Rusk’s calling card is “Bob’s your uncle”, a play on the well known turn of phrase, it becomes more and more distorted as the film progresses. When you know he is the killer, this act of friendly camaraderie soon becomes a fabrication, an aping of normal behaviour.
Although Blaney is the main character, and Jon Finch is excellent at showing how unsympathetic a protagonist he is, it is Foster who steals the entire film with his chewing of the scenery. But Finch is incredibly good at showing the rapid descent of a man who could have had it all. This is most rarely shown with in Blaney’s interaction with his kind, caring ex wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), who desperately wants to help him and still loves him, but who he verbally abuses. It is clear that Blaney still loves her, but his compulsive self pity and disregard for others leads him to become a prime suspect in the murders.
This wrongful suspicion comes about due to Barbara being murdered by Rusk, who says she is “His kind of woman”, another phrase that becomes increasingly distorted as the film goes on. Barbara‘s murder, for me, is one of the most disturbing I have ever seen in a film. It is made even more awful by Foster’s violent violation beforehand. The scene is powerfully realised due to Foster’s manic, brutal turn and Hunt’s desperate, pleading one. She perfectly embodies how trapped Brenda is, how she eventually realises who Rusk is, and how she tries to fight against the inevitable. Even though her turn in the film is brief, Hunt brings so much empathy to Brenda. It makes her death even more heartbreaking.
Anne Massey is the only other female character who is afforded fairly well rounded characterisation, and she is the antithesis of the well bred Brenda. She is the representation of how Blaney’s circumstances have deteriorated, as she is a career barmaid. But her character, Barbara, like Brenda, is intelligent, kind and probably too good for Blaney. Her death is no less disturbing and terrible than Brenda’s. It is the aftermath of Barbara’s death that is truly disturbing, but has a strange sense of humour to it.
Rusk disposes of her body in a potato truck, but during the murder, Barbara, feisty to the end, rips off Rusk’s signature tie pin. Rusk has to retrieve it, but with much effort, as the truck speeds to its distinction, and Rusk has to break Barbara’s rigor mortis riddled fingers and becomes covered in potato dust. This is, as Rusk fears, the reason he is eventually apprehended. But not due to the evidence he thought to hide.
Frenzy is a film that can very easily become too much. But Hitchcock’s signature dark humour saves it from this, with a subplot where Inspector Oxford’s wife cooks inedible cordon bleu dishes. As mentioned earlier, the dialogue also has delightful pieces of humour and clever turns to cut through and relieve the terrible acts that Rusk commits. This is achieved in only a way that Hitchcock can manage. This is a film that really shows how later directors like De Palma were inspired by the Master of Suspense’s style.
Hitchcock pushes the wrong man trope to the extreme in this film. Whereas in his previous films the protagonist is exonerated before prison, in Frenzy, Blaney is tried and convicted. The fact that the death penalty was abolished over a decade before the film was made, means that Blaney can enact his plan to escape and get to Rusk. The ending is pure Hitchcock, with its clever payoff. Many other filmmakers would have left the fate of all involved unsure, but Hitchcock ties everything up in a way that brilliant instead of trite.
Frenzy was the first film that Hitchcock made in England after decades in Hollywood, and somehow it feels like a homecoming and a fit almost bookend to his career. While some will claim that Hitchcock was past his heyday, this film proves he was brilliant right until the end.
This is my very late contribution to the always wonderful Maddy’s 4th Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Read about the Master of Suspense’s other works here.