Screenplay : Anthony Shaffer (based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square) by Arthur La Bern
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Jon Finch (Richard Blaney), Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford), Barry Foster (Robert Rusk), Billie Whitelaw (Hetty Porter), Anna Massey (Babs Milligan), Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Brenda Blaney), Bernard Cribbins (Felix Forsythe), Vivien Merchant (Mrs. Oxford)
Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy, marked his first return to England after more than 20 years of filmmaking in Hollywood. In many ways, Frenzy was a return to Hitchcock's roots, not only his national roots, but the cinematic roots that had made him one of the most renowned filmmakers, both critically and commercially, in cinema history. Much like Psycho (1960), Frenzy was a study in aberrant sexuality and murder, but it also prominently featured one of Hitch's favorite themes, the wrongly accused man on the run, which had fueled some of his best films, including The 39 Steps (1935), The Wrong Man (1956), and North by Northwest (1959).
But, at the same time, Frenzy was a modern film very much in keeping with the expanded freedom and increasing violence of filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While many of Hitchcock's films were notable for their explicit sadism, his visual ingenuity and calculated restraint always made you think you saw more than was actually there, the shower murder in Psycho, of course, being the primary example. But, with Frenzy, Hitchcock, at the age of 72 and having directed 56 films, was finally allowed to thoroughly indulge his darkest instincts, and the result was an often gruesome and violent, but nonetheless engrossing, mystery thriller mixed with moments of delicious black comedy.
Hitchcock's mixture of humor and violence is immediately apparent in the opening scene, which depicts a naked, dead body floating ashore on the Thames River as a government official proudly declares to a large audience that the days of pollution are over. It turns out the body is another victim of the Necktie Murderer, a serial killer who rapes and strangles women with his necktie and has London in a grip of morbidly fascinated terror (Hitchcock was no dummy--he knew "normal" people were enthralled by the perverse).
The screenplay, which was written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) from a novel by Arthur La Bern, is an adroit mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Like Vertigo (1958), the mystery is solved fairly early on; that is, the identity of the Necktie Murderer is unveiled within the first 20 minutes. Thus, Frenzy is not a whodunit, but rather a suspense story about whether or not a man who is wrongly accused of the murders will prove his innocence, even though all evidence points to his guilt.
Shaffer complicates matters by presenting us with a wrongly accused man who is not particularly appealing. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is certainly no murderer, but he is an ill-tempered man prone to too much drinking and occasional theft. One wonders what his girlfriend, Babs (Anna Massey), sees in him, and it's not hard to see why his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), divorced him.
Nevertheless, Hitchcock successfully manipulates the audience with his skilled direction and innate sense of what jangles the nerves. He stages several notable sequences that get your heart pounding with tension, most notably a scene in which the killer struggles in the back of a potato truck while trying to extract an incriminating piece of evidence from the hand of one of his victims. It's a brilliantly sustained piece of suspense, tight and claustrophobic, made all the more daring in true Hitchcockian fashion in asking us to identify with the pursuits of a sadistic criminal. Hitchcock plays the moment for all it's worth, raising the grotesquerie of the scene to the level of the absurd, thus making what would otherwise be simply morbid quite funny (this is never so intense as when the killer is literally breaking the corpse's rigor-mortis-prone fingers in order to retrieve the evidence).
Many critics and audience members were appalled by the explicit violence in Frenzy, especially the film's one murder scene, which involves the attempted rape and then strangulation of a major character. Even today, almost 30 years after the film's initial theatrical release, this scene is still unnerving and difficult to watch because Hitchcock refuses to back away. He draws out the violence in real time, centering the camera's attention on the difficulty and ugliness of the act.
Many felt that Hitch had gone too far, whether he was simply trying to keep up with times or if he was indulging his own personal demons on film. Regardless, the scene is one to be admired for its technical audacity, as well as for what it has to say about the nature of violence and our willingness to indulge in watching it as entertainment. Hitchcock always knew exactly what he was doing, and his reasons for including such a graphic scene are probably complex and contradictory, much like the artist himself. As Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto wrote, Frenzy itself was "at once a concession to modern audiences' expectations and a more personal self-disclosure of the director's angriest and most violent desires."
The great contrast to that particular sequence is a second murder that is explicitly not shown. Instead, Hitchcock teases us with a slow tracking shot as the killer and his victim (another prominent character) walk up the stairs to the killer's flat. The killer makes a statement that we recognize from the first murder, thus making clear exactly what will come next. Then, as he closes the door behind them, the camera silently moves back down the stairs, out the main door of the apartment building, and across to the other side of the street. It's a horrific moment in which camera movement and the lingering memories of the graphically depicted first murder create a moment of violence in which nothing is shown. It is easily one of Hitchcock's most creative and deviously emotional moments as a director.
Although not one of his undisputed masterpieces, Frenzy was an important moment in Hitchcock's career. After the disappointing responses (critically and commercially) to Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), many were beginning to question whether Hitch still had it in him. Frenzy was a reminder that Hitchcock was still a veritable film artist and entertainer who could compete with the best. Even though it hearkened back to his earlier work, Frenzy was hardly a conservative film, as Hitchcock took a great many risks stylistically and thematically. It is proof that, even at the very end of his career, he was still capable of innovation while holding strong to the themes and preoccupations that had sustained his legendary career for more than 50 years.
|Frenzy is available either individually (SRP $29.98) or as part of the Best of Hitchcock #2 DVD box set (SRP $174.98), which includes seven feature films and four episodes of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.|
|Audio||Dolby 2.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| The Story of Frenzy: 45-minute documentary|
Original theatrical trailer
Cast and filmmaker filmographies
|Frenzy is presented in a new widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic transfer that looks fabulous. There is some occasional dirt and minor speckling, but overall the image looks crisp and clean. Taking place mostly in Covent Garden amid fruit and vegetable stands, Frenzy is a colorful film with a great deal of location detail (rare for a Hitchcock film, considering that he much preferred filming in the studio). The transfer does justice to the film's color scheme, and the print does not look to have faded much at all in the last 30 years. Detail level is generally good and the blacks remain solid throughout, without only tiny hints of grain.|
|The Dolby monaural soundtrack sounds very good throughout. British composer Ron Goodwin's attention-grabbing orchestral score sounds deep and clear, as do some of the more grisly sound effects involving strangulation and breaking bones. Some of the heavy British accents are a bit hard to decipher at times for American audiences, but otherwise all the dialogue is clear and understandable.|
| The Story of Frenzy, Laurent Bouzereau's 45-documentary retrospective, is an excellent overview of the making of the film. The documentary features a number of recent interviews with those involved with the film, including stars Jon Finch, Barry Foster, and Anna Massey, and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, as well as Hitch's daughter Pat Hitchcock O'Connell and director Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Hitch personally and interviewed him numerous times. It also includes some rare behind-the-scenes photography of Hitchcock at work, lots of production stills, and a brief glimpse of the opening credits with the Henry Mancini score that Hitchcock discarded because he wanted a more pop-oriented score, and Mancini's sounded too much like Bernard Herrmann's work. |
In addition to the documentary, this disc includes more than 100 production photographs. About half of these are of Hitchcock, but film buffs will be delighted by the inclusion of recently discovered images from three deleted scenes (one wonders what ever happened to the scenes themselves). The disc also includes a good set of production notes and cast and crew filmographies. The original theatrical trailer (which is presented in full-frame) is a delightfully morbid piece of work, opening with Hitchcock's apparently dead body floating down the Thames (this was originally supposed to be his cameo in the movie) and proceeding, ala the infamous Psycho trailer, with a personally guided tour by Hitchcock of the film's most important locations.
©2001 James Kendrick