The 1972 film Frenzy was a homecoming of sorts for Alfred Hitchcock. It was his first film in his native England since leaving for America three decades earlier. A mix of dark and light humor curdled with daring and quite controversial grotesqueness.
Set in London, the story revolves around two men. One is a former RAF pilot, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who is now a down-on-his-luck mate who drinks too much and experiences bouts of bad luck. When his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is found brutally murdered, by the notorious "Necktie Murderer," he is pegged as the prime suspect. The other leading man is Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a charismatic fruit and vegetable dealer who is friends with Blaney. While Blaney is quick tempered and alienated, Rusk is quite the charmer and an all-round good natured chap. Of course, Rusk too has his sinister side as we discover him to be the true serial killer. A sexually twisted bloke who continues his murdering spree as Blaney tries to clear his name and avoid capture.
With no where left to turn, Blaney seeks out Rusk for assistance but finds himself betrayed. He is quickly tried and committed but clearly states his innocence and his vow to seek vengeance. The only chance he may have comes in the form of Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), who must quickly discover the truth before Blaney can keep to his word and seek his own path of justice.
Frenzy is hardly a whodunit mystery. The audience discovers the identity of the true murderer within the first half hour of the film, so the focus turns to Blaney and the "wrong man" motif. Hitchcock wisely makes the antagonist the more likable of the two leading men though the serial killer story-line no longer has the punch it once enjoyed. The new freedom and increasing violence of filmmaking during the times allowed many filmmakers to indulge in much greater graphic storytelling. While many of Hitchcock’s films had themes of murder and diabolic evils, he employed a designed restraint that forced the viewer to use their imagination. A simple "less is more" philosophy.
But in 1972, with the era's loosening of censorship restrictions, this movie would become the first R-rated Hitch film; depicting a violent rape/strangulation sequence, as well as, various nudity. Critics speculated whether Hitch was finally allowed to show the true ugliness of death (and his own inner demons) or if he had just lost his gift of visual ingenuity. If anyone should embrace the latter, they are forgetting the classic Hitch scenes that comprise much of Frenzy.
Case in point: There’s the tracking shot of Rusk taking his next victim to his flat. The camera slowly follows them up the staircase, stops as they enter the apartment, then reverses direction, moving out of the building and into the street as the devilish deed goes unseen and unheard. Another "Hitchcokian moment" is the claustrophobic potato truck sequence where Rusk attempts to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from the rigor-mortis locked fingers of his latest casualty. The scene is an extraordinary sustained piece of suspense, in which the audience is compelled to identify with Rusk’s quest for they, too, feel themselves in that very tight spot -- rooting for the "bad guy" to succeed. [Similar to when Bruno tries to retrieve the lighter from the sewer grate in Strangers On a Train].
There’s also the macabre sense of Hitch humor that prevails from the opening shot where a woman’s body floats in the Thames (as government officials boast of pollution free waters) to the cracking of bread sticks as the inspector discusses how the deceased woman’s rigor mortis fingers were cracked open. Hitchcock hadn’t lost his touch. Not by a long shot.
RATING: 6.0 of 10. Some excellent comic elements keep an otherwise sadistic mystery thriller from completely plunging into the realm of perversity.
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