An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
An innocent man must go on the run when he’s accused of being a serial killer…
Hitchcock comes home. The opening image of his penultimate film is a long, slow helicopter shot down the Thames and past Tower Bridge. The story then plays out in recognisably London locations such as Covent Garden (filmed just three years before the famous fruit-and-veg market moved out), Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Park Lane.
But this is not Hitchcock giving his hometown a Hollywood sheen. This is the down-and-dirty London of the early 1970s. Perhaps it’s the film stock, or the British weather, or the 1970s fashions, or deliberate choices by Hitchcock and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night, Dr Strangelove, The Omen, Star Wars) – but whatever the reason, Frenzy is a tough, uncompromising, seedy and vivid film alive with working-class life. You can smell the sweat and feel the grime. This is a world of sex murders and perversion, back-street boozers and alcoholics, fry-ups and fags, roadside cafes and enormous bank notes. It looks like an episode of The Sweeney. It’s absolutely compelling.
The storyline is a Hitchcock standard – innocent man gets caught up in events out of his control – but the movie twists the idea from the playfulness of North by Northwest into a dangerous, threatening and explicit plot about a sadistic serial killer. Former RAF pilot Richard Blaney (an angry but not unsympathetic Jon Finch) is down on his luck. We first see him getting fired from a crummy job by landlord Bernard Cribbins, then when his friend Bob Rusk (an excellent Barry Foster) gives him a dead-cert racing tip, Richard doesn’t have the cash to make the bet. So he goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She takes pity on him and gives him some money… but that only makes Richard look guilty when Barbara is later raped and strangled by a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer.
With the police assuming he killed his ex, Richard goes into a panic. Bob offers help, as does former colleague Babs (Anna Massey) and an old pal from his RAF days (Clive Swift, with a terrifically tart Billie Whitelaw as his wife). But the circumstantial evidence against Richard begins to mount up – and then Babs is also found raped and strangled.
By this point, the real killer has been revealed to we viewers… Earlier, Bob Rusk visits Barbara in her office. At first all charm and friendliness, he begins to get more and more lecherous and aggressive. Telling her he’s locked the front door, he rapes her and strangles her to death. The two actors, working with understandably challenging material, make the scene easily the most harrowing moment in Hitchcock’s filmography because of its awful verisimilitude. It’s very difficult to watch. Rusk’s second attack in the film is shot more obliquely, but is no less terrifying. Playing the harmless friend again, he lures Babs up to his flat. But the camera doesn’t follow them inside. Instead, after he closes the door, it slowly retraces its steps down the stairs, out of the hallway and into the busy Covent Garden streets. Life is going on as normal, unaware of the monster under their noses.
Frenzy is a dark film, there’s no getting away from it. But there are also flashes of gallows humour and whimsy, as you’d expect from Hitchcock. A sustained scene of absurd grimness comes when a frantic Bob must wrestle with Babs’s corpse in the back of a potato van because he’s left some vital evidence on her. The copper on the case, meanwhile, is Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McGowen) who précises the plot while attempting to eat one of his eccentric wife’s pretentious dinners.
These moments are vital. They give the film extra life and a dynamism that would otherwise be missing. They also show a playwright’s hand at work. Based on a 1966 novel, the script was written by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote The Wicker Man). His attitude to dialogue – an attention to the rhythm of everyday speaking – gives a real sparkle to everything, which means you’re gripped from the first moment. Hitchcock makes sure you never lose interest.
Nine men listening to a political speech out of 10