In modern-day London, a sex criminal known as the Necktie Murderer has the police on alert, and in typical Hitchcock fashion, the trail is leading to an innocent man, who must now elude the law and prove his innocence by finding the real murderer. Jon Finch, Alec McCowen and Barry Foster head this British cast in the thriller that alternates suspense scenes with moments of Hitchcock’s distinctive black humour.
Returning to England after a dry spell in the States that put his reputation in real danger, Alfred Hitchcock went back to basics and found his mojo alive and well residing in Covent Garden, London, site of the famous market where much of this story would play out and where his own father worked years before. I don’t think he had lost anything, but he came to London with his blood up and something to prove, and prove it he did, because Frenzy is a fantastic, dark thriller, full of vigour. On the thorough documentary, Peter Bogdanovitch comments that Hitch is “firing on all cylinders”, and quotes Truffaut as saying to Hitchcock, that Frenzy is “a young man’s film”.
It’s a straight telling of a serial killer, even naive (this being before profiling was so hip), but this helps the fabric of the story and modern thrillers would do well to consider not to take so much for granted. It recalls more of Hitchcock’s roots from his silent film, The Lodger, and is as much a film about London as anything else, an affectionate if warts and all story that could only have been set there, the environment is so engrained. Identity was a key part of a good Hitchcock film, like Vertigo being entwined in San Francisco. I liked the other latterly missed Hitchcock motif; two gentlemen in a pub discuss the murders with relish, similar to the morbid curiosity of Shadow of a Doubt. One says that people come to London expecting to see “carved up whores”. Is he referring to us? After the opening scene of Londoners (including the director!) gawping at a “Necktie Killer” victim floating naked in the Thames, it’s a great start for the no nonsense story and Hitchcock has made his intentions clear from the off.
This is easily Hitchcock’s most violent film, not just in events, but it permeates the atmosphere. Not that it is unremittingly so, because it is possibly his most passionate and raw as well, full of humour and great characters. It one moment, Anna Massey strides out of the pub where she works, telling the landlord to “balls!”, in the films typically raw and real dialogue; it’s almost as if all the characters have an “up yours!” attitude, and so does Hitch.
Anna is just one of a uniformly solid cast, again like Topaz, not the mega-stars he normally uses, but this time just good actors at least. Jon Finch is the Hitchcock staple of the wrongfully accused and he’s especially good in that he isn’t a likeable character, yet he keeps the viewers sympathy. Barry Foster (Van Der Valk himself!) has great fun in a stylish performance as the suave fruit seller and proves what a marvellous actor he is. And a special mention for Barbara Leigh-Hunt who suffers the horrible signature rape and murder in the story and the key thing that makes people remember this as Hitchcock’s darkest hour. A very clever piece of writing by Anthony Shaffer (from a book by Arthur La Bern) means it’s actually the only one on-screen, despite it being a plot about a very active killer.
The horror is implied elsewhere in several stand-out moments of technical audacity, played with such confidence it’s almost rude, such as the famous shot coming down the stairs from the scene of a murder we aren’t privy too (but cleverly will see in flashback), or the bravely long static shot ending in a scream. My favourite though is the subtle moment right after Massey said “balls!” where the sounds drops right down just for a moment. Then there is the potato truck sequence, which is indulgently hilarious and awful in equal measure as the killer wrestles with a corpse, kind of summing up the whole film! But even outside the bravura moments, just basic composition and editing works every scene to the maximum.
Another reason I’ve marked this so high is that it is so full of things that weren’t necessary, yet add layers to the plot. And they’re all character moments too, mocking the criticism that even at his best, Hitchcock was all about the visuals. There’s the detective with the hilarious sub-plot of dealing with his wife’s cooking (cleverly disguising exposition while giving us by far the most disgusting scene) or Mrs. Blaney’s secretary, Jean Marsh and her barbed sneers about men. Apparently she was a victim in the original book, but not so in the film. Her repressed performance is wonderful and would have been ruined by making her a corpse.
The film feels like one of Hitchcock’s most real and organic and is a fine British film in its own right. It is nasty, but its simplicity is key. Hitchcock chose to do something easy that will have no expectations, but he did it the hard way to make it look easy! It doesn’t matter if that’s confusing. Just dive in and have a ball, because the triumphant director clearly did.