Alfred Hitchcock earned a reputation as the master of suspense for films like North by Northwest and Psycho during the course of a six-decade career. However, he returned to London in the early 1970s after a pair of failed spy thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz, for what would be his penultimate film, Frenzy. Hitchcock was well into his seventies at the time, and the film was shot in and around Covent Garden, where he grew up and made his first films. Frenzy, on the other hand, is far from a tepid victory lap by a director nearing the end of his career. Rather, it’s Hitchcock’s most gruesome and horrific film, and it’s still unsettling to watch now – possibly even more so than when it was first released.
The discovery of a woman’s body in the Thames, the latest victim of the “Necktie Strangler,” sets off the Frenzy. Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) is dismissed from his bartending job shortly after, and he commiserates with his greengrocer friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Rusk rapes and murders both Blaney’s ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), and his girlfriend, Babs, in secret (Anna Massey). Blaney seeks vengeance on Rusk after being blamed for the deaths.
Frenzy’s musical fanfare and the superimposed “City of London” crest imply the start of a tourist information video as much as a thriller, as the film begins with a tracking shot along the Thames towards Tower Bridge. It’s a classic Hitchcock misdirection since a naked corpse is later shown face down in the river. This horrific scene lingers as onlookers gather to view it, immediately indicating that Frenzy is a different beast than the director’s previous flicks. The nudity and violence of Psycho’s shower scene shocked spectators in 1960, although this was primarily accomplished through a sequence of quick cuts and implications. The exposed body is shown in a single long take in Frenzy’s opening, before cutting away to the crowd, and then back again as cops recover it from the river. Hitchcock was always a master of implying more than he showed, but here the body is shown in a matter-of-fact manner that lacks the stylization of previous films and foreshadows what is to come.
The moment in which Rusk sexually abuses and strangles Brenda is similar to the shower scene in Psycho, however, the graphic material and bland execution are vastly different. As in Psycho, the violence occurs unexpectedly and without warning. Frenzy does a wonderful job in the first half-hour of implying that the Necktie Strangler is Blaney, who has a complicated relationship with women and struggles with anger management. Rusk is introduced as Blaney’s “cheeky chappie” pal, who appears to be a supporting character at first. When he unexpectedly appears at Brenda’s marriage agency, the spectator is unaware they knew each other at the time. Brenda believes Rusk is an improper client after revealing his cruel tendencies during the matching process.
In a classic piece of Hitchcock pseudo-psychiatry, two doctors in a pub are overheard discussing the motivations of the Necktie Strangler, recalling the doctor’s explanation of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) at the end of Psycho. That moment was crucial for audience members who may have been bewildered in 1960 as to why a character would dress up as his mother and murder people. In Frenzy, the experts explain the violence before it happens, with one doctor naming the strangler a “criminal sexual psychopath” who gets more and more joy from killing.
This is evident in the scene where Brenda is raped, which Rusk portrays as a chillingly mechanical process. He only exhibits emotion when the trauma is over, verbally insulting her and then strangling her with his tie. While the sexual assault is shocking, with a focus on Brenda’s paralyzed dread, the ensuing murder is equally so. The camera focuses on a close-up of the victim’s throat constriction and her eyes as she dies. The editing is simple, with the camera revealing the action of murder in a way that previous Hitchcock films could not. Rusk nonchalantly departs the office, turning back to Brenda, who is looking dead-eyed with the tie wrapped around her neck. Her enormous tongue protrudes from her mouth in frightening detail. It’s a frightening sight, possibly Hitchcock’s most extreme, and it’s designed to test the viewer’s tolerance.
In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock showed several criminals with complicated sexual reasons, such as Norman Bates and Joseph Cotton’s “Merry Widow Murderer.” However, due to restrictions at the time, the focus had previously been on the act of murder rather than sexual assault. Frenzy was published the same year that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs challenged what was permissible to display on film. Straw Dogs was a contentious film that attempted to justify misogyny by positing that all people are inherently cruel and aggressive. Although Hitchcock has long used generic misanthropy to explain attacks on his female characters, Frenzy bears the same poor opinion. Perhaps he felt compelled to keep up with the inevitable trend toward more gruesome content in the 1970s, which was accelerated by mainstream films like Death Wish. Hitchcock was always known for suspense, but the Frenzy posters recast him as “The Master of Shock.” The picture definitely promotes shock over suspense, resulting in a less satisfying experience than his other flicks. The censor forced Hitchcock to reinvent Psycho’s shower scene, with Hitchcock using editing sleight of hand to suggest more than was seen. The unflattering contrast between Psycho and Frenzy supports the concept that limitation can push artists to creative heights.
The scene in Frenzy where Hitchcock most clearly reverts to his characteristic suspense is one that is difficult for the spectator to identify. Rusk dumps Blaney’s girlfriend, Babs, on the back of a truck after killing her. This lengthy video follows Rusk as he struggles to manage the potato sack in which Babs is buried, only to discover that she snatched his tie pin as he murdered her. Going to fetch the pin, he becomes stuck in the truck as it pulls away, feverishly searching for proof and eventually breaking Babs’ fingers to get it. It appears to be a particularly sadistic exercise, culminating in Rusk’s escape and Babs’ nude corpse sliding from the truck onto the road.
Hitchcock used a similar technique in Psycho, when the key character of the opening act, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is killed. There’s a dizzying moment when the audience loses sight of the main character (Marion) and has to settle with the next available character (Norman) when he disposes of the body. The novice assumes Norman is covering for his mother’s murder, yet even on a second viewing, the audience can identify with Norman since he is sympathetic and appears to be different from the character who kills. It was part of Hitchcock’s arsenal, a demonstration of the director’s ability to bend audience identification to his will. However, Rusk is an unpleasant guy, as revealed in graphic detail in the scene with Brenda, and the tactic used here is likely to make the audience uneasy rather than excited.
Frenzy, to a modern audience, is a film full of quirks and inconsistencies. The scenes set in Covent Garden’s bars, residences, and marketplaces appear to be from a time before the 1970s. The music, composed by Ron Goodwin, feels parochially British and lacks the sweeping passion that Bernard Herrmann brought to Hitchcock’s major masterpieces. Even the typeface of the opening titles harkens back to British cinema from the 1940s and 1950s, in stark contrast to the modernism that Saul Bass brought to the magnificent title sequences of Vertigo and Psycho. The main characters are surrounded by a cast of humorous pub landlords, hotel porters, and mustachioed coppers who either have a conservative view of sex or a nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude right out of a Monty Python comedy. Even to audiences at the time, this picture of London appeared old, with Hitchcock evoking his early British flicks Blackmail and Young and Innocent in the setting and plot of Frenzy. Although Rusk is first presented as a cockney “ladies man” in the style of a young Michael Caine (Hitchcock’s first choice to play Rusk, who turned down the part because he was repelled by the character), there is none of the fading glory of “swinging London” here. The picture has elements of both a low-rent sex comedy and a thriller.
These antique components clash uncomfortably with scenes of rape and murder. To be fair, there is a sense that the violence indicates a dark undercurrent that is integral to the nature of London. We hear her secretary’s cry from the street after Brenda’s body is discovered — two women look up, shrug, and walk away. When Babs is slain, the camera pans down Rusk’s apartment building’s stairway and into the market, where routine commerce continues unabated. Most notably, when the first victim is discovered in the Thames, the onlookers debate the perpetrator in terms of Jack the Ripper, implying a cycle of cruelty and murder accepted as a working-class fact of life in the city.
Anthony Schaffer, the screenwriter of Sleuth and The Wicker Man, similarly frames murder around concerns of class and sexual views in Frenzy. His script certainly has a humorous intent, particularly in mocking middle-class pretensions. However, fifty years after the film’s release, it’s difficult to distinguish between what spectators at the time would have considered satirical and what merely portrays engrained beliefs. In describing the murders, Rusk tells Blaney that the victims were “asking for it,” reflecting his perverted perspective. However, other characters in the film, including the doctors and the police investigator, express the same opinion, implying a widely held belief. Contemporary films, such as Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, have employed a revisionist lens to examine the period and its abuses, but Frenzy is of the moment and infused with these ideas. Hitchcock’s portrayal of women has always been controversial, but in Frenzy, the female characters either want to confine men through the suffocating constraints of marriage or are available victims, shortly to be raped and strangled. Frenzy, for a director who previously avoided nudity in his films, maintains obsessive attention on the naked and dead bodies of women till the very end.
“The past is a strange country: they do things differently there,” comes to mind as I watch Frenzy celebrate its 50th anniversary. It lacks the grace of Hitchcock’s best work, maybe on purpose on the part of an aging filmmaker looking to keep his job. It’s a film full of coded signals and attitudes that no longer have currency, many of which would pass unnoticed by a modern viewer – such as the indication in Rusk’s clothes and walk that he’s homosexual – but would have played too blatantly to the preconceptions of the time. It undoubtedly suggests that Hitchcock might have ventured into more violent material if he hadn’t been nearing the conclusion of his film career, which finished with the lightweight Family Plot. Given the suspense, flair, and beauty of his earlier work in comparison to the vulgar extremes of Frenzy, perhaps we should be glad.