Hitchcock returns to London in a FRENZY (1972)

For his 52nd (and penultimate) film a 72-year-old Alfred Hitchcock returned to London to make the first feature he filmed entirely in his native country in two decades.  On the trip he brought with him a lifetime of experience in art and suspense to make a movie about a subject he’d tackled since the 1920s, the hunt for a serial killer.  After three box-office disappointments in a row, Hitchcock was eager for a hit and succeeded with a return home and FRENZY.

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Alfred Hitchcock was allowed a smaller budget for FRENZY (1972) than for the two films that preceded it, TOPAZ in ’69 and TORN CURTAIN in ’66, but he took full advantage of the autonomy he was given by Universal Studios and made his film, his way.  The result is a terrific crime thriller with familiar Hitchcock elements, added touches of the grotesque sans censorship.

Based on the book, “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern, FRENZY is about a serial killer whose modus operandi is raping women before he strangles them with a neck tie.  The story, adapted for the screen by Anthony Shaffer was inspired by the real-life unsolved crimes of a serial killer that terrorized London in the 1960s.  That killer was referred to as “Jack the Stripper” for the similarities to the infamous Jack the Ripper who went on a killing spree of prostitutes in 1888 before mysteriously stopping.  Both crime sprees have never been solved.

Pure Hitchcock

Anyone familiar with Alfred Hitchcock films would know that he played a part in choosing and developing FRENZY for the screen recognizable simply by the familiar theme depicted in many of his films that’s also central to this one – the wrong man.  In FRENZY “the wrong man” is realized by way of Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a bartender who’s fired from his job at the beginning of the movie.  In need of money Blaney goes to visit his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) for a loan.  Brenda owns a match-making firm and is viciously murdered just hours after Richard’s visit by one of her clients, a man named Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) who has serious psychosexual issues, which he demonstrates by raping and strangling women.  After he is overheard arguing with Brenda and leaving her office right before the murder, however, it is Richard who becomes the suspect of the heinous crimes.  Making matters worse the next victim is Richard’s girlfriend, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) who’s murdered after spending a night with him.  With the police hot on his trail Richard is forced to go on the run and is subsequently tried and found guilty while the real murderer remains free to continue the reign of terror.

The wrong man (Blaney) with the real murderer (Rusk)
The wrong man (Blaney) with the real murderer (Rusk)

FRENZY also features Hitchcock’s trademark shots throughout – from extreme close-ups to tracking shots – and not a one is wasted.  This is the master, after all.  For example, the close-ups featured in FRENZY are often shocking, depicting the horrific last expression left on the face of the strangled victims – there are three of these in the film, each as unsettling (to put it mildly) as the last, bringing the point home that murder is dirty business.  These are signature Hitchcock reaction shots taken to the extreme.

Brenda has seen better days
Brenda has seen better days

Then we have the tracking shots with (perhaps) the most popular here being the one during the murder of Babs.  In this sequence we see the murderer – having lured his next victim – as he enters his apartment with Babs and as they step inside we hear him utter his standard, “you’re my type of woman” pre-murder line so that we know exactly what he’s about to do.  We are then subjected to the long, torturous tracking shot down the stairs and out into the street where in every day London life goes on.  Meanwhile we can’t keep our thoughts away from what’s occurring inside that building, up the stairs and inside that apartment, tortured with visuals we don’t even see.

Londoners go about their business while a gruesome rape and murder takes place in this building
Londoners go about their business while a gruesome murder takes place in this building

In FRENZY Hitchcock also chooses to depict the primary murder and several other suspense-filed scenes without music, which – yet again – proves torturous.  For instance, the murder of Brenda – the only murder during which we are made privy to the details from start to finish – is served raw, without accompaniment.  This sequence, a difficult one to watch and hear, goes on (seemingly) forever and while the payoff, if you will, is that close-up of Brenda’s face post struggle the suspense is magnified by the sounds – the murderers words, the victim’s screams and ultimately, her last breath.  Strangulation is personal, violent and time-consuming.  We get it, Mr. Hitchcock!

Murder is a struggle for both murderer and victim
Strangulation is a struggle for both murderer and victim

Also sans musical accompaniment is the famous scene during which the murderer, Rusk, uncovers Babs’ body, which he’d hidden in a potato sack. In this scene Rusk is searching for his tie pin, which he always removes prior to strangling his victims.  After dumping Babs’ body in the produce truck for it to be taken away he realizes he’s missing his pin and remembers Babs grabbed it while he was choking her.  In a panic Rusk climbs onto the truck just as it’s pulling away and begins to search the potato sacks to find the one hiding Babs’ body.  Once he finds Babs he then has to break her finger, which we hear, in order to retrieve the pin from her stiff hand.

That potato sack sequence brings me to yet another familiar Hitchcock element present in FRENZY – dark humor.  In fact, this movie may have the best examples of the director’s use of humor in the face of the grim realities his movies often focus on.  From the very beginning of FRENZY we know we’re in for a sick ride when during the very first scene we hear the Mayor say, “the water will be clear of the waste product of our society” just as someone notices the body of a strangled woman floating by.  FRENZY also leaves us with a grin on our faces as it ends, but it’s the scenes between Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) who’s handling the investigation into the “necktie murders” and his wife (Vivien Merchant) that best illustrate this Hitchcock element.  In several instances throughout FRENZY we see the Inspector discuss the details of the murders with his wife while she serves him disgusting dinners of slimy quail with grapes and pig snout or feet (I always look away) that slip out from under the knife as he talks about rigor mortis.  In another instance the inspector describes how the murderer had to break the victim’s finger in order to remove an item from her grip just as Mrs. Oxford snaps a breadstick in two.  I admit it’s not without an occasional bout of nausea that I listen to this man delineate the gruesomeness of the murders while he struggles with the evening’s main course.  But then we hear the hilarious opinions of Mrs. Oxford delivered perfectly by Merchant (who incidentally reminds me of Elsa Lanchester in manner of speech) and some of the tension is broken.  These are beautifully written exposition scenes, by the way, that offer a repose from the horror, map out the mindset of the law and remind us of the atrocious nature of the crimes.  These scenes alone make FRENZY’s a terrific script.

Mrs. Oxford serves a meal while the Inspector talks murder
Mrs. Oxford serves a meal while the Inspector talks murder

Finally, worthy of note in the realm of familiar Hitchcock is the fact that FRENZY is the director’s sixteenth, and last, film with a one-word title.  The others are:  CHAMPAGNE (1928), BLACKMAIL (1929), MURDER (1930), SABOTAGE (1936), REBECCA (1940), SUSPICION (1941), SABOTEUR (1942), LIFEBOAT (1944), SPELLBOUND (1945), NOTORIOUS (1946), ROPE (1948), VERTIGO (1958), PSYCHO (1960), MARNIE (1964) and TOPAZ (1969).

Since I made note of what is familiar in FRENZY it’s only fair to mention what is different in comparison to other entries in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography with emphasis on two elements in particular.  First is the notable absence of the Motion Picture Production Code and its censorship practices, which is really one of the few things that make this movie contemporary, meaning it is typical Hitchcock in almost every other way.  FRENZY was Hitchcock’s first of two movies he’d make in the 1970s and the first after the complete dismantling of The Code so it’s not surprising that it is the first Hitchcock movie to receive an ‘R’ rating.  And, I believe, an ‘X’ rating in Britain before the age restriction was changed in that country.  FRENZY features three nude scenes (all using models as stand-ins) and, as mentioned previously, several scenes that push the grotesque to its limit.

Also notably missing in FRENZY, particularly if you’re used to the films Hitchcock made in Hollywood, are big Hollywood stars.  The cast of FRENZY is made up of great, but relatively unknown actors who were mostly recognized for their stage work in Britain up to this point.  You can take a look at the entire cast and crew roster here.  One special mention must be given to Elsie Randolph who has a small part in this movie, as Gladys the Hotel clerk.  Randolph’s appearance in FRENZY was a reunion with Hitchcock as she’d appeared in another of his movies four decades earlier, RICH AND STRANGE aka EAST OF SHANGHAI (1931) – another sign of the director’s return home.

Standing by his films, Sir Alfred Hitchcock
Standing by his films, Sir Alfred Hitchcock

“FRENZY is a young man’s picture.”  Francois Truffaut

FRENZY was shot entirely in Convent Garden and Pinewood Studios in London between late July and mid-October of 1971.  This is the film during which “the Hitchcock touch came back” as the director’s daughter, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell put it although I can’t imagine his touch ever went anywhere. It’s difficult to fathom that people believed Hitch was ever irrelevant at any time in his career.  Cinematically, I mean, but apparently that was the case during the latter part of the 1960s and FRENZY put everyone at ease in that regard.  If one gets any sense at all in FRENZY it is that the man at the helm is as secure as he ever was.  In fact, according to Francois Truffaut not only was the Hitchcock touch still viable at this point, the old master was “still experimenting” and he did so by bringing his brand of murder back to Britain where it was conceived.

Back in Britain directing FRENZY:

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This is my entry to The British Invaders Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.  Please visit the host site to read many more entries on this compelling topic.

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7 thoughts

  1. Excellent piece. This is my favorite late Hitch film post Psycho and it’s the director showing what he couldn’t in those earlier films where the act of murder was a most delicate subject he could only hint or tease at. Of course, the death of Gromek in Torn Curtain, Marion Crane in Psycho and some of the other demises in a few of his older films were all memorable. But the scene in Frenzy sticks out because it’s so… clinical and lingers in the brain for the remainder of the movie.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, but much appreciate you stopped in. Perfectly stated!! I agree. Too bad FRENZY doesn’t get more attention.

      Aurora

  2. I honestly think Frenzy is very underrated. That is, while it is regarded as a good film, you don’t see it listed alongside such classics as North by Northwest, Psycho, The Lady Vanishes, and so on. And I really think it should be. It really does blend what one expects from a Hitchcock film with the more graphic style of the Seventies that emerged after the ratings system came about in the U.S. Thank you so much for participating in the blogathon!

  3. Great post on Hitch’s penultimate. I wasn’t keen upon an initial watch, but this one has certainly grown on me. I’m glad Universal gave him near carte blanche with this as it’s a wonderful homage to both his career and his talent. I love that fact, that despite the years he spent in America and the ‘blockbusters’ he cretaed he never forgot his roots – there’s something very British about Frenzy, and it needed a director like Hitch to bring out the subtle cultural nuances.

  4. YES! to all you write. And thanks for commenting. It is at once very British and very Hitch, meaning what we saw in so many other of his pictures. I like this one ore each time I watch it. Fantastic humor most of all.

    Aurora

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