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Hitchcock Reviews: “Frenzy” (1972)

Posted by therebelprince on April 3, 2013

Barbara Leigh-Hunt's last moments in "Frenzy"

Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s last moments in “Frenzy”

Welcome back to the latest installment of my Hitchcock reviews. Today, I want to ask the question, “Why do we still revere Hitchcock?” And, to do so, let’s take a look at his penultimate film – in which he returns to Britain, and so many of his greatest themes.

“The police as usual have got these things arse about face.”
— Rusk (Barry Foster), “Frenzy”

Frenzy (1972)

written by Anthony Shaffer from Arthur La Bern’s book

After a spate of brutal rape/murders in London, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) finds himself suspected of the crime.

The very first frame of Hitchcock I ever saw was the strangulation scene from Frenzy. Perhaps this explains a lot about who I am today. Frenzy opens in a very Hitchcockian style, with a politician (John Boxer) speechifying about keeping the Thames clean, just as we see a dead body floating toward the assembled crowd. From the film’s opening scene, Hitchcock creates an atmosphere with this film: London is abuzz with talk of the Neck-tie Murderer, and we’re drawn in to what seems like a standard Hitchcockian plot. Instead, the plot is far from standard. It’s perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest joke since his protagonist took a shower. Our hero, Richard Blaney, is a former squadron leader turned bartender. He’s a sleazy divorcee, now fired from his job. Bernard Cribbins puts in a dynamite turn as the smarmy bar owner Forsythe, one of many powerful cast members in secondary roles here. Forsythe could easily be just another dislikeable, unambiguous big boss. Instead, we see where his dislike for Blaney stems from, and his actions – which progress the plot later in the film – are always in keeping with his character. Not one character in this script is out of place, and it makes a great difference. Hitchcock was always at his best when he was happy with the script.

Jon Finch as Richard Blaney

Jon Finch as Richard Blaney

Our portrait of Dick Blaney only becomes more fuzzy as he visits his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a relationship counsellor. Frenzy continues to present unusual character portraits, particularly in the oft-unpleasant Blaney; it’s a good thing we see so many nice people support him, because otherwise we’d have no reason to approve! Whether not the rumours are true that Finch was yet another lead performer who didn’t gel with Hitch (thus making the old man shift the focus), the actor does his best with an underwritten role amidst a cast of legends. Dick’s down-on-his-luck, aggressive, and impolite. Brenda is none of these things, but the two actors create a believable rapport that shows why they’re apart, but also why they were together in the first place. For the first twenty minutes, Frenzy plays the long con with us. We know Hitchcock specialises in wrong man films, but Blaney is unlike anyone ever played by Cary Grant. He’s decidedly suspicious.

So, it’s something of a relief (if you can call it that), when his best friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) shows up at Brenda’s office moments later. In a scene so dripping with tension it counts among Hitchcock’s best, Brenda attempts to get rid of this regular client. His specifications for women are so depraved that she’s no longer able to fulfill his requirements. Rusk’s mood sours, and Brenda quickly realises the danger of the situation. She attempts to placate him by agreeing to lunch, but it’s too late – Rusk’s cravings must be satisfied. In a brutal sexual assault, Rusk strangles Brenda to death. Foster and Leigh-Hunt are simply stunning. I  dare you not to shiver a little when she begins reciting the 91st psalm. There’s a powerful tension at its core, created by everyone involved. And after fifty years in the business, Hitchcock must have been grateful to show some nipple! (More on that below.)

Over the course of Frenzy’s taut running time, Blaney and his barmaid girlfriend Babs Milligan (the late, great Anna Massey) play a game of cat-and-mouse with Alec McCowan‘s Chief Inspector Oxford, even as Rusk sets about removing all evidence and further framing the innocent man. So, in a rarity for Hitchcock, we now have a wrong man story in which not only is the wrong man thoroughly unlikeable, but we’re following the right man from the start too! (Elements of Dial M for Murder, perhaps?)

Frenzy is, in many ways, a microcosmic view of why we love Hitchcock. The film’s opening credits – a slightly pompous tour down the Thames – follow on from the exuberance of the credits for Torn Curtain and Topaz. However, the majesty of this scene is quickly undercut with the discovery of the first body. (Really, all of Hitch’s post-Marnie films open over-zealously, perhaps because the studio was now incredibly eager to make each film an “event” and keep dragging in the audiences. The filmgoers of the ’70s hadn’t so much grown up with Hitchcock as they’d grown up with an idea of Hitchcock, and this was a very different thing from a marketing standpoint.)

Delightful cameos abound, for instance the comic double-act of hotel owner Gladys (Elise Randolph) and her porter (Jimmy Gardner) who provide a slightly-misguided Greek chorus on Blaney’s actions. Then there’s the incomparable Jean Marsh as typist Monica, who almost witnesses the murder of Brenda, and whose hawk-like eyes surprise the police with an exact description of the assailant. These beautiful moments of characterisation – which held up even the weakest episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents – stretch back to the earliest silents. Here, Oxford and his Sergeant (Michael Bates) discuss the importance of breakfast, while Sir George ponders whether the murderer might actually be good for tourism. (The fact that Oxford spends a major exposition scene devouring a big English breakfast is pure Hitchcockian tomfoolery.)

Yet anyone who worries that Hitch’s aged mind was only invested in smut and silliness need only pay attention to the film’s three bravura sequences (the first being the murder of Brenda, detailed above). In the second such scene, Babs – having quit her job in support of her boyfriend – is unexpectedly cornered by Rusk in an upstairs flat. As he moves in, with Babs still unaware of the danger she’s in, Hitchcock’s camera makes the staggering decision to leave the room, back gently down the stairs, out the door and across the street. It feels astoundingly cruel to leave poor Babs to her death like this, and it’s one of the defining moments of Hitchcock’s career. The shot leaves us with the haunting knowledge of what is happening in the flat, and the grim realisation that – through just one door and a staircase – those events are happening out of sight. For all it matters to the passers-by, they may as well be occurring a thousand miles away.

Barry Foster in "Frenzy"

Barry Foster in “Frenzy”

The sound – or rather, the lack of it – contributes all the more here. Despite the amplified opening credits, Ron Goodwin‘s score is mellow and atmospheric, and he’s aware of when to simply let sound effects and silence play a part, as it does here on the street outside. Goodwin’s evocative music comes into play in the third of the film’s thrilling sequences, as Rusk absconds with the body, which he has dumped into a truck carrying a load of potatoes. Realising his tie pin is still on the body, Rusk must make the delicate journey inside the truck with the body – now in early stages of rigor mortis – to retrieve this damning evidence. As the truck comes face to face with the law, the camera transforms into a schizophrenic tension machine. The director’s attempt to create a realistic death in Torn Curtain seems to echo here in the simple obstacles Rusk faces like the tight clench the body has upon his pin. One can’t overstate just how many things are going on in this sequence, yet the camera is always aware, and as a result we, the audience, always know what’s happening without any doubt. A master craftsman at work. It’s a startling sequence, made all the more shocking when we realise that – as much as this is a killer close to being caught – part of us wants to see how he will escape. One could argue that Hitchcock’s greatest interest was for all of us to associate ourselves a little bit with the bad guys – and here, he achieves that aim.

One critical approach to this film is to declare that the lessening of the production code was all Hitchcock cared about. He wanted to show some flesh, and the old man just indulged his worst vices at the expense of subtlety, character, and plot. I can’t agree with that in the slightest. Is it perverse? I dare say no. After all, (to be flippant), The Birds has lots of birds, but that doesn’t mean  Hitch had lost his previously restrained attitude toward our avian cousins. It’s just that a film about birds… needs birds! Frenzy is the only film in the Hitchcock canon that has quite an earthy tone (excepting moments in Psycho), and it’s entirely fitting. It’s certainly true that – between Babs and Brenda – this is the most flesh ever shown in a Hitchcock film. Yet, none of it seems out of place.  In fact, this is thematically relevant throughout, such as the scene where Brenda and Monica – at their dating agency – have just helped two clearly-horny older folk to connect. After fifty years of filmmaking, it seems only fitting that Hitchcock got to be so openly cheeky at least once.

(Future generations may bristle slightly at one of Hitchcock’s naughtiest jokes in the opening scene as civilians discuss the Necktie Murderer:

“He rapes them first, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, I suppose he does.”
“Well, it’s nice to know that every cloud has a silver lining.”)

It isn’t just for the comedy, the suspense, and the grim twisting of our assumptions that we still adore Hitchcock’s movies. Nor is it just because of his inquisitive camera, his all-seeing gaze, his ability to pull away at just the right moment, or to linger a little too long so as to make it uncomfortable. It’s for seeing the way he worked when he found a character and situation he liked, and was willing to go against the grain.

Take, for instance, Oxford and Mrs. Oxford (played by the awesome Vivien Merchant). In an endlessly funny (and much improved) riff on The Paradine Case, Hitchcock allows us to spend plenty of time in the Oxfords’ kitchen, where the Chief Inspector goes over the facts of the case while struggling with his wife’s newfound interest in haute cuisine. The pair’s conversations are just fantastic, allowing the audience to catch up on Oxford’s thought processes while also presenting another point-of-view, as we almost feel the need to scream at the screen as a vital clue is missed or wrongly interpreted. At the same time, the perils of Mrs. Oxford’s culinary experiments – as much as some of them may not seem surprising to an audience in 2013 – result in some great comic relief. It’s classic Hitchcock, through and through.

Vivien Merchant and Alec McCowan in "Frenzy"

Vivien Merchant and Alec McCowan in “Frenzy”

The central question that runs through Frenzy is when will each of the two men – suspect and murderer – slip? And which will slip first? While Rusk goes to ground after Babs’ death, Blaney entrusts his safety to an old military chum (Clive Swift) and his wife (Billie Whitelaw, who does a wonderful job with another of those wrongheaded-but-understandable roles), only to find himself caught by by circumstance, and then the law.

The final twenty minutes of Frenzy are perhaps a little problematic. As a character, Dick Blaney has had relatively little agency. At first unaware of the suspicion, he then fled, hid, and was caught. Unlike Cary Grant, Blaney doesn’t actively seek out clues to the situation, and – whether Hitch’s division with the actor is to blame – becomes simply part of the tapestry. Beyond this, Oxford seems to quite quickly realise Rusk is the killer, depriving us somewhat of a thrilling climax. Admittedly, Oxford’s realisations come because of his joyous interactions with the missus, but Frenzy feels a little bit like someone left out the penultimate reel of the film. It’s only with eight minutes to go that an imprisoned Blaney suddenly makes a break for it – and by the time he meets up with Oxford, the latter is already fully convinced of the truth! Perhaps it doesn’t matter – one feels as if Hitchcock was going more for the sudden ironic end of Vertigo rather than the tension build-up of Psycho – but it’s an odd shift for a movie so geared toward suspense and plot. (Maybe it’s that Blaney’s escape comes after Oxford figures out the truth so, in our eyes at least, it’s dramatically redundant. If he’d just waited, the guy would’ve been freed anyhow.)

(Looking back at my Hitchcock reviews, I worry that I prioritise narrative (and thus script) over direction. Perhaps this is simply because that’s where my own expertise lies, but I feel as if I’ve shortchanged the man’s directing skills over the course of this series. All I can beg of you is to read other great blogs – such as Hitchcock and Me or 2o13’s addition to the conversation, From Pleasure to Plot – in search of those. This fascinating article on what exactly a director is responsible for, is also worth reading.)

So, was Hitchcock still relevant in 1972? That’s a tough question to answer. In an era before the home video release, he was still reliant on cinemas and word-of-mouth to spread his abilities. To a young filmgoer seeing Frenzy without the cultural context of The Man Who Knew Too Much or Notorious, what would it mean? The director’s mastery of the medium was second-to-none but, in terms of thought, the man was no longer cutting edge. Hitchcock had been born in the 19th century. His style and humour were, to an extent, defined by his age. While the stark opening of The Birds is still terrifying, Marnie and its successors boast typical, glamorous Hollywood openings. Hitchcock’s sly anti-establishment humour is of a dryer, subtler style than what was emerging for audiences in the ’60s and ’70s, and perhaps this is partly to blame for the public’s overall decreased interest in him.

FrenzyIf you ask me, however, Frenzy is one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces (it might even make it into my Top Ten on a good day), proving that the old man had lost none of his abilities. Expertly capturing the tension through both the direct – Brenda’s murder, the potato truck – and the indirect – a quiet street, a suspicious hotel porter – the film is one where script, cast, crew, and director came together. Beautifully understated, Frenzy caps off Hitchcock’s sequence of wrong-man films, and his out-and-out thrillers. For a man who had also tried his hand at everything from screwball comedy and courtroom drama to period romance, this is just remarkable. It’s full of gritty encounters and charming comedy but, in spite of the quirk factor of the Oxfords, Frenzy never loses sight of the bleak – Dick throwing himself down the stairwell is one of Hitch’s most wrenching images of man beaten down to his barest.

Stray observations:

  • Rusk’s mother apparently made him peel grapes. That should’ve been the first tip-off.
  • Hitchcock and Goodwin have great fun with sound during Blaney’s hearing at the Old Bailey. As the policeman opens the door, the sound pours out but we’re not allowed inside. As the door closes, the sound vanishes. It’s an exquisitely light move, keeping us involved in the story in the most assured of ways.
  • Hitchcock was a Covent Garden merchant’s son, and he determined to capture the dying market life in all its glory. I think he did well.
  • Clive Swift is one of those men who seems to have been born old.
  • It’s interesting that – in the final scene – Blaney attacks what he thinks is Rusk, with the clear intention of killing him. It’s a great, dark character aspect. I can’t imagine Cary Grant doing that.

Hitch Cameo: In the crowd during the opening scene.

Next time: we say goodbye to the Hitchcock reviews with 1976’s little charmer, “Family Plot”.

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One Response to “Hitchcock Reviews: “Frenzy” (1972)”

  1. […] dialogue is rarely catchy or startling either. In fact, while some critics wrongly see Frenzy as an excessive screw-you to the censors, I have always argued that the tone of that film is in […]

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