The Movie Waffler Hitchcock in Reverse - <i>Frenzy</i> (1972) | The Movie Waffler

Hitchcock in Reverse - Frenzy (1972)

An innocent man is hunted by Scotland Yard for a series of neck-tie murders of women in London.

Review by Eric Hillis

Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Alec McCowen, Anna Massey, Billie Whitelaw, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Vivien Merchant

A serial killer (Foster), known as the neck-tie killer, is terrorizing London. When he murders the ex-wife of his friend (Finch), the police wrongly assume Finch to be the man responsible, thanks to several witnesses who heard the couple arguing the previous night. Seeking help from various friends, Finch finds himself betrayed by most, including Foster who notifies the police of his whereabouts. Eventually the Scotland Yard inspector responsible for Finch's arrest (McCowen)  slowly comes to realize he may have captured the wrong man, thanks to the insistence of his wife (Merchant).
In the late sixties, the concept of what was considered acceptable to be shown on cinema screens had changed radically. Movies like Bonnie & Clyde and Midnight Cowboy portrayed violence in far more graphic and realistic terms than cinema-goers had ever seen before. The 'X' rating was introduced for this new wave of adult cinema, and, rather than turning away audiences, it become a huge selling point. An X-cert told audiences to expect a racy night out.
Sex and violence had suddenly become accepted in Hollywood, but only when kept apart from each other. Sexual violence was still considered taboo in America, leading several film-makers to relocate to Britain if they wished to explore such themes. Thanks mainly to Hammer films, whose vampire films had been gleefully mixing sex and violence throughout the sixties, such a taboo was nonexistent in Britain. This allowed Kubrick and Peckinpah to include brutal rape scenes in A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, something they couldn't have hoped to get away with back in the States. Wishing to exploit this new tolerance, Hitchcock returned to his native London for the first time since 1950's Stage Fright.
The rape scene in Frenzy may not be as notorious as those seen in Kubrick and Peckinpah's films (both of which later received lengthy bans when the UK turned conservative in the late seventies) but it's every bit as savage. Though it features the bared breasts of a body double, it's relatively inexplicit, but Hitch's use of extreme close-ups make it an uncomfortable view. We see every bit of frustrated anger on Foster's face, every bit of fear and resignation on that of his victim. Had the film been made by anyone other than Hitchcock, I suspect it may have ended up on the infamous UK "Video Nasties" list a decade later.
Frenzy is the master's last great work, making up for both the pair of duds which preceded it and the turkey which followed. It features some bravura film-making which distinguishes it from the low-rent British thrillers of the time. The most famous moment, in film-making terms, comes when Foster leads a victim into his apartment. As the couple enter, rather than following them inside, the camera slowly descends back down the stairs and out into the noisy London street below. The audience knows the victim's fate thanks to Foster's use of the line "you're my type of woman", a phrase he uttered before the earlier graphic murder. Another simple yet brilliant moment comes when the verdict is being delivered at Finch's trial. Hitch positions the camera outside the courtroom door. We can see the judge speaking but can't hear him until a police officer satisfies both his own and our curiosities by slightly opening the door just as the verdict is delivered. Hitchcock was never one to allow his films to be polluted by unnecessary dialogue.
Much has been written about the influence the director's wife, Alma Reville, had on his creative work. It's said she would often be the deciding factor when Hitch found himself questioning the validity of some of his artistic choices. Frenzy's subplot, involving a Scotland Yard inspector's wife convincing him he arrested the wrong man, seems to be inspired by the director's own marital relationship. Like Hitchcock himself, the inspector enjoys a good hearty meal but is denied this by his wife who insists on experimenting with haute-cuisine.
Food is everywhere in Frenzy, from the bunch of "sour grapes" crushed by Finch when a horse he failed to bet on comes in first, to the potato truck Foster finds himself rummaging through for a piece of damning evidence he clumsily left behind. This latter sequence is one of the film's highlights, demonstrating Hitch's ability to manipulate audiences into identifying with the villain. We may be fully aware that Foster is a cold-blooded killer attempting to frame our protagonist, but that doesn't stop us hoping in the moment he retrieves his tie-pin without detection. Foster is forced to break open the rigor-mortis stiff fingers of a corpse to retrieve the item, a detail later referenced comically when bread-sticks are broken by the inspector's wife.
It's a shame that Family Plot would follow as Frenzy would have made the ideal final film for Hitch, a return to both his film-making form and the London streets he menaced as a young film-maker some forty-plus years previous.

The Cameo
Hitch appears in the opening scene as a member of the crowd listening to the mayor's speech.

Frenzy's source material - Arthur La Bern's novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square