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Frenzy (1972)

October 7th, 2007 · 6 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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When a woman’s body is found on the banks of the River Thames wearing nothing but a necktie – upstaging a press conference on clean river restoration – the crowd learns that another “necktie murder” has struck London. Meanwhile, hotheaded barman Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is fired for sipping brandy off the till. A barmaid named Babs (Anna Massey) likes Blanley anyway, and asks to see him later.

Homeless and jobless, Blaney visits his only friend in the world, a produce supplier named Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), and drops by the office of his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), where he loses his temper and yells at her. Rusk later pays Brenda a visit, raping and strangling her in her office moments after Blaney is seen leaving.

Blaney convinces Babs that he isn’t the strangler, but he won’t go to the police for fear of being charged for the murders. That is exactly what the detective in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) intends to do. A manhunt ensues. Oxford’s droll wife (Vivien Merchant) feels Blaney wouldn’t have waited until after a divorce to murder his ex-wife, planting doubt in her husband’s mind that he may be after the wrong man.

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Production history 
Director Alfred Hitchcock first considered making a serial killer thriller under the title Frenzy in late 1966. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, Hitchcock envisioned a movie shot fast and cheap, using real locations and non-actors. He had a nearly completed script by Benn Levy and Howard Fast, storyboards and test footage, but the graphic sex and violence he proposed struck Universal as distasteful. More importantly, Hitchcock was a long way from a hit. The studio passed.

After the resounding failure of Topaz, Hitchcock read a 1966 novel by Arthur La Bern titled Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. It hinged on two of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, an impotent psycho killer, and a man wrongfully accused of a crime. For a budget of only $2.8 million, Universal was inclined to give Hitchcock another chance. Instead of a black and white, New Wave approach, this incarnation of Frenzy would be shot in color and feature English stage actors.

Hitchcock hired British playwright Anthony Shaffer to adapt the script. For the killer, the director wanted Michael Caine. The actor wasn’t available, and the barely known Barry Foster was cast instead. Shooting commenced in August 1971. Once Universal got a look at Frenzy, the consensus was that it was more shocking than anything Hitchcock had made since The Birds. Critics and audiences greeted it enthusiastically, many believing this might be the encore of Hitchcock’s career.

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Frenzy isn’t a great film, but a director of Hitchcock’s magnitude can go a long way with even a few moments of finely tuned suspense and wit, and this movie contains ample doses of both. It resembles a feature length, R-rated episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in several ways. The production is scaled down, the actors are unknown, and it keeps you tuned in all the way through the finale.

The highlight of the film is a 14-minute sequence in which Rusk attempts to retrieve evidence he’s left on one of his corpses, tied up in a sack in a potato truck. Storyboards + camerawork + editing = peerless filmmaking. Perhaps because the characters are Londoners, they’re imbued with a droll wit I found hilarious. The police inspector’s wife – an amateur sleuth who serves her husband fishhead stew and pig’s feet for dinner – is priceless.

Jon Finch and Anna Massey are a long way from Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I could have forgiven their lack of style if they’d been given characters of any substance. Hitchcock is far more interested in his sexually deviant killer – played to the hilt by Barry Foster – and the Keystone Kops at Scotland Yard. Still, I found myself grinning throughout, impressed that after directing movies for six decades, Hitchcock still knew how to manipulate an audience.

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Teddy Blanks at Not Coming To A Theater Near You writes, “Frenzy is funny. Something about dry British wit launches Hitchcock’s ever-present dark humor to laugh-out-loud status. Or maybe he was just having a hell of a time.”

“Despite its flaws and limitations, Frenzy still has enough of the trademark Hitchcock style and black wit so that it stands apart from more homogenized, pasteurized Hollywood films,” writes Nicholas Sylvain at DVD Verdict.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “The film’s misogyny is so apparent and so extreme that it really does reduce enjoyment of the film – unless you share Hitchcock’s hang-up.”

“I dare say you are wondering why I am floating around London like this.” View a classic trailer, with Hitchcock telling us about his new film Frenzy.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Black comedy · Psycho killer

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 7, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    Also, the original trailer for Frenzy is great. One of the best I’ve ever seen.

    HITCH: Look, she’s wearing my tie. *retrieves tie from body, puts it on and looks at camera* How do you like my tie. *turns to right* How do YOU like it?”

    *cut to victim*

    WOMAN: My God… the tie! AAAHHH!!!

  • 2 Justine // Oct 8, 2007 at 10:57 am

    31 Days of Hitchcock? What a grand idea!

    As for Frenzy, I’m inclined to agree with all that you say. It’s a film I enjoy, especially for those “Hitchcock” moments but I can’t really say I love it. It’s certainly one of the lesser Hitchcock films I’ve seen.

  • 3 Pat // Oct 8, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    I think I like this movie more than the rest of you guys. The wife of the inspector with the hideous gourmet dishes is a nice comedic touch. This movie also has one of my favorite camera shots – the long tracking? (I think it would be called) shot where the camera pulls out of the apartment, down the stairs and out into the street, somehow the perfect shot for that moment in the film.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 13, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    Damian: I added a link to the trailer after reading your comment. That is truly hilarious. It’s old school marketing at its best. I can’t see M. Night Shyamalan or even a camera whore like Quentin Tarantino appearing in a trailer like that. For one, most people would get bored, and some would probably get upset that the director was insinuating that he was strangling women. Comedy.

    Justine: Thanks! When other people read about “lesser Hitchcock” they need to understand that while that may be true, a lot of these “lesser” movies are in a totally different class than something like Premonition or Saw II or most of the stuff on the new release shelf at Blockbuster. They’re way, way better.

    Pat: I liked Frenzy as much as you did. It’s not a masterwork, but highly enjoyable for two of the reasons you so adroitly pointed out: the droll script, and the finesse of the camerawork. Thanks for your comment!

  • 5 calvin evans // Dec 9, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    i really do think barb leigh hunt is one sexy bitch i really do think few women of today can match such a sexy women/goddesss i didnt like the rape scene i really liked barb just to have taken her clothes off in something less controlling but she had great brests and great legs in hose well barb i wished i was around

  • 6 Papa Larry H // Mar 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    When “Blaney” drugs the policeman and escapes, the hospital staff comes to help. The other policeman that turns to the camera is none other than, “Michael Caine” himself. No one can convince me that it isn’t him! I am aware that he had turned down the part of “Rusk”. I am positive that he played the part of the policeman(uncredited).

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