(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s penultimate film isn’t quite a return to form – it can’t quite get past an unengaging protagonist and shifting perspectives that, in contrast to stablemate Psycho, fail to coalesce into more than the sum of its parts – but after two decidedly broke-backed pictures, Frenzy is demonstrable evidence he still had what it took. If Torn Curtain, aside from that scene, saw Hitch struggling to remain relevant in the 1960s, Frenzy feels like a film of the 1970s, as much as it owes its homeland flavour to the 1930s works that established the director as such a force to be reckoned with.
It’s also very nasty. The title evokes something from a later generation, the likes of Brian De Palma or David Cronenberg, and if Hitch had previously shocked with the “explicitness” of Psycho, Frenzy finds him fully on board with testing the new-found permissiveness towards sex and violence. In that respect, Frenzy’s a rather sobering wake up call, recognition of the idea that the director’s creativity inventiveness may have been most spurred, hitherto, by what he could only suggest. The protracted rape and murder of Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) seems designed to do for such material the very thing Torn Curtain delivered in the difficulty of killing a man. Hitch is unflinching and ruthless in his focus as Brenda comes to realise Bob’s intentions. And you have to wonder at the sadist at play in a director not once but twice “artfully” arranging Bob’s victims with their tongues hanging out, in equal parts designed to disturb and ridicule their fate.
Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) is an evident throwback to the socially-mobile murderers of Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt, only more so; he’s a regular Jack the Lad, popular around the markets and cheerful and chipper to all. It’s easy to see why, reputedly, the part was offered to Michael Caine. Who considered it disgusting and turned it down (Dressed to Kill and The Hand were presumably more to his tastes). Foster, about to make a name for himself on TV as Van Der Valk, wears something of Caine’s cheerful informality, along with a passing resemblance to a young Jon Pertwee (well, more Sean, to be honest) by way of Jimmy Savile (his “lovely… lovely… lovely…” as he climaxes is as unsettling as anything in that rape-murder scene, and Bob too is very devoted to his old mum).
One can’t help but notice that, in trying to remain relevant in his return to serial-killer fare, Hitchcock borrows key cast member Anna Massey from Michael Powell’s career-stranding Peeping Tom (“I’m Helen Stephens, and I’m having a party…”). Although, Powell spares Helen, while Hitch delights in defiling Babs. Not in an on-screen murderous act, but through throwing her about as a cadaverous sack of potatoes in a lorry filled with sacks of potatoes during a bravura sequence in which the murderer attempts to recover a vital tie pin (it’s Strangers on a Train’s lighter revisited). Helen Mirren turned the part down. Notably, and creditably given the lingering previously, Hitch abstains from showing Babs’ death (although there’s a flashback), instead pulling back from the doorway and across the street as Bob and Babs enter. He’s telling us he doesn’t need to show the same horrors twice. We’re sure to have got the message first time.
Anthony Schaffer adapted Frenzy from the post-WWII setting of Arthur Le Berns’ 1966 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square (the start of something of a trio of successes for Schaffer, followed as it was by Sleuth the same year and The Wicker Man the year after). Some of the forensic psychoanalysis is on the dry side, tending a little too much towards Psycho for my tastes – it’s this element that most dates the content and director’s mindset – but the actually interaction between Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) is a stroke of genius and as memorable as anything in the picture. She continually serves her husband revolting gourmet dishes as he discusses the progress of his case. In response, she offers sharp intuitive advice that invariably proves correct (such as why Jon Finch’s ex-husband Dick cannot be the murderer of Brenda).
This kind of black humour continues elsewhere, some of it way beyond the bounds of acceptable black humour today (“Well, I suppose it’s nice to know every cloud has a silver lining” Gerald Sim’s solicitor cheerfully replies to the bar lady who has noted the way the murderer “Rapes them first, doesn’t he?”) The cynicism is readily recognisable too: “Well, we haven’t had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie, and they’re so good for the tourist trade.” One also has to wonder if it was an intentional slight that Frenzy begins with an ecology-minded political speech, swiftly forgotten when a body is seen floating in the Thames.
As impressive as Foster is, the supporting cast are also keenly chosen. Bernard Cribbins is suitably arsey as Babs’ publican boss (and Dick’s ex-boss). Leigh-Hunt is very good as is the innately sympathetic Massey. Billie Whitelaw is memorably merciless when it comes to Dick protesting his innocence (and her husband Clive Swift resoundingly feeble in defending him). Jean Marsh plays against type as Brenda’s shrewish secretary. Elsie Randolph, who worked with the director forty years earlier in Rich and Strange, also has a small role.
However, Truffaut is right about Jon Finch’s “self-centred sullenness” as protagonist Dick Blaney (I disagree that Foster is “too lightweight to inspire the viewers with fear”, though, even assuming inspiring fear is even the point). There’s an imbalance here that often afflicted the director’s leading men when they weren’t Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, and Finch is much too earnest and serious in his performance to be winning or even engaging.
The consequence is that Dick’s incarceration, successfully stitched up by mate Bob, is far less interesting than the classic Hitch manoeuvre of investing us in the villain’s evasion of justice when Bob ends up in the back of a truck trying to recover vital evidence. Doubtless recalling what he saw as a mistake in the hero’s absence from the climax in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitch has Dick make an unlikely prison break so he can be at the scene when Bob is finally caught (actually, this might have worked if the way things initially look – Oxford walking in on Bob standing over the latest victim – had been the ending of the picture. Instead, Bob staggers in with a trunk moments later). Nevertheless, Oxford’s “Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie is a classic final line”.
Hitch’s choice to shoot on location pays off in terms of verisimilitude, as does the cast of mostly contemporary performers. They curb his old-school tendencies as much as the opportunity for graphic visuals. There’s only the occasional process shot, so the commonplace artifice of Torn Curtain is mercifully absent. Ron Goodwin has written some fine scores, but his work here tends a bit too much to “prestige British stodge” (I’d have been interested to hear Henry Mancini’s rejected ideas). Frenzy is a strong picture in many respects, but it lacks that extra something to push into the realm of one of his greats; there isn’t a sufficiently striking character to anchor the proceedings – Foster is very good, but we’re never with him quite long enough – and the plot lacks a sufficiently distinctive hook. Instead it’s claim to fame is Hitchcock uncensored, and that could never been enough in and of itself.