Alfred Hitchcock’s Triumphant Homecoming: “Frenzy”

15 03 2011

Alfred Hitchcock returned to London in 1972 to make the film “Frenzy,” based on the novel “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern. It was a nostalgic trip home for Hitchcock, and although parts of his previous two movies were filmed in Europe, this was his first full production in England since “Jamaica Inn” in 1939.

It was also a major return to form for Hitchcock. After the missteps of “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz,” “Frenzy” puts The Master of Suspense on familiar, comfortable ground, as it is a darkly comic movie about a serial killer and a wrongly accused man on the run, whose themes include food, sex and marriage, all set in his old stomping grounds. “Frenzy” is arguably Hitchcock’s best film since “Psycho,” and resonates all the way back to “The Lodger” from 1927.

The movie opens with the kind of black irony and horror that run throughout it. After a majestic opening sequence in which we view the Thames River and London, we move in on a politician making a riverside speech about cleaning up the river. A crowd – including Hitchcock, wearing a bowler hat – listens intently, until a scream interrupts the speech. Someone has spotted some rather unusual pollution in the form of the nude body of a woman floating facedown in the river. As the police move in, a man in the crowd notes this as “another necktie murder,” and starts comparing this killer to Jack the Ripper, and we’re reminded that Hitchcock’s London is a city that loves a good murder.

The story centers around Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), ex-R.A.F. squadron leader, who’s just lost his job at a pub. His friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a successful fruit and vegetable merchant in the Covent Garden Market, offers him support and advice; his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a matchmaker of sorts, takes pity on him despite his black mood.

What Blaney does not know is that Rusk is in fact the Necktie Murderer – and that, since Rusk is about to start killing the women in Blaney’s life, including Brenda and a perky barmaid called Babs (Anna Massey), the police will conclude that Blaney is the killer.

After Rusk murders the helpful Babs, Blaney unwittingly turns to Rusk himself for help, but this time, the killer uses Blaney’s situation to his advantage. Rusk takes Blaney’s bag and says he’ll meet him at his apartment. Rusk then loads the bag with the murdered women’s clothes, so that when the police arrive (tipped by our villain, of course), Blaney looks very guilty indeed.

Blaney is tried and sentenced, but his promise to get vengeance on Rusk makes Chief Superintendent Oxford (Alec McCowen) wonder if they collared the wrong man. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Oxford discusses the case with his wife, who’s been studying French cooking. Oxford is very grateful when he is pulled away from his nauseating dinner to chase down information on Rusk.

Blaney, meanwhile, gets himself put in the prison infirmary, then breaks out, steals a car and heads for Rusk’s apartment, intent on revenge. With the car’s jack in hand, he breaks into the apartment. He sees the shape of a body in the bed and begins beating it with the jack, but when he seems an arm fall out of the bed, he realizes that this is not Rusk but a dead woman, a tie tight around her throat.

Just then, Oxford enters the apartment. He signals Blaney to be quiet. We hear

"Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie."

someone thumping up the stairs; it’s Rusk, pulling a large trunk behind him. As Oxford says, “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie,” Rusk drops the trunk. It falls, looking very much like a tombstone, as the closing credits appear.

Timing is everything in “Frenzy.” Blaney is constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time; Rusk, meanwhile, escapes over and over.

Although the story is similar to that of “The Lodger” – although, of course, the

The Necktie Killer strikes.

killer is actually on camera in “Frenzy” – Hitchcock is free to turn up the violence in this movie. “Frenzy” only shows one of the killings, though, and leaves the other to our imagination. Hitchcock did not shy from the brutality of the killing; both actors are covered in sweat and disheveled by the time the scene is over.

Rusk gets one of the movie’s funniest scenes, as well. After killing Babs off camera, he puts the body in a potato sack and dumps in the back of one of his trucks, but then notices that he’s missing his jeweled “R” stickpin. Realizing that it must be with the body, he attempts to find it among the potatoes as the truck pulls out. Rusk is kicked in the face by a loose foot as he tries to find the pin; finally, he breaks the fingers to get it out of her grip. As the truck makes a stop, Rusk hops out, brushes himself off and stops in at a café for a drink.

“Frenzy” made its debut with much acclaim, and the movie was a hit. Hitchcock had a great script to work with here – not quite on the level of “North by Northwest,” perhaps, but strong nonetheless – written by Anthony Shaffer, who had written the stageplay “Sleuth” (later a terrific movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine).

London’s theater provided Hitchcock with his cast as well. Avoiding established movie stars helped keep costs down; also, the cast did not have the concerns some movie stars did about portraying unsavory characters.

The fact is, while the plot of “Frenzy” is very engaging, particularly after the first half hour or so, when the characters and their relationships are established, there really isn’t anyone to like in the film. Blaney is moody and bad-tempered; Rusk is charming in his way but still a monster. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is Oxford, the Chief Inspector, struggling to smile as he attempts to swallow his wife’s outlandish menu and rethinking the entire case based on a bad feeling – but “Frenzy” is hardly his story.

As always, Hitchcock plays the audience, making us suffer as much as possible. He holds a long, silent shot of the exterior of Brenda’s office while the secretary returns for lunch; how long it will take for her to reach the office, find the body and scream, we do not know, but the wait seems interminable. The death of Babs, drowned out by the noise of Covent Garden Market and unseen even by the audience, seems pathetic. And, as Robin Wood might have written, Hitchcock titillates us with nudity, then makes us feel ashamed, even nauseated, by the violence that follows. In the potato truck scene, Hitchcock adds humor to the suspense, as Babs’ dainty toes smack Rusks’ face while he tries to find his stickpin in a bouncing truck full of dusty tubers.

The making of “Frenzy,” and Hitchcock’s return to London, was well documented, and his fondness for the city shows. There are lingering shots of the greengrocers’s stands in the Covent Garden Market, undoubtedly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s father’s own business in the area. The opening shots of the market seem a bit overplayed thanks to the bombastic music by Ron Goodwin that accompanies them; it’s one thing to use that music when showing the Thames River and the Tower Bridge, but implying a majestic quality to fruit and vegetable stands is bit much. Henry Mancini had been hired originally to score the movie, but Hitchcock was not satisfied with the results and fired him.

Hitchcock clowns with someone wearing the mask shown in the trailer.

“Frenzy” echoes “Psycho” both in its serial killer theme and in the carefully storyboarded and tightly edited murder scenes; in 1960, Hitchcock had to argue with the board of censors that he showed neither nudity nor a knife entering the body. Twelve years later, the world of film had changed enormously, and the new MPAA ratings system was in place. Hitchcock was able to show both nudity and graphic violence, at the cost of an “R” rating. This was not a detriment to ticket sales, however. On the contrary, the fact that The Master of Suspense had ventured into this territory must have piqued audiences curiousity. Along with the nudity and violence, the script is full of swearing, bringing the cast of working class characters to vivid life.

Of course, the viewer may have a few questions after the movie nears its end: If

Rusk's trunk, looking very much like a tombstone.

Blaney thought that the figure in bed was alive, wouldn’t he be charged with attempted murder? And wouldn’t he be also be charged for escaping prison and stealing the car? Hitchcock’s fast fade-out at the end helps to keep audiences from stumbling over those questions.

Hitchcock returns in his role as narrator of the trailer for “Frenzy,” and he seems to be enjoying every moment of it:

The body we first see is a dummy wearing a Hitchcock mask; there are production photos of Hitchcock mugging with the mask on set. The fractured “Frenzy” logo, not seen in the movie itself, reminds us of “Psycho,” as does the screaming response to a question from Hitchcock. The clumsy rear-projection behind Hitchcock does not seem important; this is Hitchcock having fun, making references to a “leg of lamb” – perhaps a reminder of his most famous episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” His drawled intonation of the line “How d’you like my necktie?” is the highlight of the trailer.

Next, Alfred Hitchcock returns with his final feature film, the black comedy “Family Plot,” starring Karen Black and Bruce Dern.




2 responses

15 03 2011
Ron Hobbs

Frenzy is Hitch at his drollest and most chilling. You’ve covered most of the salient points, but when Babs is murdered you fail to mention the fabulous tracking shot that follows his actors across Covent Garden and up the stairs to her flat , only to stop and reverse itself before entering, taking us down the steps, alone, and outside, only to rest looking at the building, while people cross camera and go about their business. A woman is being murdered, but that is a small piece in the mosaic of life.
One great line that I’m sure wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences, is in the beginning as someone notes the murderer rapes his victims before killing them. Another responds “every cloud has a silver lining”. Ouch.
I always thought this movie would make a good remake. Rusk finds his victims through a dating service, a novel idea in it’s time. With internet dating everywhere, who has a good script?

9 09 2012

In my opinion this is Hitchcock’s best movie, very underrated and much more exicitng that Psycho and Rear Window. A classic in all aspects.

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