FRENZY (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

Alfred Hitchcock followed his masterpiece, Psycho (1960), one of the most exactingly brilliant studies of the American social, moral and psychological landscape, with four more or less Europeanized or “international” films; even The Birds (1963), Psycho’s immediate successor, a Californian transplantation of Daphne du Maurier’s story, seems “universal” beyond the studio that released it. Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) all similarly appear to be some sort of flight from the scrutiny that Psycho had paid Hitchcock’s adopted homeland. His next (and penultimate) film, Frenzy, marked Hitchcock’s return to London for the first time since Stage Fright (1950) more than two decades earlier. I understand completely. One of the most comprehensively analytical films about America, Psycho left Hitchcock with little else to say on the subject; the four films that followed, each in its way more a project than a film, left the filmmaker in dire need of reasserting his identity and his “voice.” Like Chaplin twenty years earlier, Hitchcock went back home.

As is the case with Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), Hitchcock’s Frenzy is a great work. While it resounds with all sorts of self-references, it’s also somehow a fresh, “new” thing. Never having seen, let alone read, Arthur La Bern’s Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, I cannot say what, if anything, Frenzy owes to the novel upon which it is allegedly based. However, the film doesn’t seem to owe all that much to Anthony Shaffer’s excellent script. On the contrary, Hitchcock’s personality is unmistakable throughout Frenzy, a film that is “personal” almost to the point of heartache.

In one sense, this seems an odd thing to say. Hitchcock, after all, remarked that he had to include an unaccustomed intensity of violence to accommodate the current commercial cinema that the American market dictated once rules of censorship had been relaxed on both sides of the Atlantic. Frenzy is by far, in this regard, the hardest Hitchcock film to take. (Rapes and strangulations are shown in their entirety, as are pop-eyed, naked victims.) So effortlessly does Hitchcock “update” himself in this regard that one must wonder a little whether his explanation contains a bit of rationalization. We all know that Hitchcock abhorred violence; but, long enough pursued, abhorrence of anything can generate a degree of unbridled fascination. Moreover, the film reminds us how sadistically funny Hitchcock can be, as when the sound-enhanced snap of a breadstick, in closeup, at a police inspector’s dinner table echoes the killer’s retrieval of a tie pin from the hand of a victim after rigor mortis has set in. With the breakage of each successive finger of the corpse, we saw and heard much the same loud snap.

But London also touches Hitchcock’s heart. It saddens him to see what London has become.

The film opens with one of the greatest shots of its kind. It reminds us how gloriously devious Hitchcock is capable of being. An airborne camera swoops down on and along the Thames River, creating an impression of sweeping grandeur and pristine beauty. It is the Thames that Hitchcock remembers. The closer the camera comes, though, the more it is that reality overtakes the fond memory, the illusion. The Thames is polluted; before our eyes, it turns from clear blue to murky pea-soup green. Bank side, in Covent Garden, a government official is explaining to a gathered crowd that industrial discharge is the cause of the river’s pollution; he promises a cleanup. Suddenly someone from the crowd shrieks at the discovery of another kind of pollution surfacing in the river: the strangled naked corpse of a woman. The Necktie Murderer has struck again.

This tremendous opening—in point of fact, only one of several terrific shots in Frenzy—recalls the opening of Rebecca (1940), where the narrator revisits Manderley in her dreams as the seemingly floating camera, her dreaming eye, surveys the magnificent estate that, on closer inspection, reveals itself to be a burned-out hulk, only an illusion of grandeur. In Hitchcock’s earlier film, the traveling camera is keyed to the subjectivity of the main character; in Frenzy, it is keyed directly to Hitchcock, whose camera records the collapse of his filtered memories into the muddy waters of the present. Times change.

One should also add that Hitchcock’s brash, untidy Covent Garden is far removed from the genteel version shown in the earlier-set My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964), audience memories of which Hitchcock may be tweaking.

Frenzy provides a variation on one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: the “wrong man” theme. Circumstantial evidence convinces Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Oxford that Richard Blaney is the Necktie Murderer; both Blaney’s ex-wife, Brenda, and current girlfriend, Babs, are among the serial killer’s victims. Early on, Blaney complains about having always been unlucky, and the “evidence” that coincidences seem to line up against him justifies his self-pity. However, the real killer, Robert Rusk, a produce tradesman in Covent Garden, is a friend of Blaney’s, his “Uncle Bob,” and may be framing Blaney. Only his immense self-absorption prevents Blaney from realizing sooner that Rusk is a danger to him.

Nevertheless, the thrust of Frenzy’s argument of misidentification is lodged against the police inspector, not Blaney, and his name, Oxford, suggests that he represents the myopia of the British establishment. Even with all of Rusk’s manipulations and machinations, the idea of Blaney’s guilt is ridiculous, and (unless it’s taken from the book) Shaffer gives Oxford a lightly uttered line that chills the bone; Oxford explains to his wife that the case against Blaney is “uncomplicated” by the existence of any other suspect. Rather than pursue the possibility of other suspects, then, Oxford fits pieces of evidence into his preordained jigsaw puzzle assigning guilt to Blaney. What of course is so chilling is that this stupid, self-serving and truly criminal behavior is normal police procedure. The film implies that it’s astonishing that the police ever get “the right man.”

Comically, Oxford dismisses the gourmet dinners that his wife prepares for him (to express her frustrated creativity) in the same breathlessly arrogant manner with which he dismisses the possibility of Blaney’s innocence. (His wife, incidentally, demonstrates greater insight into her husband’s case than he does.) Not so comically, the outcome of the trial that Oxford had set into motion by “building” his case against Blaney turns the innocent man into someone who is, for the first time in his life, consumed by the idea of committing murder. Blaney wants to kill Rusk, who he knows now is the real killer, and, as he is dragged out of the courtroom to be taken to prison, he loudly proclaims as much, saying that he has nothing to lose, that he might as well become the killer that Oxford and the court have branded him to be. By the end of the film, his transformation into a murderer (morally, though, not literally) is complete. Oxford has come to the truth, but too late to save Blaney from becoming a vicious, vengeful beast. (Ironically, Blaney assaults Rusk’s latest victim, mistaking her for Rusk.) The law has had its day, reminding us once again that “civilization” provides a thin veneer to cover the ancient scapegoating process that modern criminal investigation and prosecution essentially remain.*

From the start, Hitchcock’s filmmaking is assured and masterful. The film cuts from a club tie around a corpse’s neck to Blaney as he ties an identical tie around his own neck. At this early point, the film could be saying, “Here is the killer.” In a pub, two senior advocates discuss the Necktie murders. Blaney, who has lost his job as a bartender at another pub, is present. What the advocates say to one another is less interesting than how Hitchcock weaves Blaney into the frames. “He could be the killer,” his appearance there again suggests; but his complete indifference to what the advocates are saying alerts us to the contrary message: Blaney isn’t the killer. The rape and murder of Brenda Blaney follows our acquaintanceship with her; we know how decent she is. The scene is phenomenal because, although we have associated each of the participants (separately) with Blaney during the scene, we don’t even think about Blaney; we think only about what’s happening to Brenda Blaney and Rusk’s hands. The violence and (regarding Brenda) the pathos removes from consideration any other party. Similarly, the murder of Babs—unlike Brenda’s, offscreen—focuses our attention on the victim rather than on either Rusk or Blaney. It’s a wonderful passage. After Babs, like Richard before her, is fired from the tavern where they both worked and had rooms, Rusk suggests she stay at his place for the night. Rusk promises he will be away that night. Babs acquiesces. While they enter his apartment, he delivers his standard line about her being his kind of girl. In silence, the camera withdraws from his door, down steps and down more steps, and through the ground-level corridor, finally, to the outside, where human activity and sound (like the sudden sound from the street in the 1948 Rope) fills image and soundtrack. This, the finest shot of the film and one of the most brilliant shots in the Hitchcock œuvre, is complex. The silence indicates Babs’s death, and the floating and withdrawing camera suggests her spirit and, possibly, the Holy Spirit. However, once reached, the street—the tumultuous, open-ended arena of life—is sorely ironic; a dead-end, it punctuates the loss of Babs’s life. Above all, Hitchcock finds means so that the loss of these women’s lives weigh in and weigh on us.

It’s true; I admit it. Indeed, some may consider it a flaw; not me! In any case, we never quite feel for Blaney what we feel for Rusk’s victims. At the same time, though, Blaney’s incapacity to muster much of our sympathy shifts our concern away from him and to what is happening to him as well as to the women whom Rusk murders. Sentimental films so often equate character and predicament that we may find Hitchcock’s strategy strange. Nevertheless, Blaney’s humorless, unsympathetic nature makes all the more riveting, and recognizable, what the system is doing to him, the wrongness of which, Hitchcock and I both think, has nothing to do with how likeable the bloke is. Even if they’re bastards, innocent people shouldn’t be arrested and tried for and convicted of the crimes they didn’t commit. Indeed, part of the point of Frenzy is that these innocent people might be vulnerable to such treatment precisely because of what “bastards” they are. The point of justice isn’t to “get rid of” bothersome persons; its purpose is to deal with someone who has actually committed the crime in question. Again, like me, Hitchcock doesn’t believe the practice coincides with the presumed aim.

I love Hitchcock. His films sing to me, claiming my beleaguered heart and soul. Among the film’s great moments that seem to bear Hitchcock’s signature is one where Rusk, tipping his hand, says, “Mind you, some of them [meaning, women] are asking for it” [meaning, rape and murder]. Rusk momentarily spaces out when he says this. Chilling; and his eyes-gone-dead link Rusk to Scotty, the detective in Vertigo (1958), when, with the tell-tale necklace around his mistress’s neck, and confronting the scheme of hers that has ensnared him, he falls momentarily into the deepest part of his erotic obsession—the place where he can contemplate murdering the woman he loves. Scotty feels betrayed by this woman; Rusk feels betrayed by all women.

This is a perfectly acted film. Jon Finch as Richard Blaney, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Brenda, Anna Massey (Raymond’s daughter) as Babs: all these deserve high credit. Still, three performances surpass theirs: Barry Foster’s unforgettable turn as the misogynistic pervert, Alec McCowen’s fine job as Oxford and, above all, Vivien Merchant’s great performance as Oxford’s wife. Thanks to Merchant, it is heartrending how this character tries hard to convince her husband that she is his intellectual equal. (When she starts one of her insights into her husband’s case, “It stands to reason . . .,” he corrects her by saying, “You mean intuition, don’t you?”)

Of course, Hitchcock sides against her at least this far: Mrs. Oxford clearly is her husband’s intellectual superior. Justice, Hitchcock worries, is in the wrong hands. It’s worth noting that at one point Oxford’s sarcasm and superciliousness reduce his wife to tears. The only other instance of tears in the film occurs when Blaney’s wife faces death at Rusk’s hands. The two instances of tears thus become linked as an indicator of the misery, akin to violation and murder (from the perspective of her emotions), to which Oxford subjects his wife. To him, his investigation of the serial killings is perfectly reasonable. Although Hitchcock very briefly toys with suggesting the possibility that Blaney is the Necktie Murderer, we very soon realize that it’s myopic of Oxford to cut and paste the evidence into a portrait of Blaney’s guilt. In fact, it’s terrifying, made all the more so by Oxford’s demeanor of reasonableness. He is, in fact, a stupid man and very nearly Rusk’s misogynistic mirror-image. Indeed, it is his wife’s sharper insight and intelligence that motivate his bullying assaults on her that are so painfully reminiscent of the way that the judge mistreats his wife, despite her fragility, in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947).

But unlike that earlier film, which its imbecilic producer overproduced, Frenzy is all Hitchcock.

* The filmmaker who best addresses and develops this theme isn’t Hitchcock, though, but Japan’s Nagisa Oshima, for instance, in Death by Hanging (1968) and In the Realm of Passion (1978).

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One thought on “FRENZY (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

  1. “Bank side, in Covent Garden, a government official is explaining to a gathered crowd that industrial discharge is the cause of the river’s pollution”

    In fact, this scene takes place on the South Bank of the Thames, outside County Hall. Covent Garden is on the other side of the river, and is some distance from the Thames.

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