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Frenzy (1972)

Ring a Ding Ding

      Ryan and I caught Alfred Hitchcock‘s Frenzy on the big screen this week as part of  Columbus’ annual CAPA Summer Movie Series, allegedly the longest running classic movie series nationally. This was the one film on this year’s lineup that I was dead set on seeing because watching it a couple years ago, I walked away feeling scarred for life and absolutely hating the picture. After some reading on the subject, however, I knew I needed to give it another shot. As you can tell from the rating, I’m glad I did.

     Made in 1972, Frenzy was filmed entirely in England and earned Hitch his first “R” rating. Make note, however, that the  Motion Picture Association of America did not establish the rating system we know today until 1968, so this was only his second film to be subject to the system (the other being 1969’s Topaz). That is not to say Frenzy in any way compares to Hitchcock’s other films as far as violence and horror goes. With the rating system came a freedom from the Production Code that outright forbid nudity and certain displays of sexual engagement. At last, Hitchcock was freed to go to the extent he surely always wanted to with his prior films. Frenzy contains both nudity and rape and because of that, I think, makes it distinctly different from prior films that relied more on suspense than visual impact.

     I left my first viewing of Frenzy feeling dreadful because of one particular scene: the nude rape/strangling of a woman. The moment is quite grotesque, but going in this second time prepared for that moment, I made it through, although not without gripping the armrest quite vigorously. What I found left over once surviving that scene is that Hitchcock really had perfected his craft by the time he made this, his second-to-last film. The editing, tracking shots, use or lack of sound and fantastic plot development prove what a pro he was.

     The film opens on a crowd of people listening to a speaker before someone notices a woman’s nude body floating in the river, a tie around her neck. She is the latest of the Necktie Murderer victims, crimes modeled after real-life Neville Heath, a sort of modern-day Jack the Ripper, who sexually assaulted his victims as part of the crime. The shot following that of the floating body is of Jon Finch playing Richard Blaney, who is adjusting a tie in his room, looking into the mirror. Blaney next gets fired from his job at the bar where he also resides. He bids farewell to his barmaid girlfriend and next stops to see fruit monger Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Rusk gives his cashless pal a tip on a horse race and offers him money, but Blaney lies and says he has just been paid. After getting tight at a bar where he stands next to two men discussing the murders and describing the killer as a social misfit with sociopathic qualities, Blaney learns the horse he could not afford to back won at 20-1 stakes and violently curses and destroys a bunch of grapes Rusk had given him.

     Blaney’s next stop is his ex-wife’s dating agency. When the two start to quarrel, Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) asks her secretary to leave for the day. Ultimately, the two get dinner and Brenda slips some cash into the man’s coat, which he does not discover until after he has engaged the Salvation Army as his lodging for the night.

     At this point, Hitchcock has thoroughly set up Blaney as the likely Necktie Murderer. Our first encounter with the man was juxtaposed against the body in the river and focused on the his tie. We learn from two strangers the likely characteristics of the murder, such as violent outbursts, which we see from Blaney after missing out on the horse. His fight with Brenda also is suggestive of the fact. Mr. Blaney, however –and this is no spoiler– is not the murderer, thus setting up a typical Hitchcock wrong-man, run-for-cover plot.

     The next day, Rusk shows up at Brenda’s office while the secretary is at lunch. He has apparently engaged the agency to find him a mate, but because he seeks a woman who enjoys being hurt during sex, the agency has been unsuccessful, as has every other one in town. Rusk, who up to this point has seemed quite charming, becomes increasingly creepy as he tells Brenda she is his “type of woman.” What ensues through this prolonged sequence is the aforementioned rape –depicted as either a thrusting Rusk or a close up on Brenda’s unmoving face as she says the 91st Psalm– during which Rusk chants “lovely” with every motion. Upon completion, he calls the woman a bitch and begins to remove his tie, first transferring a tie pin with his initial to his lapel. Brenda screams and struggles for some time before the gruesome murder consumes her. What follows is the most tragic part of the movie from a filmmaking standpoint: We are given a shot of the now-dead woman, eyes wide, tongue hanging oddly from her mouth, which incited some laughter from the audience with which I sat.

Could have gone without this shot.

     Blaney stops by Brenda’s office after the crime but finds no one there. Unfortunately, the secretary spots him leaving and next finds her boss dead. Using utterly no sound, the camera is fixed on the side of the building and empty street as we wait for the secretary to climb the stairs, enter the office and utter the inevitable scream. This creates so much tension by doing so little. The police next fill the newspapers with a description of Blaney, who by this point has taken girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) to stay at a nice hotel, using the cash from Brenda. The hotel clerks recognize the man described in the paper and call the police, but Blaney and Babs have fled out the window and sit in a park while the man tries to defend himself to his girl. The couple is next coaxed up to the flat of a friend, aware of the trouble, whose wife is convinced of Blaney’s guilt. Babs goes to work to get her belongings –the two plan to flee town the next morning– and after a row with her boss, is rescued by Rusk and offered a place to stay. Letting the girl into his flat, Rusk mentions she is his “kind of woman”.

     With the close of the apartment door, the camera backs silently and slowly down the stairs and out the building door to the street. Hitchcock deliberately sought to offer this second murder in complete contrast to the gruesome violence of the first and not provide violence for violence’s sake.

      The remainder of the Frenzy follows Rusk, discovering his tie pin missing, stuck in the back of a truck among potato sacks where he has concealed Babs’ body. He comically is kicked in the face by the woman’s leg and breaks his pocket knife trying to pry her stiff hand open. He escapes undiscovered, but the police soon notice a body hanging out of the truck. When Blaney next goes to Rusk for a place to hide, the man stashes him in his apartment and then alerts the brass. Rusk has also stuffed Babs’ clothes in Blaney’s duffle bag, which then allows the wronged man to identify the real murderer, although no one will believe him. Blaney is convicted of the crime, but continues to rant and rave about Rusk, leading the chief detective to investigate further.

      Frenzy contains some of the most blatant Hitchcockian humor. Throughout the movie, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) has been dealing with a wife engaged in cooking classes, who continually presents him with bizarre and unappetizing meals. First, she gives him a soup containing fish heads and octopi, which is supplemented with whole quail too small to enjoy. Pig feet is the next entrée we see him stuck with. The audience had many laughs both at these moments and other deliberately humorous times throughout the film.

      Hitchcock was highly influenced by the French New Wave approach to filmmaking with Frenzy, having engaged in screenings of the works of his friend Francois Truffaut among those of Antonioni and Goddard. He took production to his home town of London to film as much on location as possible and used unknown actors to create a feel of realism. As I previously mentioned, Frenzy allowed Hitchcock to create the sort of films he likely always wanted to make. He was an avid reader of true crime stories and his favorite were those featuring necrophilia and strangling. Naturally, finally facing the freedom to feature rape, he leaped on the opportunity. Although I generally contend that Hitchcock’s great work ended with The Birds, Frenzy has generally been considered by critics to be a highly important piece in his career and I do not dispute that now.

The MacGuffin: Unlike most Hitchcock films, Frenzy contains no macguffin.

Where’s Hitch? Among the crowd at the film’s opening listening to the speaker. He wears a black suit and black bowler hat. He is featured again in the same scene as spectators look into the river.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

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