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50 Years of Alfred Hitchcock’s Penultimate British Thriller ‘Frenzy’



50 Years of Alfred Hitchcock's Penultimate British Thriller 'Frenzy'

When fans of Alfred Hitchcock discuss their favorite films, the conversation usually turns to thrillers like North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Vertigo, or horror films like Psycho and The Birds. Those are all popular and recognizable choices—and understandably so.

A film that rarely comes up in such conversation is one that made its premiere 50 years ago, back in June of 1972. Known by the simple but descriptive title of Frenzy, it has historically been overlooked by fans and critics, but deserves consideration as a quality film production that skillfully mixes the thriller genre with psychological horror. It also features a few pinches of comedy, which offer some relief during an otherwise intense and dark film.

Set in contemporary London, Frenzy co-stars two lesser known but highly capable British actors in Jon Finch and Barry Foster. Finch dominates the film in the role of Richard Blaney, a former pilot for the Royal Air Force who has fallen on hard times; he is a rough-edged, down-on-his-luck alcoholic who tends to be surly and disagreeable. In the meantime, Foster plays the far more likable character of Robert Rusk, a good-looking and charismatic businessman who runs a local food market.

Right from the start, Finch’s Blaney finds himself in trouble, having lost his job as a bartender. He soon becomes embroiled in a criminal quagmire when his ex-wife is murdered, the latest in a series of “necktie murders” throughout London that also involve evidence of rape. Blaney becomes a prime suspect and a fugitive from the police. But in reality, Blaney is innocent; he is a victim of circumstantial evidence and his own shady reputation.

Frenzy 1972 Richard Blaney

Hitchcock further toys with our expectations by presenting an even more shocking example of role reversal. The director places Foster’s likeable character of Rusk into the role of murderer. No one would suspect Rusk of such crimes; he is a friendly fellow who is well-respected within the community. Just like everyone else, Blaney has no idea that Rusk, whom he considers a friend, is committing the rapes and murders. And to make matters more deceiving, Blaney seeks out Rusk’s help as he attempts to evade the authorities. Rusk is more than willing to provide assistance, since it is a perfect mechanism for further deflecting guilt away from himself.

Both Finch and Foster are excellent in their roles, as they each portray nuanced and complicated characters who switch back and forth between being sympathetic and repulsive. The two female leads, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Blaney’s ex-wife and Anna Massey as Blaney’s friend Babs, are also exemplary.

Another key contributor is veteran British actor Alec McCowen, who plays Chief Inspector Oxford. McCowen emphasizes Oxford’s professionalism during the murder investigation, but also displays a wonderful sense of comedy through his interactions with his wife (played by Vivien Merchant) and his subtle displeasure with her hideous cooking recipes. Mrs. Oxford, obsessed with an “exotic cooking” course that she has taken, presents him with meals that are so physically revolting that he makes various excuses not to eat them.

Frenzy 1972 Alec McCowen

For the most part, the tenor of the film is serious and grave. Just as a film like Psycho had roots in real-life serial killing, specifically the reign of terror perpetrated by Ed Gein, Frenzy is tied to a pair of serial killers in Great Britain’s criminal history. Frenzy makes direct mentions of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders of the 1880s and the lesser-known John Christie killings of the 1940s and fifties. Additionally, the late Barry Foster said that Hitchcock instructed him to read two books about another British serial killer, Neville Heath, who murdered two women in 1946. It is quite clear that all of those murder sprees influenced Hitchcock in making Frenzy.

Frenzy’s theme of violence is even more disturbing than that of Psycho, so much so that it’s unlikely that Frenzy could have been made during the early 1960s, when the Hays Code was still being enforced to a significant degree. By the early 1970s, the film industry had done away with the Hays Code, which had governed sexual and violent content, and instead adopted a new ratings system. These changes allowed Hitchcock to explore more risqué and disturbing material in Frenzy.

In creating Frenzy, Hitchcock included a lengthy rape scene that was particularly graphic for its time. “I think it was the first time I had seen a sexual psychopath coming to orgasm during a murder,” says noted horror historian David J. Skal. “I don’t think Hollywood had ever seen that. So it was a bit transgressive on that level, even though it wasn’t explicit.” That scene is the principal reason why Frenzy received an R-rating. Given such extreme content, even members of Hitchcock’s immediate family found the material difficult to handle. Most notable, Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, refused to allow her children to see the movie until they were much older.

Frenzy 1972 Movie

Hitchcock’s willingness to delve into dark, unsettling material makes Frenzy an intriguing film. Frenzy also represented Hitchcock’s return to making movies in Britain, where he had not shot a film since 1956. He skillfully showcases the natural and gritty scenery within London, including the local food market, a tavern, and some seedy apartment buildings. In presenting some of these sites, Hitchcock employs unconventional use of the camera. This is most evident in the scene where the rapist has lured his latest victim into his London apartment. Rather than show us the exact circumstances of the crime being perpetrated in the apartment, Hitchcock has the camera steer away in the opposite direction, moving backwards out of the dwelling, then down a staircase, and then out the door of the building onto the crowded streets of inner-city London. This mechanism shows us how even the worst crimes can take place within our midst, only a few hundred feet from the crowded city streets, without anyone even suspecting that an evil act is being committed.

Given Hitchcock’s expert filmmaking, the presentation of a compelling story, and the earthy individual acting performances, the lack of acclaim afforded to Frenzy remains a bit confounding. Perhaps it’s because Hitchcock’s two primary stars, Finch and Foster, never became household names despite forging solid careers. Frenzy lacks a Janet Leigh, a Jimmy Stewart, or a Cary Grant in a prominent role. Or maybe it’s because the film’s antagonist, Robert Rusk, does not have the twisted appeal of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates.

Then again, Frenzy does have its legitimate flaws. As Skal points out, the film is a bit too workmanlike and predictable, lacking the surprising moments that are found in so many of his earlier movies. Clearly, Frenzy falls short of being a classic in the manner of Psycho and The Birds or even non-horror efforts like North by Northwest and Rear Window.

Still, Frenzy deserves recognition on the second tier of the Hitchcock universe. Given the director’s long list of quality films, there is no shame in that. It is a worthwhile film, one that is creative, intricate, well-developed, and believable. As legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote of the film: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy is a return to old forms by the master of suspense, whose newer films [since Psycho] have pleased movie critics but not his public. This is the kind of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 1940s, filled with macabre details, incongruous humor, and the desperation of a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.”

On its 50th anniversary, Hitchcock’s Frenzy deserves more attention than it has received.

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