Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Alec McCowen
Cinephiles name Frenzy as Hitchcock’s last great movie. Completed eight years before his death, Frenzy was also the first British Hitchcock film in over 30 years. While the first 15 years of Alfred’s career were in Great Britain, he detested the country’s approach to cinema at the time and openly longed to be an American studio director. David O. Selznick gave him that chance with 1940’s Rebecca, and Hitchcock never looked back… until now.
Seperately, many film theorists argue that his film Psycho changed the game, but Hitchcock didn’t understand his own new rules. 12 years after visiting the Bates Motel, however, the director finally returned to form–and his home country–for one last ride.
Frenzy holds a firm grasp on critics and audiences alike, with a Rotten Tomatoes consensus of 90%, an IMDb score of 7.6/10, and a Metacritic rating of 92/100.
Recently, I’ve been working on a redraft of one of my projects, Steep Grade. It’s inspired by both Coen Brothers movies and Hitchcock wronged-man thrillers. To help me refresh my memory on Alfred’s structure, I looked on the TCM of HBO Max (lol, I mean Max). There, Frenzy’s poster scrolled by, and I decided to wrap my hands around it.
The film made for a great blog post, too, since this month’s theme is–
May is for Murder!
I definitely got what I was looking for with Frenzy… I just didn’t expect so much of it.
Richard Blaney has fallen on tough times. His time in the service left him with demons and anger issues. As such, no one gives him the benefit of the doubt–not his employer, who fires him without giving Richard a chance to explain himself; not his ex-wife’s secretary, who takes Richard’s verbal outbursts as violent episodes; and certainly not the police, who look to arrest Richard for a string of necktie strangulation murders looming over London.
As Richard looks to hide from law enforcement while clearing his name, various women in his life either believe and help him, or they distrust and shun him. Tragically, the real killer takes advantage of society’s niceties, using their charm and cunning to get many of the aforementioned female characters alone. Once the killer goes “mask off,” their graphic, psychosexual tendencies take the audience’s breath away.
As the body count ratchets up, Richard’s hiding places become squeezed. For the real killer to get away with their crimes, though, they’ll need to get close enough to Richard to properly frame him–a challenging feat compared to their frenzied crimes.
As a structured, Hitchcock thriller, Frenzy is a stone-cold classic. To release such a movie after a 55-year filmography is astounding, especially when the man already had a dozen legitimate masterpieces to his name. Many other directors of his position and age are content to release, as Quinten Tarantino famously called it, “old-man crap.”
One sequence (which helped me crack a problem in my own script) shows Richard going about the streets of London, doing his daily routine, meeting his usual neighbors. On the surface, this builds the world, setting, and character voices of the movie. Cleverly, however, it also gets up two of the future victims as well as identifies future conflicts. Such economy is mind-bending to the average writer (source: my own experience) and grants time for character exploration later in the runtime.
Strangely, as someone who loves horror and is morbidly fascinated by on-screen gore, I found the violence in Frenzy over-the-top and distasteful. I think, because I’m so used to Hitchcock’s restrained thrillers, his explicit kill scenes were anomalous, feeling out-of-place. I get that relaxed restrictions of the time allowed freedom for filmmakers to explicitly show all of their content, but, by showing everything, Hitchcock lessened his movie’s impact. No image on-screen can outperform what the viewer’s mind fills in. Hell, this is a lesson Hitchcock taught other filmmakers!
Fortunately, this problem wasn’t a dealbreaker; for me, it just took Frenzy from A-level Hitchcock down to B+. B+ Hitchcock, comparatively, is grades above average cinema.
Absolutely! Case closed.
My mom (aforementioned murder-show obsessive) sat down with me on a whim to watch this. She’s not the biggest classic-movie fan, but she loves suspense and intrigue. Sure enough, Frenzy had her in its clutches. A particular delight for her was an extended sequence in which the real killer has forgotten a key piece of evidence and must dive into a potato truck to retrieve it. The ensuing complications are classic Hitchcock suspense, yet feature more modern, less stilted studio-system cinematography.
My mother also appreciated the director’s signature flair for dark comedy, laughing heartily during the scenes in which the detective discusses the case with his wife over oddly prepared meals.
I hesitate, though, to recommend Frenzy to squeamish viewers. Many of Hitchcock’s earlier thrillers have a restrained, classy feel. Those expecting more of the same will be surprised–and possibly turned off–by Frenzy‘s lurid excess. Meanwhile, the average Law & Order fan won’t blink twice.
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is that Hitchcock often championed nuanced views of complex feminist issues, but his messages were hamstrung by perspective bias and infamous mistreatment/abuse of two actresses under his employ (Tippi Hedren and Janet Leigh, to be precise). These personal flaws definitely mar Frenzy, but don’t greatly damage its power and relevance.
Frenzy balances two societal movements of the early 1970’s: second-wave feminism and criminal profiling. Police were just beginning to grapple with the societal plague of serial murderers, specifically psychosexual killers. Simultaneously, women were gaining ground in the workplace, finally being taken seriously by those in charge (obviously, I’m generalizing trends here). Throughout the film, various female characters respond to the heightened danger with a spectrum of responses, all filtered through the movement of the time. Richard Blaney’s friend Barb, for instance, is far too trusting. His ex-wife’s secretary, conversely, is a hammer who only sees nails. Surprisingly, the detective’s flighty spouse proves the best judge of character, positing Blaney’s innocence and suggesting the killer with common-sense logic.
For a 50-year-old film to give women this many voices and distinct personalities is praiseworthy. That said, the curmudgeonly feminists, along with many of the killer’s painfully oblivious victims, undercut Frenzy‘s thematic points. Ultimately, the good outweighs the bad, especially when the film tries to educate its audience on the signs of a true predator.