Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay:Anthony Shaffer (based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, FarewellLeicester Square) by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Jon Finch (Richard Blaney), Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford), Barry Foster(Robert Rusk), Billie Whitelaw (Hetty Porter), Anna Massey (Babs Milligan), BarbaraLeigh-Hunt (Brenda Blaney), Bernard Cribbins (Felix Forsythe), Vivien Merchant (Mrs.Oxford)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1972
Country: UK
Frenzy Poster

Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy, marked his first return to Englandafter more than 20 years of filmmaking in Hollywood. In many ways, Frenzy wasa return to Hitchcock's roots, not only his national roots, but the cinematic roots that hadmade him one of the most renowned filmmakers, both critically and commercially, in cinemahistory. Much like Psycho (1960), Frenzy was a study in aberrantsexuality and murder, but it also prominently featured one of Hitch's favorite themes, thewrongly accused man on the run, which had fueled some of his best films, includingThe 39 Steps (1935), The Wrong Man (1956), and North byNorthwest (1959).

But, at the same time, Frenzy was a modern film very much in keeping with theexpanded freedom and increasing violence of filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s.While many of Hitchcock's films were notable for their explicit sadism, his visual ingenuityand calculated restraint always made you think you saw more than was actually there, theshower murder in Psycho, of course, being the primary example. But, withFrenzy, Hitchcock, at the age of 72 and having directed 56 films, was finallyallowed to thoroughly indulge his darkest instincts, and the result was an often gruesomeand violent, but nonetheless engrossing, mystery thriller mixed with moments of deliciousblack comedy.

Hitchcock's mixture of humor and violence is immediately apparent in the opening scene,which depicts a naked, dead body floating ashore on the Thames River as a governmentofficial proudly declares to a large audience that the days of pollution are over. It turns outthe body is another victim of the Necktie Murderer, a serial killer who rapes and strangleswomen with his necktie and has London in a grip of morbidly fascinated terror (Hitchcockwas no dummy--he knew "normal" people were enthralled by the perverse).

The screenplay, which was written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The WickerMan) from a novel by Arthur La Bern, is an adroit mixture of the expected and theunexpected. Like Vertigo (1958), the mystery is solved fairly early on; that is, theidentity of the Necktie Murderer is unveiled within the first 20 minutes. Thus,Frenzy is not a whodunit, but rather a suspense story about whether or not a manwho is wrongly accused of the murders will prove his innocence, even though all evidencepoints to his guilt.

Shaffer complicates matters by presenting us with a wrongly accused man who is notparticularly appealing. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is certainly no murderer, but he is anill-tempered man prone to too much drinking and occasional theft. One wonders what hisgirlfriend, Babs (Anna Massey), sees in him, and it's not hard to see why his ex-wife,Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), divorced him.

Nevertheless, Hitchcock successfully manipulates the audience with his skilled direction andinnate sense of what jangles the nerves. He stages several notable sequences that get yourheart pounding with tension, most notably a scene in which the killer struggles in the back ofa potato truck while trying to extract an incriminating piece of evidence from the hand of oneof his victims. It's a brilliantly sustained piece of suspense, tight and claustrophobic, madeall the more daring in true Hitchcockian fashion in asking us to identify with the pursuits of asadistic criminal. Hitchcock plays the moment for all it's worth, raising the grotesquerie ofthe scene to the level of the absurd, thus making what would otherwise be simply morbidquite funny (this is never so intense as when the killer is literally breaking the corpse'srigor-mortis-prone fingers in order to retrieve the evidence).

Many critics and audience members were appalled by the explicit violence inFrenzy, especially the film's one murder scene, which involves the attempted rapeand then strangulation of a major character. Even today, almost 30 years after the film'sinitial theatrical release, this scene is still unnerving and difficult to watch because Hitchcockrefuses to back away. He draws out the violence in real time, centering the camera's attentionon the difficulty and ugliness of the act.

Many felt that Hitch had gone too far, whether he was simply trying to keep up with times orif he was indulging his own personal demons on film. Regardless, the scene is one to beadmired for its technical audacity, as well as for what it has to say about the nature ofviolence and our willingness to indulge in watching it as entertainment. Hitchcock alwaysknew exactly what he was doing, and his reasons for including such a graphic scene areprobably complex and contradictory, much like the artist himself. As Hitchcock biographerDonald Spoto wrote, Frenzy itself was "at once a concession to modern audiences'expectations and a more personal self-disclosure of the director's angriest and most violentdesires."

The great contrast to that particular sequence is a second murder that is explicitly not shown.Instead, Hitchcock teases us with a slow tracking shot as the killer and his victim (anotherprominent character) walk up the stairs to the killer's flat. The killer makes a statement thatwe recognize from the first murder, thus making clear exactly what will come next. Then, ashe closes the door behind them, the camera silently moves back down the stairs, out the maindoor of the apartment building, and across to the other side of the street. It's a horrificmoment in which camera movement and the lingering memories of the graphically depictedfirst murder create a moment of violence in which nothing is shown. It is easilyone of Hitchcock's most creative and deviously emotional moments as a director.

Although not one of his undisputed masterpieces, Frenzy was an importantmoment in Hitchcock's career. After the disappointing responses (critically andcommercially) to Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), andTopaz (1969), many were beginning to question whether Hitch still had it in him.Frenzy was a reminder that Hitchcock was still a veritable film artist and entertainerwho could compete with the best. Even though it hearkened back to his earlier work,Frenzy was hardly a conservative film, as Hitchcock took a great many risksstylistically and thematically. It is proof that, even at the very end of his career, he was stillcapable of innovation while holding strong to the themes and preoccupations that hadsustained his legendary career for more than 50 years.

Frenzy is available either individually (SRP$29.98) or as part of the Best of Hitchcock #2 DVD box set (SRP $174.98),which includes seven feature films and four episodes of the TV series Alfred HitchcockPresents.
AudioDolby 2.0 Monaural
SupplementsThe Story of Frenzy: 45-minute documentary
Production photographs
Original theatrical trailer
Production notes
Cast and filmmaker filmographies

Frenzy is presented in a new widescreen (1.85:1)anamorphic transfer that looks fabulous. There is some occasional dirt and minor speckling,but overall the image looks crisp and clean. Taking place mostly in Covent Garden amid fruitand vegetable stands, Frenzy is a colorful film with a great deal of location detail(rare for a Hitchcock film, considering that he much preferred filming in the studio). Thetransfer does justice to the film's color scheme, and the print does not look to have fadedmuch at all in the last 30 years. Detail level is generally good and the blacks remain solidthroughout, without only tiny hints of grain.

The Dolby monaural soundtrack sounds very goodthroughout. British composer Ron Goodwin's attention-grabbing orchestral score soundsdeep and clear, as do some of the more grisly sound effects involving strangulation andbreaking bones. Some of the heavy British accents are a bit hard to decipher at times forAmerican audiences, but otherwise all the dialogue is clear and understandable.

The Story of Frenzy, Laurent Bouzereau's45-documentary retrospective, is an excellent overview of the making of the film. Thedocumentary features a number of recent interviews with those involved with the film,including stars Jon Finch, Barry Foster, and Anna Massey, and screenwriter AnthonyShaffer, as well as Hitch's daughter Pat Hitchcock O'Connell and director PeterBogdanovich, who knew Hitch personally and interviewed him numerous times. It alsoincludes some rare behind-the-scenes photography of Hitchcock at work, lots of productionstills, and a brief glimpse of the opening credits with the Henry Mancini score that Hitchcockdiscarded because he wanted a more pop-oriented score, and Mancini's sounded too muchlike Bernard Herrmann's work.

In addition to the documentary, this disc includes more than 100 production photographs.About half of these are of Hitchcock, but film buffs will be delighted by the inclusion ofrecently discovered images from three deleted scenes (one wonders what ever happened tothe scenes themselves). The disc also includes a good set of production notes and cast andcrew filmographies. The original theatrical trailer (which is presented in full-frame) is adelightfully morbid piece of work, opening with Hitchcock's apparently dead body floatingdown the Thames (this was originally supposed to be his cameo in the movie) andproceeding, ala the infamous Psycho trailer, with a personally guided tour byHitchcock of the film's most important locations.

©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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