By the time Frenzy was released in 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was in something of a slump. While Marnie had its admirers, most found it a slipshod exercise in psychobabble. Topaz and Torn Curtain were both drab, anemic espionage thrillers, sorely lacking the master’s suspense-making skills and celebrated set pieces. In that context, Frenzy was widely seen as a return to form, albeit one that took full advantage of the era’s loosening of censorship restrictions. Nearly three decades later, the verdict is less clear. While Frenzy shares much in common with prime Hitchcock, the film falls short of the director’s best work in several important respects.
The story is classic Hitchcock – perhaps too much so. A series of bizarre murders has London in a tizzy. The victims – all women – are turning up naked, raped and strangled by neckties. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) has his own troubles – he’s just been fired from his job as barman at the Globe Public House, which also served as his living quarters. After a prickly meal with his ex-wife, Blaney spends the night in the Salvation Army, where he discovers a handful of cash the former Mrs. Blaney has slipped into his pocket on the sly. When he tries to return the money the next day, his ex doesn’t answer the door. Unbeknownst to him, this is because she has become the latest victim of the serial rapist/murderer. And now Blaney has become the prime suspect.
In other words, it’s one of the many Hitchcock works where the phrase "You’ve got the wrong guy!" is bound to make an appearance. But the one movie in the director’s canon to which Frenzy bears the most resemblance is his 1960 masterpiece, Psycho. Apart from the obvious – the one word pulp-shock title, the sexually twisted serial killer – the two films share certain peculiarities in terms of narrative structure and approach to exposition. Psycho, of course, begins as the story of Marion Crane, only to switch gears after the infamous shower murder and follow her killer, Norman Bates. At the end of the film, to the satisfaction of almost no one, a psychiatrist explains away Norman’s demons in ploddingly conventional terms. Though this expository coda has long been regarded as the weakest portion of Psycho, Hitchcock was apparently immune to the criticism – at least judging from Frenzy, which is top-heavy with just these sorts of scenes. Particularly unsuccessful is a recurring bit wherein the police inspector in charge of the necktie strangling case reiterates everything we’ve already seen for ourselves for the benefit of his wife. The redundancy of these scenes is not aided by the dubious comedy element Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer inject: the wife is taking a French cooking class and serves the inspector a series of increasingly inedible meals. But while they don’t produce much in the way of laughter, these cooking references do tie the scenes into Frenzy‘s overall food motif.
The inspector notes that the murderer will strike "when his appetite is whetted again." Indeed, the true killer turns out to be Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a friend of Blaney’s who owns a vegetable market and is often glimpsed gnawing on a piece of fruit. Food references abound, from the last meal Blaney shares with his ex-wife to the potato truck where Bob disposes of one of his victims. Indeed, the food motif is so overt one is tempted to think it has been grafted in place by Hitchcock for no better reason than to spark further discussion of himself as an auteur in film schools and scholarly journals. This is idle speculation, perhaps, but it may also explain some of the other artsy touches in Frenzy – some of which are effective and others of which are DOA.
For example, Hitchcock repeatedly uses a distancing technique whereby the audience is cut off from crucial information by the closing of a door or window. In the most effective of these, Bob leads a potential victim into his apartment and shuts the door. The camera then tracks back from the closed door, down the winding staircase, then outside, past workers and passersby, through traffic, to the other side of the street. (This appears to be all one shot, though sharp-eyed viewers will notice a jump cut as a man carrying a sack of potatoes passes through frame.) The sequence is a show-off move, of course, but also an ingenious way of depicting the theme of depravity going on right below the surface of everyday life. It’s a perfect melding of technique and substance, even as it points the way towards the rabbit hole that Hitchcock worshipper Brian DePalma would disappear into years later, with his increasingly elaborate and meaningless tracking shots.
There are other pleasures to be found here as well. The often witty script by Anthony Shaffer is chockablock with English slang, from "Bob’s your uncle" to "Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it." Indeed, Frenzy was Hitchcock’s most British film in decades at the time of its release. The working class atmosphere of the vegetable market and surrounding areas is depicted with a tactile vividness in stark contrast to the phony, stagebound feel that marred much of the director’s later work.
Hitchcock is working against his strengths, however, when he tinkers with the narrative structure in ways that deliberately undermine suspense. He prematurely reveals the identity of the true killer, thus sapping any tension from a later scene where Blaney is hiding out with his girlfriend in a hotel room, she steps into the bathroom, and a newspaper is slid under the door with a headline implicating Blaney in the murders. And the above mentioned tracking shot denying us a peek of the rapist/killer at work is almost too coy, considering the fact that we have already seen an earlier victim’s demise played out in excruciating detail. In fact, Frenzy contains the most overtly brutal onscreen action in any Hitchcock film. Two of the strongest sequences in the movie are Bob’s murder of Blaney’s ex-wife (a protracted strangling complete with vigorous thrusting movements and the repeated whispery mantra "lovely…lovely…") and his disposal of the girlfriend’s corpse (which includes breaking her fingers after rigor mortis has set in, in order to retrieve a telltale lapel pin). The deft mixture of sickening violence and pitch black humor in these two scenes prefigures a much darker and messier conclusion than we actually get. At the end of Psycho, no explanation could adequately summarize the complex psychosis of Norman Bates. Bob Rusk, on the other hand, is finally just a pervert; no more interesting than your run-of-the-mill movie serial killer.