Frenzy Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Frenzy

Alfred Hitchcock’s return to London, Frenzy is a slightly curious but exceptionally gripping thriller which combines some daring technique, black comedy and brutal violence with bizarrely old fashioned dialogue and plot twists. Long underrated for its alleged “misogyny” (which is a critical red-herring), it has emerged as one of Hitchcock’s most interesting films.

Basically, we have a classic “wrong man” set-up here. The “Necktie Murderer” is on the loose in London and all the clues are pointing towards decidedly seedy ex-Squadron Leader Richard Blaney (Finch). His ex-wife is brutally raped and murdered and he is seen leaving the premises by her repressed secretary. Unable to prove his innocence, he goes on the run with his trusting girlfriend Babs (Massey) and enlists the help of his old friend, Covent Garden market wide boy Bob Rusk (Foster). Inspector Oxford (McCowen) is convinced of Blaney’s guilt until he begins to notice, while eating his wife’s appalling attempts at gourmet cooking, that things don’t quite add up.

Nothing new in this plot line which, as Truffaut once noted, Hitchcock used time and again during his career. However, a number of things make it come up surprisingly fresh. Most notable is the surprisingly graphic violence in one horrible and virtually unwatchable scene where Blaney’s wife is raped and murdered. This is as explicitly nasty as Hitchcock ever got – although his restraint in earlier films probably had more to do with censorship than personal taste if his plans for “No Bail For The Judge” and “Kaleidoscope Frenzy” are a reliable guide – and it is not an easy scene to watch but it does serve a vital purpose in the film since, after this, Hitch doesn’t need to portray the killings at all. Some critics have described the scene as misogynistic and titillating, but I think they are entirely mistaken. The sheer horror of Brenda Blaney’s plight is depicted without any sexual excitement; rather it’s truly pitiable as she desperately recites the 23rd Psalm and attempts to cover her breasts after the killer has ripped her clothes. Tania Modilewski in her groundbreaking study “The Women Who Knew Too Much” suggests that while the scene is disturbing, it is perhaps entirely right that a rape scene should be horrible and brutal. At no stage is it suggested that Brenda Blaney either enjoys or deserves her plight. The scene also serves a vital purpose in that it removes the need for another murder to be shown in the same detail. Thus, Hitchcock can execute one of the finest shots of his career as, an hour into the film, a key character is killed off-screen while the camera retreats backwards down the stairs from the scene of the crime. Simply gorgeous filmmaking this, matched by an earlier moment when we are taken right into a character’s head with the unconventional use of silence. It’s quite startling and hugely rewarding to see Hitch, a fifty year veteran of the industry, still experimenting in his penultimate film. Perhaps the superficially old-fashioned feel and tone of the film in places is what allowed him to feel safe to experiment with his craft.

The performances, from a host of familiar British character actors, are generally very good, certainly a huge improvement on the four waxworks masquerading as stars in Topaz. Barry Foster is marvellous as Blaney’s best mate, locquacious market trader Bob Rusk, and Anna Massey is genuinely touching as the naive girlfriend Babs. Best of all, however, is Alec McCowen as Inspector Oxford, a good old-fashioned copper right down to the ironic final line. The scenes between him and his gourmet wife (Vivien Merchant) are very funny, extending the films obsession with food as far as it will go. Loads of recognisable faces in the supporting cast, including Mr Bucket himself, Clive Swift, landed with a wife from hell played by Billie Whitelaw who would send any man rushing back into the arms of Hyacinth. We even get Bernard Cribbins as a sleazy pub landlord, so what more could you want ? Unfortunately, there is one weak link here, namely Jon Finch, whose colourless performance is clearly a reflection of Hitchcock’s boredom with the character. Apparently, he disliked working on the film, about which more later.

In terms of Hitchcock’s work, it has for too long been undervalued when it should be at the centre of discussions of his post-Vertigo films. What we have here, it seems to me, is the clearest expression of Hitch’s misanthropic despair, that aching for something finer that infuses his 1958 film of a doomed love affair and which was further seen in Marnie and even in parts of Psycho. The subtext becomes the main theme here. There is little hope in this film, reflecting a world which is irrevocably fallen. Women are harridans or naive lambs for the slaughter, while the men are either brutes (including the falsely accused hero who, it is implied, is a wife-beater), complacent misogynists telling rape jokes over the bar, or violent sexual psychopaths. The only positive major characters are the unfortunate Babs and the Oxfords – and even they seem to be stuck in a sterile marriage of convenience. Somehow the world here seems to be at the end of its tether, human beings reduced to the same level as food and waste, abandoned, the rape scene suggests, by God. In the first scene, a dead body is found floating in the river as a speaker rails against the pollution of the Thames and later, in an audaciously funny scene, a corpse is hidden in a sack of food as the murderer tries desperately to recover an incriminating item lost during the killing. Within the comforting structure of a quaint thriller, Hitchcock makes his ultimate comment on the absurd futility of living, turning the ironic despair of the last scene of Topaz into the explicit subject of Frenzy. His so-called misogyny in this film is actually a deep-seated disgust at human beings; the men are no more attractive or sympathetic than the women.

The plot is carefully structured, perhaps a little too deliberately, by Anthony Shaffer – author of both Sleuth and The Wicker Man – and there is some good dialogue to be found, alongside some banal expository verbiage that he should be ashamed of. Gil Taylor’s cinematography varies from the functional – the sets look like sets – to the excellent; the careful lighting of the night scene on the potato truck is superb. Taylor was a legend in the industry, having worked with Kubrick and Hitchcock and then gone on to light Star Wars. Ron Goodwin’s music has a nice nostalgic feel to it, although the opening theme sounds a bit too close to “London Pride” for comfort. But, it’s Hitchcock’s film and, after the disappointment of his last two films, he came home; not only to London, but also to artistic greatness.

The Disc

Universal have released Frenzy as part of their Alfred Hitchcock Collection and it’s a respectable enough disc, although far from the best of the series.

The picture quality is generally very pleasing. As someone familiar with TV showings of the film, I’m used to a somewhat murky picture on this film. Thankfully, Universal seem to have cleaned it up to some extent and it’s generally crisp and clear. It lacks detail in places and generally has a dated feel to it, but the anamorphic 1.85:1 image is the best I’ve seen of the film on home video. Some crackling in places, however, a small amount of artifacting and a general grainy quality bring down the overall mark.

The soundtrack is in mono, as was the original film. Nothing wrong with it at all, and the music sounds particularly good over the opening credits.

The main extra feature is the 45 minute documentary “The Story of Frenzy”, a typically impressive Laurent Bouzereau production. There are plenty of interviews here, although surprisingly only three members of the cast feature, and some incisive critical comments from Peter Bogdanovich. However, what makes this invaluable is the inclusion of on-set footage from 1971 featuring Hitch at work, which is totally fascinating.

We also get the original theatrical trailer, which is a classic Hitchcock bit of fun. It begins with him floating in the Thames and then goes onto Covent Garden where he discovers “the fruits of evil and the horror of vegetables” and discovers unpleasant secrets lurking inside a sack of potatoes.

The production photographs and poster gallery are pleasant enough, but a slog to navigate through, and the production notes and biographies are very brief. There is a weblink to the Universal website and mailing list. The menus are static, but backed by the theme music from the film. You also get, before the film, a rather nice, if rather long, compilation of scenes from the Hitchcock collection. There are 18 chapter stops.

Frenzy is a riveting thriller and certainly in my list of Hitchcock’s ten best. Fans will be very happy with this disc, which is the best presentation of the film currently available. Please note that any UK version will no doubt be the same slightly cut version currently available on VHS and should be spurned unless you hear otherwise. It’s a shame there isn’t a commentary track on the disc since all the principles are still alive. However, on the whole, this lives up to the standard set by the other discs in the collection.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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