Welcome back to another installment of Hitch on the Hump. I know it has been quite some time since the last appearance of the Master of Suspense, but now he’s back and I’m ready to resume my goal of reviewing all of his films. To kick the series off again, I wanted to revisit Frenzy(1972) which I’ve reviewed here some time back, but it didn’t get the HotH treatment. I enjoy many of his films immensely, but there’s something about Frenzy that intrigues me. I’ve re-watched the film a few times since then, and I even had the good fortune to find the book that the film was based on and give that a read. Frenzy was Hitchcock’s next to last film, and it saw the master trying hard to keep up with the times. Many people have criticized the director for the results, but I find the film to be darkly comic, perverse, and full of the great cinematic moments that Hitch was known for.
In the aftermath of his plodding 1969 Cuban Missile Crisis inspired film Topaz, Hitchcock sought a property that would fit more in the mold of a “Hitchcockian” film. He found what he was looking for in Arthur La Bern’s 1966 book Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. La Bern had a proven track record as another of his novels was the basis for the 1947 film It Always Rains on Sunday, and Goodbye Piccadilly contained a wrong man plot, a dark humor, and moments that must have reminded Hitchcock of both The Lodger and Psycho. To script the film, Hitchcock wanted a writer as English as the setting and material, and so he chose writer Anthony Schaffer best known for the play (and film) Sleuth. Hitchcock and Schaffer shaped the script from the book, excising some portions that worked on the page, but would just eat up time on screen. In the end, La Bern criticized the films both for its “appalling dialog” and overall distasteful nature. This is somewhat surprising considering that the most violent passages were lifted directly from the novel. Hitchcock took the novelists criticism in stride mentioning how much money the writer would make when, “They release the book with our title.” which of course the publishers did.
The film starts with a bartender, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) losing his job for nicking a drink finds himself broke and low on luck. He doesn’t even have enough money to put down on a 20 to 1 sure bet at the track that his friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) told him about. To make matters worse, he pays a visit to his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), now a prosperous London matchmaker, and makes a fool out of himself at her club when she invites him to dinner. To cap off his day, Dick has to resort to sleeping at a Salvation Army shelter as he has no place else to go. Just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, Brenda turns up dead, strangled to death by the Necktie Killer who has been stalking the London’s streets. Richard had been seen leaving her office shortly before she was discovered, and soon he becomes the prime suspect. He goes into hiding with the help of his girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey), but she is later found dead as well. Framed for murders he did not commit, Dick becomes a victim of circumstance while the real killer gets away, but will justice ever get served.
Unlike my synopsis, by the time the first murder is committed you know exact ally who has committed the crimes, and so for ease of talking about the film I will say now that the killer is Richard’s dapper, fruit salesman friend Bob Rusk. The character was supposed to be a “man about town” type, and originally Hitchcock had wanted Michael Caine for the role. Caine, however, proved to be too busy to take the part and instead Barry Foster was cast. Foster bears an obvious resemblance to Caine with his wavy hair and memorable face. He had also appeared in Twisted Nerve (1968), a British thriller with a Bernard Herrmann score that Hitchcock had screened while he was preparing for the film. Foster is absolutely why this film works. His Rusk is nearly the polar opposite of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. Where Norman was nervous and twitchy, Rusk is supremely confident, charming, devilish, and well dressed. (He is also impotent, but the movie doesn’t go as far into that as the novel.) In one of the most violent scenes that Hitch ever put to film, Foster plays the killer chillingly, but he is also charismatic enough that his trials to free a tiepin from the rigored hand of a dead woman in the back of a potato truck still play off as the darkest of comedy.
Less successful was Hitchcock’s casting of Jon Finch as Richard Blaney. In a way, he was everything that Blaney should have been, a dull, unassuming and uninteresting man who is drawn into a terrible set of circumstances. His performance may have suffered because before production even began Finch made the mistake of referring to Hitchcock as “past his prime” and inferred that the actors might have to improvise to improve the script. Hitch nearly recast the role, but instead he gave the actor no leeway instructing the script girl to prompt Finch sharply if he deviated from his written lines. The one time that he openly questioned a line on set production came to a halt until Anthony Schaffer could be found and consulted. The director even cut down on the close-ups of Finch, and the careful eye will notice how much more the camera likes Foster’s Rusk than the “hero” of the film. As Patrick McGilligan noted in his biography of Hitchcock, neither the novel or the film portrays Blaney as anything other than a self absorbed ass even after his ex-wife and girlfriend are killed. From start to finish, this is a film about the killer and the patsy that is framed for the crimes is merely there to propel the film along.
There are also some interesting supporting characters, and I want to take a moment to talk about them. Alec McCowen and Vivian Merchant have some of the most memorable scenes as Inspector Oxford and his wife. As the Inspector discusses the case over his wife’s horribly cooked epicurean adventures, the two banter in a believable and interesting way. The performances of both actors added an extra layer not evident in the novel, and they were a pure Hitchcock touch. Barbara Leigh-Hunt has little screen time, but I have to commend her for her bravery in filming the most violent of all Hitchcock scenes. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, fondly recalled Hitchcock’s sympathy toward the actress when she had to film the scene where her clothes were torn off and she was murdered. “He tried to spare the girl’s modesty because she didn’t like what she was doing, she didn’t like exposing her breasts.” The scene is powerful and harrowing, a credit to both the actress and the director daring to go further than he ever had.
I mentioned Gilbert Taylor before, but I haven’t had time to talk about how great this film looks. Taylor had served as cinematographer on films like Dr. Strangelove and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, and he captures both the essential Britishness of the film and some stunning tracking shots that were pure Hitchcock. One, in effect the reverse of the stairway shot in Psycho, follows Rusk and his victim up a stairway until they disappear into a room then the camera slowly, smoothly tracks down to the London street as the murder takes place off-screen. Not only is it a wonderful shot, it also illustrates something one of Hitchcock’s main themes, violent terrible acts happen right in the midst of everyday life. If there’s a weak portion of the film, then it must be the score by Ron Goodwin. While it is more than serviceable, it also made me long for long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann who had fallen out with the director. Knowing what Herrmann had done in the similarly themed Twisted Nerve, I can only speculate how interesting his work on this film would have been. Goodwin provides decent music for many of the set pieces, but none of it really sticks in my head or brought the film to another level.
Frenzy really was Hitchcock’s stab at staying relevant to modern cinemagoers, and it was also the first film of his to be tagged with an ‘R’ rating. Some people have criticized this film for trying to hard, but Hitchcock had never been one to stay behind the times. He was a progressive filmmaker, and it doesn’t surprise me that he would want to push the boundaries of sex and violence in his films. I find it to be a fascinating work, and while it may not quite stack up to some of his earlier work, it is a film I gravitate back to repeatedly. This was really the last film where Hitch was able to put all of himself into the production, and the fact that it retuned him to his native England for the first time in 20 years surely was revitalizing to the director. He had one more film in him, the underwhelming 1976 feature FamilyPlot, but by that time both he and his wife Alma were in ailing heath. Frenzy is the work of a master director expanding his limits, and to me, it is as important a film as he ever made.