The penultimate film for Alfred Hitchcock is 1972’s Frenzy, a lurid picture that has the honour of being the first of the director’s outings to feature actual nudity. He may have hinted at sexuality before, but this time he means it. One might even say Hitch goes all-in with Frenzy, a flick that returns him to London for the first time since 1950’s Stage Fright.
Unlike Topaz and Torn Curtain, which dealt rather lamely with espionage, Frenzy is a sex murder movie that features a creepy killer and even depicts some of the crimes in R-rated fashion. This would give Hitchcock a lot of leeway, opening the door to some truly ugly scenes that don’t spare the niceties.
The film takes place in Covent Garden, a London district on the eastern edge of the West End. A killer is on the loose and it is a fruit merchant named Robert Rusk (Barry Foster). He goes about his nasty business, even as his pal Blaney (Jon Finch) is blamed for his crimes due to a pile of circumstantial evidence.
The suspicions largely mount because Rusk rapes and murders Blaney’s ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and girlfriend (Anna Massey). Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) is on the case and he’s not quite sure that it’s Blaney behind the killings, but he also has a responsibility to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Frenzy volleys around tracking several characters. Sometimes the audience is subjected to Oxford and his wife (Vivien Merchant) as they talk about the case and “enjoy” different gourmet experiments. Sometimes the audience follows Rusk as he rapes, murders and hunts around potato trucks. And sometimes the audience follows Blaney.
This constant switching of focal points is tough to track and it has a distancing effect in that Frenzy can seem an awful lot like a set of scenes. It’s not the most cohesive narrative in the Hitchcock canon, even if it does delightfully revel in the blackness.
Donald Spoto, the biographer, was no fan of Frenzy because he found it didn’t exhibit any “positive human feeling.” That may be the case – there’s a solid argument to be made against it – but it hardly matters. Plunging the darkness has always been on the perimeter of Hitchcock’s work and he’s often flirted with some truly awful material only to come out on the lighter side.
In this picture, there’s no such luck. Hitch shows victims and he shows them being victimized, especially during a dreadfully foul sequence of rape and murder involving Leigh-Hunt’s character. From the tie tightening around her red throat to the insistent exposure and covering-up of her breast, it’s tough stuff and appalling considering the filmmaker’s oeuvre thus far.
In the middle of this cruelty, Hitch returns to his “wrong man” theme again. This time, the innocent man is so damn unlikable that there’s a desire to see him as the killer. And the killer isn’t any better, especially after the audience has witnessed him sweating and crowing and thrusting atop a victim. There’s no escape from Frenzy’s awful men.
This is a film that begins with carnage and ends with it, showing two nude and demolished women. It’s not a pretty sequence and there are no icy blondes to slyly come along with a remark or a glance. It’s like being up a creek without a paddle and realizing that the creek is filled with bodies.
Perhaps today Hitchcock’s Frenzy would differ little in detestable ideas than an average episode of Law & Order: SVU and perhaps some of the shine is off the apple, so to speak. Its jumbled approach doesn’t help, but there’s still something satisfying in how adrift the master can make the audience feel during this movie.
If Hitchcock was messing with audiences in pictures like Psycho, he’s drowning them in blood in Frenzy. It’s not explicit by the standards of many films, even many films in the same era, but it is indeed an austere and hopeless experience that finally and aggressively observes the deeds of a psychopath.