After losing his way in the late ’60s, when drab source material and poor health dulled his edge, Hollywood’s “master of suspense,” director Alfred Hitchcock, forcefully entered the ’70s with Frenzy. In addition to returning to familiar territory in terms of location and subject matter, Hitchcock toughened up his perverse storytelling by adding the R-rated elements of nudity and profanity. Yet while many of his old-Hollywood peers seemed desperate when they jumped onto the anything-goes ’70s bandwagon, Hitchcock’s movies had always been so infused with nastiness that the rough stuff suited his style.
Furthermore, Frenzy demonstrates the filmmaker’s unique ability to weave black humor into sordid material, so the picture has some very funny moments in addition to sequences of concentrated fright. The movie is too long, the performances are good but not great, and the storyline sometimes meanders, but given its many strengths, Frenzy would have been a wonderful swan song for Hitchcock’s epic career. Alas, the underwhelming Family Plot (1976) was his final film, a whimper following the roar of Frenzy.
Jon Finch, the intense leading man of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), stars in Frenzy as Richard Blaney, a London ne’er-do-well with a volcanic temper. Fired from his job as a bartender in the Covent Garden neighborhood, he accepts financial and moral support from his girlfriend (Anna Massey), his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), and his former military comrade (Barry Foster).
Meanwhile, police officers including the meticulous Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) are chasing the “Necktie Murderer,” a serial killer who rapes women and then strangles them to death with neckties. Based on a novel by Arthur La Bern and written for the screen by Anthony Shaffer (best known for his clever play/film Sleuth), Frenzy fits perfectly into the Hitchcock tradition, because as the story progresses, circumstances convince Oxford that Blaney is the Necktie Murderer. Viewers, however, learn the real identity of the criminal, and it’s wicked sport to watch Hitchcock move the characters around each other while it seems more and more likely the wrong man will get arrested.
Hitchcock and Shaffer enliven the picture by carefully fleshing out their characters. For instance, the running gag about Oxford’s home life—his wife’s experiments with gourmet cooking lead to a procession of elaborately repulsive meals—is wonderfully droll. Plus, in classic Hitchcock style, Frenzy features a handful of riveting suspense scenes, like a lengthy sequence in which the real Necktie Murderer nearly gets caught while trying to recover evidence from a truck that’s barreling down a highway. And, in an enjoyable grace note, Hitchcock uses his camera to explore the colorful streets of Covent Garden, the neighborhood in which his parents operated a shop when Hitchcock was a boy.