Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

07May11

Jon Finch (Richard Blaney), Barry Foster (Robert Rusk), Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford). Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: 18. Running time: 116 minutes.

So this is how Hitchcock films would feel if censorship had never existed and he’d got his way all along. Frenzy is a very odd experience to say the least. From the man who brought us nothing but suavity for so long with films drenched in etiquette and glamorous movie stars, albeit with equally dark undertones, to see him end his career with a street-level grubby London murder piece full of tits, naked corpses, mildly graphic strangulation scenes and even the odd use of the word ‘bastard’ is obviously to create the starkest of contrasts. The inevitable consequence, I suppose, of an artist working persistently through a total of six decades and pushing his field’s fences at every step.

Frenzy really is like a (less staggering) Psycho that let the dogs out. There’s no holding back at all here, in a film that’s otherwise typical of his career in its continued obsession with murder, mistaken identity and false conviction. A serial necktie strangler with a devious appetite for S&M manages to accidentally frame his friend, who he’s sick enough to allow to get caught and tried. We’re toyed with for quite a while on the identity of the strangler. Blaney (in the original novel ‘Blamey’… ) who turns out to be falsely accused, is shown to us at first as an ill-tempered man apparently overkeen to get himself alone with a woman. Of course that’s no reason to expect the man to be a sadistic nutter, but in the context of the film the inference is intentionally inevitable, only to turn out to be misplaced.

There’s a clear emphasis on closeness here. The characters in Frenzy are like Lisa Fremont in Rear Window, similarly obsessed with murder and the prospect of it happening on their doorstep even though for them it’s supposed to be reality. We can enjoy it from the comfort of our armchairs, as Hitch jolly well knows, but why aren’t his characters shit scared? Twice in key moments the camera is pulled away from the action and instead focuses on the street: during a murder and during the discovery of a body. So as a woman loses her life or another screams upon discovering the corpse, we watch people walk by oblivious to the juicy drama separated from them only by a wall, but of a kind quite different from the one separating us from them.

Most surprising of all, though, is the amount of humour that’s devilishly smuggled in. We’re so used to this type of material from Hitchcock by now, albeit without the visual vulgarities, that to make a blatant genre piece without acknowledging you’re doing so would be pretty tricky if you wish to avoid looking stale. It’s very hard to genuinely frighten us nowadays by merely showing a serial killer for the umpteenth time, but the common alternative of extracting a detective story out of the premise would similarly be way too run of the mill. Take that as a cue for Frenzy‘s ethos to instead be that murder in films can be funny, especially when disposing of the body involves a calamitous journey in the back of a lorry wrestling with sacks of potatoes, and attempting to snap a corpse’s fingers during rigor mortis to dislodge a key piece of evidence from its hands.

Perhaps censorship wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Don’t misunderstand me: Frenzy is an original, good film. Yet in no way at all did it make me wish that Psycho was modified to show flesh wounds in its infamous shower scene, nor did it make me wish James Stewart could say ‘holy shit’ in Rear Window. There’s something nice and ugly about Frenzy‘s openness. The liberation undoubtedly did wonders for film in the long run, but I’d still take classical Hollywood Hitchcock any day of the week.

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