03/13/2016 - Frenzy might be my favorite film by Alfred Hitchcock. I fully realize how little you may suddenly think of me, and I get it, but hear me out. A graphic and greasy exploit of a serial killer, set in dusty 1970s London, framed by the artful eye of Hitchcock and often playfully sympathizing more with the villain than the protagonists or even the victims, this beautifully shot film is the first to let the Master of Suspense show it all, and it's hard not to imagine his glee as he does so. I love many of Hitchcock's movies, but as I'm watching them I often ponder how terrifying they must have been back then. With Frenzy, it feels far more like a contemporary horror/thriller offering and, boy, it keeps up with the pack.
From a fantastic screenplay by Anthony Shaffer and produced by Hitchcock and William Hill, Frenzy the second-to-last entry in Hitch's long and incredibly successful career. This was his first film to show nudity, and to my knowledge, the first to show as much on-screen violence as it does. I'd be lying to suggest those elements don't affect my appreciation of the film, because of course they do; the whole film, though, feels like it's been drug through some dirty old warehouse, as if the busy streets of London wouldn't settle down even for a minute while the camera was rolling. There's a tangibility here, a reality that is nearly impossible to recreate on a soundstage.
These aren't new themes for Hitchcock: a man on the run for a crime he didn't commit, a killer with as much humanity as his victims - perhaps a victim himself, in some way. The victims are largely denied any introduction, save for the two kills we actually see happen; those two victims we do meet, we fall in love with, and by the time their poor necks are strangled we've already come to imagine them working things out by the end (Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Brenda Blaney, and Anna Massey as Babs Milligan). These victims are not helpless or frail, but rather strong, independent women committed to pursuing their own paths, of knowing what they want and whom they love. Real women, the women you know and want to know better. Truer still as victims, their loss is felt and their subsequent absence painfully noticed.
The protagonist is Richard Blaney (expertly played by Jon Finch), an unlucky ex-bartender and ex-RAF hero and current homeless and penniless man with a decent soul and a bit of pride he clings to more tightly than those last few bills in his wallet. Blaney isn't ever as much the focus of Frenzy as you'd think he would be; he's as much an every-man as you are, and in turn, less interesting than his lovers or his friends or even the detective pursuing him. And that's the twist, the fascinating accomplishment here: Blaney is ordinary in a very real way, forgettable enough to be a perfect proxy for the true villain, plain enough to allow the audience more intrigue while he's off-screen.
Ah, but that villain! Robert Rusk (the likable-but-creepy Barry Foster) is the friend you'd like to have but wouldn't really like to have over. He runs a produce stand, often munching some piece of fruit and bragging on his connections and insights. The sort of man who wears his womanizing like a badge (or a pin....), yet triggers a defense mechanism in the women we do see him meet. He's clever and friendly, keeping his truer (and more filthy) intentions buried deep and playing the part of "innocent-but-dapper bystander" to anyone but the audience. And, again, Hitchcock lets you in on the secret so early, you've hardly a chance to be surprised or frustrated. There's a quick "oh, it's him!" before things get violent and messy and the whole plot and takes this sudden turn down some unmarked dirt road. There are even times you'll find yourself rooting for the vile bastard, particularly while he's battling the clenched dead fist and stubborn pale foot of his latest victim in the back of a potato truck.
There's humor, fantastic dialogue, suspense and plenty of storytelling layers to Frenzy. Visually, as well, it wears the prestige of being a Hitchcock film; it's stunning to look at, every frame carefully composed and executed, every set, every extra, every prop perfectly staged. Hitchcock's fondness of moving the camera around, moving the audience into (or out of!) the action takes control. There are few directors whose films so frequently track away from a focus point, but Hitch pulls it off with flair and class and a passion for his craft that never distracts the viewer. He is a master of composition and color and contrast. I won't give away any visual surprises, they're just too delicious to see firsthand.
Frenzy belongs on a top-ten list, somewhere. I recommend seeing it, without question. It's first-class naughtiness; a stunning achievement for a master near the end of his career, pushing the envelope as he always had, winking coyly and giggling at his own twisted joke.