Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 8, 2019)
With 1972’s Frenzy, we found Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate directorial effort. A serial killer known as the “Necktie Murderer” terrorizes London. He rapes women, strangles them and leaves a necktie around their gullets as a calling card.
From there we meet Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). A heavy drinker with a temper, the former RAF Squad Leader can’t keep a job, and he runs through money quickly. He even tries to hit up his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) for cash – and antagonizes her in the process, with seems to be par for the course in his personal relationships.
All of this makes it no surprise when Richard becomes a suspect in the Necktie Murderer investigation – especially since Brenda becomes one of the killer’s victims. The audience knows the culprit’s true identity, but to the film’s characters, Richard looks like the most likely party. The flick follows his efforts to clear his name.
After a couple of spy flicks, Hitchcock returned to psychological thrillers with Frenzy, ground he last visited in 1964’s lackluster Marnie. Since I wasn’t wild about that movie, I hoped that the serial killer adventure of Frenzy would prove more satisfying.
Does it fare better than Marnie? Yeah, but that doesn’t make it a match for Hitchcock’s better work.
That said, Frenzy stands out in a couple of ways. For one, it was Hitchcock’s first “R”-rated effort. Of course, it was only his second movie since that rating came into existence, so that doesn’t mean much, but Frenzy does show how censorship standards changed over the years, as it boasts some profanity as well as nudity.
Those factors led to its “R”, which comes as a surprise since one would assume an “R”-rated Hitchcock flick would get that designation from its gore. The latter element doesn’t seem much more graphic than what we would’ve found in earlier Hitchcock efforts, though, as there’s really very little violence in Frenzy.
The other semi-novel aspect of Frenzy comes from its setting, as Hitchcock hadn’t worked in his native England since 1950’s Stage Fright. This side of things seems less significant than the rating change, though.
It’s not like Hitch’s films suffered due to his absence from the UK. It’s vaguely cool that he went home near the end of his career, but I don’t find much greater meaning than that.
In truth, I can’t locate a lot about Frenzy that I could call great. While it entertains, it seems too inconsistent to truly satisfy.
Storytelling choices create the main problems. Early on, the film sets up all the reasons Richard could be the Necktie Murderer, and we even find some incredibly clumsy exposition via a pub conversation about the psychology of the serial killer. Everything we see in the flick’s early moments leads the audience to believe Richard did it.
Which is why the audience can likely figure out Richard didn’t do it, but that doesn’t mean I care for the decision to remove all doubt so quickly. I know that Hitchcock liked to let the audience know more than the film’s participants, as he felt that decision would increase tension.
The famous example relates to the use of a bomb. Hitch thought it would be more unsettling for the audience to know the bomb’s ticking and fret whether it would be stopped in time.
No such tension results here, though I’m not quite sure what aspect of Frenzy is supposed to result in tension. I guess we’re meant to worry about how Richard will prove his innocence, but we never really care, mostly due to the casual way Hitchcock tells the tale.
The film doesn’t even focus on Richard all that much of the time. We visit our nominal protagonist on occasion but we also see a lot of the killer and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), the lead investigator.
Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t develop any of these elements well. Only Brenda’s murder provides any doubt about the outcome, as the other killing we see is a foregone conclusion.
Bizarrely, the flick’s most dramatic scene comes from one in which the killer tries to remove an incriminating item from a corpse. We almost worry that he’ll get caught, even though we dislike the bastard and want to see him apprehended.
The flick’s best scenes do come from its two murders. Brenda’s demise presents a particularly unsettling rape sequence. As I mentioned, it’s not graphic beyond the display of some nudity, but Hitch still makes it quite disturbing, so it’s easily the movie’s most effective piece.
To his credit, Hitchcock goes exactly the other direction for the second murder, as in this one, we see absolutely nothing. The killer takes his prey into an apartment, which the camera never enters.
Instead, it slowly withdraws from the setting and wanders to the street outside the building. Since Brenda’s rape/murder set up the killer’s MO, we don’t need to see the actual crime, so this makes the subdued portrayal all the more impactful.
Outside of those segments, however, I can’t find much about Frenzy that impresses. It remains reasonably interesting, but the unfocused storytelling and odd choices means it suffers from a surprising lack of tension and intrigue. It never becomes a bad film, but it certainly does little to stand out as memorable.