Week 51: ‘Frenzy’ – 1972

After the debacle of ‘Topaz’ Alfred Hitchcock returns to London and makes a darned good thriller – the seamy and violent ‘Frenzy’.

That opening title is in white with increasing red vertical stripes, maybe resembling a tie – over a long helicopter shot along the Thames towards Tower Bridge. We then dissolve to an exterior of County Hall for the opening river cleaning speech – I love seeing familiar parts of London (or anywhere) snap shotted back in time*. Just as the full of himself speechifier hits the words ‘foreign bodies’ so one is spotted washed up in the muddy effluent of the Thames.

The body is one in a string of ‘neck tie murders’ that have been occurring around London, a serial killer on the loose (it will transpire to be the on the surface jovial market trader Bob Rusk played by Barry Foster). The film then becomes a wrong guy on the run kind of deal with the suspicion  immediately directed at Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) who we see tying his own tie and then having a double brandy first thing in the morning (that’ll put hair on your earlobes). He’s a grumpy bastard from the outset and has a very real aura of danger about him. He gets sacked immediately by the landlord (Felix Forsythe, played by the fantastic Bernard Cribbins – I love Bernard Cribbins) and flounces out of his job and onto the streets of Covent Garden. This is great to see also, pictures of a bygone time of flower stalls and the busy market – and not the recreated unnaturalism of ‘My Fair Lady’. Blaney is swift to anger and any little thing trips him off – again to misdirect the audience.

There’s a refreshing (if, from a modern standpoint very un-PC) attitude to the murders, the two lawyers in the pub (everyone seems to drink a bucket load in 1972) stating that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ after the barmaid asks whether the neck tie victims were raped before being murdered.

They also comment that the killings are ‘good for the tourist trade’ (!) as Blaney gets mildly shirty at the barman and asks for a triple brandy (my God – he’s already had two of them and at least one other short and then this triple and it must not even be midday. I’d be absolutely shedded).

Blaney is broadly drawn, a bit too much I think. He’s so out of sorts and bad tempered it’s a bit ridiculous – horses annoy him, grapes get trampled, his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt playing Brenda Blaney) gets a right ear bashing (and she seems pretty meek and mild to me) and then he ends up crushing a brandy glass with his bare hands (then giving the kindly old waitress a lug hole full for trying to help). I actually quite like him but, my word, is he miserable.

The murder of Brenda by the absolutely hatstand Rusk is outstanding. Hitchcock’s takes advantage of more relaxed censorship laws and produces a really shocking rape and killing, it goes on for ages (see ‘Torn Curtain’s farmhouse mayhem) and is very explicit.

Bob is mad as a mad thing, his repeated mantra of ‘lovely’ spurring him along on his crazed sexual/guilt psycho trip. In this one sequence he propels himself firmly into the top five of Hitchcock nutters – all sweaty brow and dodgy ginger barnet, then coolly waltzing off with Brenda’s half eaten apple, her Edenesque dating agency idyll shattered. There is a brief freezeframe on his victim’s eyes just before she gives up the ghost and this goes hand in hand with a marvelously effective and strongly edited scene. Of course, unlucky old Blaney is spotted leaving the building shortly afterwards, so you can see where this is headed.

Brenda’s secretary Miss Barling (Jean Marsh) is really good, supplying a pin sharp accurate description of Blaney to the cops: ‘I’ve learnt to keep a sharp eye on men’ she says curtly, as the two detectives shift nervously. There’s an undercurrent of implied pervdom throughout the film, the suggestion that all of us (men in particular) are bubbling under with suppressed madness of some description – Rusk just lets his out of the Pandora’s box occasionally.

There’s a nice, almost Carry On, feel to the hotel scene as Blaney and Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) check in for some illicit after hours exercise. The porter (Jimmy Gardner) and the hotelier Gladys (Elsie Randolph) shocked that they may be housing a killer. ‘Sometimes just thinking about the lust of men makes you want to heave’ says the porter in a very Charles Hawtry style as he calls the police, who literally screech up within a minute. Blaney seeks refuge with an old RAF buddy (Johnny Porter, Clive Swift) and his wife (Hetty – played by the wonderful Billie Whitelaw) in a rather convenient chance meeting in a park – a bizarre camera zoom to their flat from below. Also handy is that Johnny is opening a British pub in Paris and offers the two of them jobs and they arrange to slip away the following day. Blaney’s gone from out of work and wanted by the rozzers to having a new career in a new country in just a few minutes, pretty good going Dick. Whitelaw is always good and here is no exception – she’s having no truck with harbouring a potential killer and stalks out after delivering a great speech. ‘I’m going shopping’ she says, good on yer, Billie. I love the way when she’s questioning Blaney she just sits fixedly on the sofa, her arms stretched to each side, unmoving and uncompromising.

There’s an entertaining little side story involving Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) whose wife is taking a gourmet cooking course and insists on experimenting on her poor husband (‘soupe de poissons’/ ‘quail with grapes’). Seeking culinary refuge at work, Oxford tucks  into a full English with great gusto, chomping vigorously whilst chatting and taking phone calls about the case. He’s good at eating and acting too – no mean feat (see ‘To Catch a Thief’s picnic scene). ‘Discretion is not traditionally the strong suit of the psychopath’ says Oxford as he and his wife chat amiably of murder over their inedible fodder.

Babs walks out of her pub job, dissing Forsythe to boot, and there’s a very unusual silent few seconds as she stands outside the pub as if she is realizing what she has just done. This is broken by the smooth talking Rusk (softly: ‘got a place to stay?’) who offers her a room for the night. Hitchcock pulls out a bravura camera track/dolly as the two chat through the market. Of course his intentions are way away from honorable and he takes advantage of the potato delivery he has heard about to finish her off and stuff her in the spuds. Hitchcock handles this second murder with admirable restraint. After the savagery of the bumping off of Brenda the camera just leaves Rusk to it (‘you’re my type of woman’ is his refrain) as it snakes down the staircase and out to the busy Covent Garden street filled with oblivious workers and passers by.

Hitchcock magic strikes in the dispatching of Babs. Rusk dumps her in the potato lorry and then realizes she’s had the presence of mind to snatch his distinctive ‘R’ tiepin. In a frenzy (hello!) he gets in the back and there’s a marvellous sequence which plays all but dialogue free of him having to search through potato sacks to find her and then put up with a dead foot pushing into his face before having to literally break her fingers to prise them open and retrieve the vital piece of evidence. It’s wince inducing and desperate and funny – and he gets away with it to kill another day.

The film becomes a classic wrong man thriller, Blaney yanked in by the cops and interrogated. It’s all good stuff, pacey and well put together and with an energy and dynamism that was sorely lacking in much of ‘Torn Curtain’ and virtually the whole of ‘Topaz’. The trial of Blaney is Hitchcock minimal, shot from outside the room we only hear the highlights when the courtroom door is opened – neat and effective and another instance of inventive sound use. A really dynamic shot from above is employed as Blaney is locked up, emphasizing the minute scale of his prison cell. But all is not lost. In a development that reminded me of Herbert Marshall’s lawyer Sir John not believing the verdict in ‘Murder!’, C.I. Oxford sits in the courtroom alone and hears echoes of Blaney ranting about Rusk – it’s enough to get him started on his own investigation…

It’s all very good, Oxford going to see Miss Barling again (who comes out with the great line ‘men like this leave no stone unturned in their search for their disgusting gratifications’) and then conferring with his wise old wife who states it’s obviously Rusk who’s guilty (this summised over serving up a grand silver service containing ‘pied du porc’ in some kind of dodgy sauce – Oxford then making a right meal of attempting to eat the porky feet).

Mrs. Oxford is great, snapping a breadstick when her husband relates how Rusk broke the victim’s fingers.

This scene is really lovely, going behind the curtain of the detective as he relates how Rusk went to a truck stop where Oxford wistfully tells her ‘they serve humble food like bacon and egg sandwiches, sausages and mashed potatoes and cups of tea and coffee’.

The pacey and exciting denouement sees Blaney slipping out from his hospital bed to go and nobble Rusk – unaware that he is actually going to be proven innocent the following day. Ron Goodwin’s music here is good – almost cantering along in a horselike manner as the sequence gains momentum. Blaney unwittingly beats a dead girl who is in Rusk’s bed, Oxford then coming in, followed by Rusk lugging a massive chest to dispose of her. ‘Mr Rusk. You’re not wearing your tie’ are the last words of the picture, delivered dead pan by Oxford.

‘Frenzy’ is the saving grace in the latter years of Alfred Hitchcock. Without it his career could be considered to have sadly declined as his age grew – but with it he delivers a fitting testament to his genius. Bearing in mind he was in his early seventies at the time, it is directed with vim and vigour and a restless energy that hadn’t been seen in his work since ‘Marnie’, nearly a decade before. It’s a cracking picture, very different in its setting (obviously) and very harsh in its violence. The characters are good, the acting convincing and the little side bits (in particular the scenes with Mrs. Oxford’s cooking innovations and the two gossipy hoteliers) are fun and diverting.

Miscellaneous notes

*Hitchcock unusually makes two cameos in ‘Frenzy’, both in these opening scenes. He’s black bowlered about 3 minutes in and within a minute he’s there again – trying to get a look at the floater. Mrs. Rusk (the murderer’s mum) who pops her head out of the window about 13’38” in looks like Hitchcock in drag – but is actually played by Rita Webb. Oh, well.

‘Frenzy’ reminded me a bit of certain other pictures made by US based directors who come to the UK: Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ and John Landis’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’ all have a kind of suspicion at the weirdness of British life and people. Hitchcock of course was British but it does share with these other films a feel of looking with curiosity at the quirky rituals of this country.

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