Frenzy (1972): Cleaning Up The Streets

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There we are gliding across the River Thames making our way toward the regal facade of Tower Bridge. Where’s one apt to find a more picturesque view of London? It’s definitely an auspicious return to his native land for the Master of Suspense.

Frenzy is without question a singular Hitchcock movie taking him back to his roots in the ’20s and ’30s — not just the days of Stage Fright (1950) or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) — something like The Lodger (1927) or Sabotage (1936) springs to mind.

Of course, it’s a different England. It’s gotten bitten by the bug. Certainly one of them was Swinging London and The Beatles, but even as the old world, the small-town world continues to pass away, there’s a sense this same progression is being documented in Frenzy.

The characters knock around town at all the pubs, street corner grocers, and everywhere else in Convent Gardens — what’s left is a remnant of Hitchcock’s boyhood world. The director’s father was a grocer, and thus, it’s a return to his roots in the most Hitcockian way possible: replete with murder.

A charismatic civil servant stands atop his soapbox with a rapt audience rallying the people they’ll soon clear the rivers and canals of society’s refuse — pollution will be banished — and right on cue, there’s an interruption from the masses. He gets preempted when an onlooker realizes something bobbing in the river: A woman’s body with a tie twisted around her neck.

Irony notwithstanding, it causes a surge through the crowds as gossip about the rash of necktie murders throughout town. In this way, the traditions of Jack the Ripper have been modernized and remain alive and well in contemporary London.

It’s not only these onlookers but acquaintances in pubs and any other random passerby who all have a callous, morbid curiosity about them — their conversations are overwhelmingly about the killer — and they come off darkly cynical.

The men from New Scotland Yard for their part are on the lookout for a sexual psychopath and a social misfit who might be easily categorized. Because what better way than to put criminals in a box to understand them?

Right about now we must introduce our protagonist, who also becomes the obvious target of all this foreshadowing. We are led to believe Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) an acerbic ex-RAF man who is the obvious culprit, although, for the time being, he’s unsuspected.

Still, after his ex-wife, who runs a new-fangled matrimonial agency is brutally murdered, unbeknownst to him, the forces of the plot are already out of his control. It’s as if the film is cruelly conspiring to ensnare him like all the most crippling of Hitchock’s man-on-the-run thrillers.

The police are looking for a fugitive with a tweed jacket with patches on the shoulders and elbows. It’s true all pieces of circumstantial evidence, motive, and eyewitness accounts point to Blaney. At every turn, he looks to be guilty and he does very little to help his case. A hotel bellman tips off the law, and then the testy bar owner (Bernard Cribbins) he used to work under accuses him further.

He does have several allies in the generally morose landscape. One is the local barmaid Babs (Barbara Massey), who stands by him in his innocence. Another is Johnny Porter, a buddy who gives Richard asylum, despite the chastisement of his suspicious wife.

Although Johnny feels like a far too convenient character — he implicates himself in a potential crime quite readily — but let’s not allow this to detract from the story. Dick does have one other friend: a local grocery worker named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him free handouts and tips at the races, among other things.

Frenzy is the most visually grisly and unnerving Hitchcock picture with a kind of in-your-face depiction of the murders. In this regard, it seems uncharacteristic of the man who often seemed the king of simulated gore and suggested horror.

The Shower Scene in Psycho is the unadulterated pinnacle of this. Where the intensity comes in the layering and total manipulation of all the formalistic elements. Frenzy is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum showing everything far more explicitly. It almost seems to lack the elegance of a Hitchcock picture — Blaney and Bob are earthier types than we’re used to.

Still, in one of Frenzy’s most telling shots, Hitch literally pulls the camera down the stairs out into the street just as we recognize that the dastardly deed is being done. It’s a second murder, and he makes us painfully aware of it without ever putting us inside the room. The same cannot be said in the other instances.

However, what truly sets the picture apart is how Hitchcock scrapes the dividing line between psychotic killer and despicable human being so close that nobody wins. Because Dick’s yet another man on the run framed by fate. The only difference is he’s a wholesale cad. Whether he’s innocent or not is immaterial here. He might be The Wrong Man, but he’s no Henry Fonda and he’s certainly not Cary Grant.

The movie wraps up briskly and abruptly. There’s hardly time to catch our breath though Hitch does put us out of our misery. Our “hero” is exonerated, and the police apprehend the criminal, all in a matter of seconds. All this might be true, but it doesn’t make the world any more livable. There’s still refuse in the waterways and rubbish in the streets. Not only is the nostalgic world Hithcock knew disappearing — this is sad in itself — it does feel like the world itself is a tawdry, cynical place.

To be fair, this might not be the director’s perspective — he holds a far more perverse sense of humor than mine — but when I look at this world it’s far from comforting. I’m a bit of an anglophile so there’s an appreciation in seeing familiar faces like Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) or Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who), but maybe I’ve been watching the wrong things.

Then again, Hitchcock always did suggest the dark desires and inclinations of society conveyed through this lens of macabre amusement. Now his depictions are simply sharper and more direct.

In other words, the legacies of Jack the Ripper or Jekyll & Hyde aren’t dead. Over time, we just got better at trying to dissect them, and we’ve become increasingly more numb to their depravity. Could it be presumed innocence no longer matters? We’re all on the run. We all go a little mad sometimes. We’re all guilty of something.

3.5/5 Stars

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