There are few film directors who have a reputation as stellar as Alfred Hitchcock. Many regard him as perhaps the greatest director who ever lived. Indeed, In 2012, Sight and Sound’s film professionals poll ranked his 1958 movie Vertigo as the best movie ever made, beating out Citizen Kanewhich had topped the poll for 50 years.
Over half a century later, Hitchcock’s movies are often still watched and discussed by film buffs – movies like Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and of course Vertigo. However, one movie that often gets overlooked today is Frenzy (1972).
Frenzy is a horror-thriller that follows Richard Blaney (played by Jon Finch), a down-on-his-luck war veteran in 1970s London. When a serial killer nicknamed the Necktie Strangler kills Richard’s ex-wife, he becomes the police’s main suspect. When Frenzy first came out, it was a huge success but is largely forgotten today.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of its release, and so it’s the perfect time to reconsider this thriller masterpiece.
Why Frenzy Is Underrated
Frenzy was one of Hitchcock’s last movies, made during a period of radical change – change in the film industry, in the world at large, and in his own life. Hitchcock was 72 years old, nearing the end of his career, and by 1972 he was in many ways a relic of an older time. By 1960, the major film studios in the United States were nearing economic collapse because television was stealing their audience. Out of desperation, they were throwing their money at all kinds of new, exciting, and risky movies in attempts to lure audiences out of the living room. As a result, the 1960s and early 1970s were one of the most experimental and unique periods in American film history. Mainstream movie theaters were showing European-influenced art films like The Graduate (1967), gory horror films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), blaxploitation films like Shaft (1971), and even hardcore adult films like Deep Throat (1972).
By 1972, Hitchcock was a relic of old Hollywood. And so when he made Frenzy, it did not quite fit in. The movie is dripping with classic Hitchcock touches; it feels like a much older movie. But at the same time, he was grappling with the new world. This was the time of Night of the Living Deadof The Last House on the Left (1972), and audiences needed something more. So Frenzy is darker, crueler, gorier, and more shocking than the Hitchcock we’re familiar with. There’s murder, blood, and naked women, things that would have gotten the film banned in the 1950s.
Some, like film critic Jason Zinoman in his book Shock Valueinterpret Frenzy as a woefully outdated movie for its time. The movie is caught between two eras. It’s not an old Hollywood film of the 1950s, and yet it’s also not an independent film of the late ’70s. Because it does not quite fit into either category, it sadly falls between the cracks. But this is also what makes it such a fascinating movie. It is a masterful attempt by cinema’s (perhaps) greatest artist to adapt to and comment on the dawning days of a much darker world. By today’s standards, it might be slightly tame, but if we set aside our expectations and hop aboard the Hitchcock train, we’ll see that Frenzy is a masterpiece.
An Intricate Narrative and Thematic Web
Even though it’s considered by some to be a lesser Hitchcock movie, Frenzy is, nonetheless, still a Hitchcock movie. It’s constructed with care, depth, and intricacy that few other movies can attain. This is on display in the treatment of the movie’s central theme: romantic relationships. The killer, first of all, is a sadist and only interacts with women through violence. We find out during the course of the movie that he has tried to get a marital counseling agency to help him find “a girlfriend” (that is, victims) because he can not get one himself.
In fact, every character has romantic issues. The protagonist, Richard, has recently divorced his wife of ten years. He likes his coworker, but their boss is constantly berating them for getting friendly during work. Even the detective trying to solve the murder has trouble with his wife.
In several hilarious and lengthy scenes, we find out that the detective’s wife is taking culinary classes and forcing her husband to test out her kitchen creations. Unfortunately, each dish is more disgusting than the last: baby quail, cold gray pig’s hooves, and … martinis, which were apparently a blasphemous concept to the Brits of the 1970s.
As with the detective and his wife, most of the relationship problems in the movie are expressed through food. The killer, for example, is a fruit salesman, and just before he murders one of his victims, quotes a saying from the fruit business: “Don’t squeeze the goods till they’re yours.” The way he views and treats women is reflected in his relationship with food. Like he objectifies women, he sells and transports fruit; the two are even combined when he disposes of one of his victims in a potato sack. The way he’s always picking at his teeth throughout the movie also expresses his obsessive behavior toward and difficulty dealing with women.
On the other hand, the detective’s disgust at his wife’s cooking shows how his long-running marriage has lost its passion. And finally, the protagonist Richard has no trouble with food or women: he’s a bartender, and he’s in a loving relationship.
The movie weaves together its themes, characters, narrative, and metaphors so that they all work together perfectly. The more one breaks apart the film, the more one sees how beautifully it is constructed.
Great Moments of Suspense
Hitchcock was known in his day as “The Master of Suspense,” and this is probably the biggest reason why his movies were so popular with audiences. He knew how to thrill the viewer like few other directors could. Unsurprisingly, Frenzy has several scenes that show Hitchcock’s skill for building suspense.
One of the most memorable of these shows the killer trying to retrieve a crucial piece of evidence from the corpse of one of his victims. He climbs into the back of a cramped farmer’s market truck and has to pull the corpse out of a potato sack to retrieve the evidence. All the while, he must avoid being seen by passing cars and avoid making too much noise (lots of tumbling potatoes) that might alert the driver to his nefarious activity. This is a classic scene of suspense that will sound familiar to any fan of Hitchcock’s movies.
Those Classic Hitchcock Touches
Hitchcock was an endlessly creative filmmaker. One of his greatest legacies is what we now simply call the Vertigo shot, where a shocked character stares into the camera while everything behind them seems to stretch and distort, as if the world were transforming into a living nightmare. This shot was famously copied by Steven Spielberg in Jaws (1975) and has been used hundreds of times since.
Likewise, there are several such brilliant creative choices in Frenzy. One of the most memorable comes towards the end of the movie when a character is in court waiting to hear whether or not he will be sent to prison. However, as they await the verdict, Hitchcock places the camera outside the courtroom, looking in. We can see through the glass windows but cannot hear what’s happening inside. The audience waits in anticipation and silence for over a minute until someone opens the door to leave, and we can finally hear the jury’s verdict. This moment of suspense is classic Hitchcock. As the audience is dying to hear what happens, Hitch withholds the crucial piece of information. Few directors in history would be so bold as to attempt a move like this, and Frenzy is full of them.
Frenzy is largely forgotten today, but it is long overdue for a reevaluation. The Hitchcock movies that remain in the popular imagination most clearly today are undoubtedly Psycho and The Birds. Film buffs and critics will, of course, be familiar with his earlier work as well, but talk to anyone on the street and they’re most likely to have seen these two.
Though Frenzy draws heavily from Hitch’s early themes and tropes, it drifts farther towards modern horror. It is somewhat ironic that of his three horror movies – Psycho, The Birdsand Frenzy – two of them are his best remembered, and one is so nearly forgotten. If you like Hitchcock, horror, or thrillers, do yourself a favor and watch Frenzy to celebrate its 50th anniversary.