Frenzy: Hitchcock gone wild
A serial killer is going about London killing women by strangling them with ties, an innocent man takes the blame and goes on the run. Sound like the usual Hitchcock proceedings? Well you’d be wrong. Frenzy (1972) was Hitchcock’s penultimate film, it is also widely considered to be his last classic. It is something of a curiosity and certainly a lesser known gem from his career that spanned five decades. A career which went from silent cinema all the way through talkies up to colour film. Here we have a Hitchcock film free at last of the Hays code and from moral judgements from the studio and censors that so frequently forced him into subtexts and innuendo.
Dear Alfred’s love of coupling humour with the darkness of death goes a step further, even today the film still has an 18 rating. This is a proper 18 rating according to modern values, not an old film previously found shocking that these days now garners a PG.
It is a seriously graphic film with horrific sequences that you will not forget. The word ‘lovely’ has been warped forever by this film for me. Also we have a Hitchcock film made in a time when camera techniques were less restrained than the almost theatre-like set up used in previous decades.
Given that Family Plot was Hitchcock’s final film was released four years after this, there is no real sense of how Hitchcock would have produced films in the different cinematic era and context of the 1970s. Frenzy is the only real insight into Hitchcock without moral and significant technological restraints. And without being restrained he revels in nudity, rape scenes and even rape jokes. Whereas in the past Hitchcock’s murderers sexually driven motives were kept relatively well hidden in the subtext, in Frenzy it is all in the foreground.
Aside from Frenzy‘s villain’s clear sexual problem, there is also a large amount of ‘gender politics’ at play. Our protagonist Richard Blaney is a man who sleeps with women outside of marriage at nice hotels, something even seasoned hotel staff raise their eyebrows at. Chief Inspector Oxford seems to have a sexless marriage with a wife (character name: ‘Mrs. Oxford’) more interested in serving him fancy cuisine rather than satisfy him with food or anything else, but he also doesn’t really mind that much. They discuss at dinner how a man couldn’t murder a woman he was with for ten years because there is no passion left, the wife then comments they’ve been married a similar time whilst blissfully avoiding reading into the implications of her statement. Blaney is also a drunk and a scoundrel with a possible abusive streak that is strongly hinted at. This is a step away from Hitchcock’s traditional falsely accused protagonist, or perhaps Hitchcock is saying a drunk scoundrel is the more realistic ‘everyman’ stock character?
When on the run Blaney has to stay with an old RAF buddy of his, but he is kicked out by the man’s domineering wife. To unhelpful contemporary vernacular one imagines she would be referred to as a ‘battle axe’. As such the topic of gender and relationships and abuse is tied into the film at every level, not just the fact a man is raping women before strangling them to death with a tie. What is odd and part of the curious nature of this film is how much time is spent away from the main plot to spend with comical interactions between Chief Inspector Oxford and his wife. However the comical distractions also play directly into the serial killing plot to extreme lengths. Hitchcock’s humour extends to every victim having a comical expression after being raped and strangled.
And then there is the potato truck scene… Admittedly this one is actually funny rather than bizarre and a bit terrifying. <See above for bizarre and terrifying.> When the tie strangler ‘Rusk’ realises one of his victims grabbed his one of a kind pin, he has to leap into a potato truck he was using to dispose of the body with. Once inside the driver arrives and begins to drive the truck away. This is when potatoes start rolling about and getting in the way and he then starts cutting open the wrong sacks to find the body. Following this he has to break the victim’s fingers that have succumbed to rigour mortis to get the pin out, but only after some comical slipping and sliding of his own fingers. This scene is like a mixture of Dad’s Army and Carry On Maniac. On top of all that is the surreal fact that for the role of Rusk Hitchcock sought out Michael Caine, who was repulsed by the offer, instead Hitchcock cast a Caine look-and-sound-alike.
Now all in all, the assault/murder sequences are disturbing and so is the idea of a serial killer being in our midst, especially the possibility it’s a very friendly bloke in our midst (and everyone wears ties). Obviously this is made more disturbing by the fact there are real people like this. The film’s discussion of gender and abuse is hardly nuanced or eloquent, however not many films would dare to take it to such extremes back then or even now.
Yes, the comical elements of the film give it what is an arguably a very unbalanced tone that swings between sitcom exchanges and graphic depictions of murder. However I’d say this ultimately works in the film’s overall favour in showing how close abuse is to murder, and how close even the values of the very civil are to that of the abusive. I doubt Hitchcock was intending to make a statement about the pervasiveness of rape culture in Britain, but Frenzy says it all regardless. If I had one complaint (other than the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ trope usage) it would be that Blaney’s reaction to his ex-wife Brenda and then girlfriend Barbara’s rapes and murders was very muted and he was immediately more concerned with his own survival. Then again maybe the everyman stock character is just an individualistic bastard.