Frenzy marked several returns for Alfred Hitchcock. First, he was going back to his native England where he had not worked for decades. More significantly, he was filming in the marketplace at Covent Garden, where his father had worked as a green grocer. It was also a return to the basic theme that had informed he best work, that of the innocent man wrongfully accused. The final return was to the top of his form that had seemed to be missing for several years. After two films dabbling with international intrigue, Torn Curtain and Topaz, Frenzy was the sort of more grounded and personal suspense tale at which he had always excelled.
Hitchcock’s next to last picture is the story of Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), for whom the phrase “down-on-his-luck” seems a bit generous. A former RAF squadron leader, he’s working as a barman at a local pub until he’s fired for pinching drinks, despite the protestations of his innocence by his barmaid girlfriend, Babs (Anna Massey). He’s been reduced to borrowing money from his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt).
Meanwhile, London is being terrorized by a killer who rapes women and strangles them with his necktie. It’s Blaney’s bad luck that the killer turns out to be his best friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a shopkeeper at Covent Garden, and Rush has targeted the ex-Mrs. Blaney. Her murder, and the argument she had with her ex-husband, makes Blaney the prime suspect. When Babs is murdered as well, having last been seen with Blaney, he’s as good as convicted.
Frenzy also signals the return of an element that had largely been missing from recent Hitchcock films, that being his penchant for mordant and macabre humor. Many sequences, despite the morbid subject matter, have a comedic undercurrent. The scene in the potato truck, as Rush tries to retrieve a piece of incriminating evidence from Babs’ body, which is deep into rigor mortis, plays like a piece of a silent burlesque worthy of Buster Keaton. Other comic gems are the scenes between Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) as they discuss the murders over her inedible attempts at gourmet cooking. Despite its grisliness, Frenzy ranks with North By Northwest as one of Hitchcock’s funniest non-comedies.
Another key element that runs through many Hitchcock films is his cynicism on the subjects of romantic love and marriage. The inspector and his wife are a loving if dysfunctional and uncommunicative couple. And despite running a successful matchmaking service, Brenda Blaney couldn’t make her marriage to Richard work. This is particularly ironic, given that Hitchcock himself was married to the same woman, Alma, for more than 50 years and she was his key creative partner for almost his entire career.
This film also contains a few elements new to Hitchcock films, made possible by the freedoms allowed by the new R rating. Frenzy is frank in its nudity and violence in ways that none of his previous films could be. The scene in which Brenda Blaney is raped and murdered is as disturbing in its own way as the shower scene was in Psycho and would have been impossible in any previous Hitchcock film.
Being not only back in England, but literally back on home soil, the streets on which he grew up, seems to have rejuvenated Hitchcock. Frenzy is not often ranked with his classic films but perhaps it should be. It certainly contains the elements that made his earlier films into classics.