That said, this is still an Alfred Hitchcock film, even if his motifs are chillingly pushed to the Nth degree. Hitchcock's directing of Anthony Shaffer's screenplay (itself an adaptation of Arthur La Bern's novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square) shows all the signs of Hitch's brilliant experimentation, challenging tapestries of framing composition, and yes, his own brand of wry, uncomfortable humor. Make no mistake, Frenzy is an excellent and horrific suspense piece, and while it might not have quite the subtlety and psychological twists of Psycho, those elements are most certainly there. Those, coupled with Hitchcock's new additions and shiver-inducing mind toys, prove that Frenzy most certainly stands up as one of his best films.
Jon Finch is simply fantastic as Richard Ian Blaney (AKA "Dick", AKA "Dicko", poor guy). He's a selfish, down-on-his-luck Veteran turned Bartender, whose bad day begins when he's fired and kicks into high gear when he realizes the "Sure Thing" horse he was told to bet on has actually won, pushing him deeper into a dark depression, rather than the black ink.
Lucky for him he's got his friends, like the dapper ladies man Robert "Bob's Your Uncle" Rusk (the equally well-cast Barry Foster), his cute young girlfriend Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), his old War Buddy Johnny Porter (Clive Swift), Johnny's suspicious wife Hetty (Billie Whitelaw) and Dicko's own kindly match-making ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) watching his back.
Unlucky for him, and for the rest of London, there's a serial killer on the loose, the "Neck Tie Killer", whose exploits are gaining an almost "Jack The Ripper" like notoriety. Even worse, through a sequence of unfortunate events, "Neck the Ripper" crosses paths with Trippy Dick, and the most recent victims are hung firmly upon our hero's neck like an albatross of guilt.
And that's only the beginning. While Dick works hard and pulls in every favor he can muster to prove his innocence, the Killer inches ever closer to the center of Dick's life. With the evidence pointed so directly toward Dick, the noose gets tighter and Dick gets more desperate by the second.
Hitchcock has a way of silently developing a character with nothing more than quiet acting and a still, receptive camera. A non-lip-reading deaf mute deprived of the benefit of subtitles could unquestionably divine the motivations of almost every character, given only a few seconds of screen-time. This makes the Killer's actual identity all the more surprising. Although Hitchcock divulges the identity of the Murderer early on (somewhere around the one quarter mark) that fact is still a complete surprise. It makes one want to review the entire film as soon as the credits roll. I did, and was thrilled at how perfectly the foreshadowing clues fit right into place.
It should be noted that this is a disturbing movie that plays with the audience's emotions and predictions from the first moment to the last. It mixes new and uncommon Hitchcock additions, like nudity and sex, in with a disgusting bout of on-screen violence and depravity. Rather like an unrestrained Psycho Shower Scene, repeated and reinvented multiple times... with a necktie instead of a knife. Hitchcock's brilliance with the slow and susceptible camera eye (this time, a steady-cam improves the illusion that our own eye is watching these events first hand) enhances an already superb thriller in both the cases of on and off-screen turmoil.
However, Hitch the Comedian is still present in full, well-balanced and tasteful form. Though much of the comedy is dark in essence, the much-needed comic relief of Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his culinary-challenged wife (Vivien Merchant) evoke some of the great moments of Hitchcock's own Alfred Hitchcock Presents host segments, as well as his hilarious introduction to The Birds! Their expository conversations over dinner are nauseating by association, and by the very choreographed timing between their dialogue and the images Hitchcock accompanies them with. Instead of the sickly unfunny cracking us up nervously (which he gives us more than once), here we see a number of deeply funny exchanges, only dampened by the subject matter accompanying their conversation. It takes a brilliant director like Hitchcock to make this work, and make it work more than once.
The reason Alfred Hitchcock's style and thematic elements have been copied so very many times is because he was a genius at his craft. Hitch could take a series of coincidences and falling dominoes and make them seem so unquestionably logical that "Suspense" applied equally to the audience's emotion as it did to their disbelief. Further, his sensibilities with humor and horror, coupled with a strong sense of boundaries allowed him to play with deeply repulsive scenes, daring the viewer not to laugh at something at once darkly humorous and nauseatingly sick. Hitchcock even manages to place the audience into the affairs of a nefarious killer and (at least temporarily) to have them identify with his plight, forgetting that this is the bad guy and that his "getting caught" would be a damned good thing.
Imitators have taken proprietary puzzle pieces like these and have misused them, either by misunderstanding or lack of skill. In such also-rans, we see coincidences and falling dominoes used less to further the plot than to make excuses for plot holes (lacking the logic and sense). The boundaries between humor and horror fall away not as Hitch so skillfully blurred them, but instead opting for a morbid attempt at humor, never matching his own. Instead of an uncomfortable and temporary identification with the bad guy, imitators have mishandled the inversion as the now-common "Serial Killer as Anti-Hero" thematic nadir.
The truth is, nobody does it better than Alfred Hitchcock! All too often a "Classic Horror" film fails to survive the test of time, forcing the viewer to make allotments for the ticking clock in their enjoyment of even some of the best of these. The truly amazing thing about Frenzy is the fact that it not only stands up after thirty plus years, but actually manages to feel like an even better movie in hindsight. With the ubiquity of serial killer thrillers in the decades since Frenzy's release, many Hitchcockian elements have become filmic clichÚs and seem common now. Somehow, Frenzy feels firmly post-modern in the genre, almost coming off as an inversion of expectations. It's as if Hitchcock managed to outfox his imitators before they even got started. If this film had been made and released today, it would feel like a smart re-launch of the entire serial killer sub-category of horror.
Frenzy is a superb shocker, and while it might not be quite his "Best" film, this is a first-rate white-knuckled nail-biter that ranks among his finest efforts. It still works because it still feels fresh every step of the way, from the psychology of the Serial Killer (The Neck Tie Killer even keeps "Trophies" of his victims) to the desperate thrills of the wrongly accused man to the successful blend of genres and themes so commonly mistaken for marks of the more modern-day Suspense Offerings. Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Frenzy. You'll be hard pressed to find a better (or more thoroughly British) thriller, or a more capable twisting of Hitchcock anywhere. And you'll be hard-pressed to feel all that comfortable eating Potatoes right after this one finishes up. Potatoes or much of anything else. Whew!
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