Wednesday 27 July 2016

1,001 Films: "Frenzy" (1972)

A crowd is distracted from an MP's promises to clean up the Thames when a woman's naked body washes up on the banks of the river, causing all present to wonder whether London has a new Jack the Ripper on its hands. One of Hitchcock's later, less well-regarded efforts, Frenzy is keen to impress upon us - from this opening scene onwards - that the public's appetite for "a good murder" was as insatiable in the 1970s as it was back when the director was starting out in the film industry in the 1920s. Despite the inclusion of more modern elements - nudity and explicit violence - the film reveals a filmmaker out of his time, stuck on the same locations (the markets, boozers and backstreets) that made up the London of Blackmail and The Lodger a half-century before; viewed today, it's actually Psycho - made a decade prior to this - which appears the more contemporary work.

Ex-Squadron Leader Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) has fallen on hard times: fired from a barman job after landlord Bernard Cribbins catches him drinking, he's reduced to sleeping in a Sally Army hostel when his estranged wife is murdered - by Blaney's best (read: only) mate Barry Foster - and suspicion lands upon him for the crime. Shades of The Wrong Man here too, then, but one overriding problem with Frenzy is that it was produced in the Britain of the 1970s, not the American studio system of the 1950s: visually, it's of a piece with the Confessions series - drab interiors, stomach-churning close-ups of full English breakfasts and unflatteringly photographed female flesh - and guilty of spending far too much time around sweatily unappealing men. Foster sports a hair colour only ever seen in 1970s films, and Finch is an abject-stupid hero who keeps making matters worse for himself.

Scripted by Anthony Shaffer in the middle of the run that also brought Sleuth and The Wicker Man to the screen, this isn't greatly more misogynistic than any of Hitchcock's other films, but the director's characteristic jokiness in the presence of carnage suddenly seems less than funny. It's difficult to sanction such lines as "every cloud has a silver lining" when a doctor learns the killer's victims were raped prior to being murdered; most of the light relief comes at the expense of harridan, henpecking or hopeless wives. A running gag about the rubbishness of Anglo-Saxon cuisine - Hitch biting the hand that kept him so obviously well fed - suggests it's all a matter of personal taste, and there's undeniable technical expertise in the way the camera withdraws from crime scenes while we await the terrible consequences, but it's finally much less fun than a movie that gives away the identity of its murderer so freely should be, and can seem almost as emotionally stunted as the killer himself.

Frenzy is available on DVD through Universal Pictures UK.

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