Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, his penultimate film, is definitely a strange one. On the one hand, we have a solid thriller, with extended virtuoso suspense sequences that rival some of Hitchcock’s best work; and on the other, disjointed and odd conflict of tones. Bits and pieces of it work tremendously well, there are some of his funniest scenes and some of his scariest, but nothing much in between. It seems that in this one Hitchcock went for the extremes, and left the center somewhat uncared for.
For the first time there’s nudity in a Hitchcock film, and this is a big step forward in the sense that in Frenzy he doesn’t want to hold anything back. We are to be grossed out by that long, nervous scene of the killer raping and strangling Barbara Leigh-Hunt, which is extremely graphic for Hitchcock, but not for 1972. Still he manages to make it throroughly disturbing, aided with astonishing editing. In the first murder scene, we don’t see the victim’s face until the very end, and when we do, we can’t keep our eyes from her protruded, stiff tongue; in the second we only see brief flashes as the murderer recalls, in despair, having lost a pin that would incriminate him. The relentlessness of these sequences, and the one that follows the second murder, an extended and tense ride on the back of a potato truck, make it almost subjectless. We never sympathize with the killer – or with Jon Finch’s character, who is injustly accused – and still Frenzy puts us face to face with the ghastly business of murder, clumsy and more grisly than anything we’ve seen by Hitchcock.
We know who the killer is, and he’s not an interesing character – there are none, in fact. There are lame and superficial discussions of the nature of the killings, but these characters are way too flat. The “hero”, after learning that his girlfriend (Anna Massey, who was also in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom) has been murdered, shows not one ounce of emotion. This being Hitchcock, we should take all this with a grain of salt, and ask whether it is intentional. The film seems to be only about being as dark and unflinching as Hitchcock can be, but not on terms of plot or character.
A perfect foil to all this are the scenes with the police inspector and his pseudo-gourmet wife, who keeps feeding him the most unedible (although fancy and with French names) meals. Here the film takes a chance to replay the plot to the audience, as the inspector tells his wife, on the dialogue level. But we laugh at the inspector’s attitude towards the repulsive food he’s given to, which result in very funny scenes, but that also comment on this flat-out, on-your-face exposure of the murders. Now come to think of it, so does the opening scene on the Thames enbankment, where a crowd spots a floating body with a tie wrapped around her neck. An old lady says that the killer’s a “Ripper,” to which one guy replies that Jack the Ripper used to take the girl’s kidneys out – or were they livers? The gross-out aspect is clearly the key, and whether it elicits comedy or terror seem to be what Frenzy is all about.