The bloodthirsty Judge Nicholas Sylvain puts the smackdown on this Alfred Hitchcock film.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie.
Returning to London, England, after a twenty year vacation, Alfred Hitchcock created Frenzy, a film that put a new twist on his oeuvre and pushed into new ratings territory. Though languid in its pacing, and not nearly as shocking or frightening as it may have seemed to audiences in 1972, Frenzy still is worthy of your time, thanks to a talented cast of Hollywood unknowns and the unique directorial style of perhaps the most influential director never to win an Oscar. Universal graces Frenzy with a commendable technical presentation and modest but well-received extra content.
Facts of the Case
In London, England, a man has taken to raping and murdering women, using strangulation by necktie as his signature. The populace is a hotbed of gossip about this serial killer, but all Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) cares about is that he is flat broke and has just been sacked. His barmaid girlfriend, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) and pal Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), are supportive, as is his ex-wife, Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), but Richard is too bitter and proud to ask for money.
A windfall leaves Richard flush, but suddenly he falls under suspicion when his ex-wife is found strangled, just as the other necktie victims. In stunned disbelief, Richard hides from the police as he tries to determine what he should do. Meanwhile, unflappable Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) pursues his prime suspect, carefully and thoroughly. Matters turn even darker for Richard when another woman is found strangled by a necktie and his only alibi refuses to come forward. With the police closing in, Richard vows to unmask the true killer and take his revenge, even if it is the last thing he ever does.
In some ways, Frenzy packs less of a punch thanks to a world where serial killers are far less of a novelty than they once did. While that is certainly no fault of Alfred Hitchcock, neither is it his fault that what he saw as pushing the boundaries of his work (as this is his first film to get an R rating) is downright tame these days. A graphic rape-strangulation murder with brief nudity, a disquieting scene of breaking a corpse's fingers, some blood and assorted violence, and plenty of talk about sexual psychopaths, none of which will shock a viewer accustomed to Fight Club, Se7en, Hannibal, and the like.
The touches that kept Frenzy from mere adequacy spring from Hitchcock's twisted genius. The sweeping aerial entrance into London, as grand as it is, pales before the far more interesting and daring choices to follow. From a camera that snakes down a winding staircase, as a withdrawing co-conspirator, to holding a shot of no importance for very lengthy seconds simply to heighten the tension of an inevitable discovery, to cutting audio in and out and in again during a verdict and sentencing, all of these can seem irritating, and yet in unusual fashion they do heighten the inherent drama. Further spicing up Frenzy is the dark humor of Chief Inspector Oxford's home life. His wife, played by Vivien Merchant (Alfie), fancies herself a gourmet chef and so inflicts upon him the most marvelously prepared dishes that are revoltingly inedible. While pleasantly chatting about the case with his wife, Alec McCowen plays these scenes of repulsive cuisine amidst tranquil domesticity with such unflappable charm that I smiled through every second.
The cast, virtually unknown to American audiences, is the strongest component of Frenzy. Jon Finch, as the set-upon, über-frustrated Blaney, Barry Foster, as his smooth, sartorially devoted friend Robert Rusk, and most of the actors and actresses are even now unknown to us on this side of the Atlantic. Only Alec McCowen (Never Say Never Again, Henry V), Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Billy Elliot, Longitude), and Billie Whitelaw (Quills, The Krays, The Omen) are likely to have found their way to American viewers. A uniformly solid collection of talent, Hitchcock milks them for every drop.
The anamorphic video transfer is quite good for a film of its era. The picture is not quite as crisp or as saturated as the best modern transfer, but it still shows off the increased resolution and rich color capability of this format. Aside from some light film grain, dirt and defects, and less shadow detail than I'd like, there were no serious or distracting problems in the transfer. If, as I suspect, this is not a restored transfer of Frenzy, then I must commend whoever cared for the print. Clearly they kept very solicitous care of it!
The mono audio track is a 2.0 track, namely that it comes out of your mains and not merely your center channel. I'm not sure that it is significantly better, but there it is. Otherwise, this is a typical mono track for its era. The score and dialogue suffer from the usual hatchet job on the highs and lows, leaving the music sounding a bit on the harsh side. The music might be mixed a bit on the loud side, but then again, that could have been part of some Hitchcock master plan.
Universal's collection of extra content is good, considering that the death of Alfred Hitchcock twenty years ago made a commentary track slightly problematic. The forty-five minute documentary "The Story of Frenzy" was wholly created by Laurent Bouzereau, whose excellent talent created top-notch content for Silverado, The Lost World, and other notable discs. This is his usual fine documentary, weaving together retrospective interviews from the actors, scriptwriter, and others, with film clips, still shots, personal correspondence, and such into a compelling short film.
Surprisingly, there is an unadvertised gem hidden in the photo and poster gallery. As a title card indicates, in the course of his efforts documentarian Laurent Bouzereau found a series of photographs relating to three unscripted screens, for which no other record could be found. Nothing too big, unless you are a fan of the film or Hitchcock in general! Production notes are brief, but the cast and filmmaker bio/filmography section covers eight of the cast members plus Hitchcock. The theatrical trailer suffers from a lower degree of film quality and from being full-screen, but is a treat, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's services as tour guide and a generous helping of his black humor.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warning! Spoilers below!
Hitchcock originally hired composer Henry Mancini to score Frenzy, but his initial efforts so displeased Hitchcock that Ron Goodwin was brought in to replace Mancini. Perhaps it was a better musical choice, but the bold, stirring score that Goodwin created seems out of place in this sort of thriller. Furthermore, there were moments of action when the score became so loud that it interfered with the dramatic power of the scene, and I found myself wishing for a selective mute button!
The story spends the first two thirds of the movie building up the premise, namely how this innocent man finds himself accused so convincingly that escape is a vain hope. The story sure takes its time getting there and never goes to any great efforts to impress upon us just how desperately close the police are getting to their suspect. When they do catch up with Blaney, it lacks the punch you might have expected. Blaney is speedily convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but now the story hits the biggest plot pothole you ever saw. With barely a flimsy explanation, Blaney escapes…from a civilian hospital?? I can't explain it. It seems as if neither scriptwriter Anthony Shaffer nor Hitchcock cared to write a credible escape and simply wanted to get past an inconvenient plot point to get to the final sequence. On the positive side, the end is a glorious bit of ambiguity, with both redemption and tragedy looming large. Not a tidy or happy ending, but this is not your usual Hollywood movie, now is it?
Despite its flaws and limitations, Frenzy still has enough of the trademark Hitchcock style and black wit so that it stands apart from more homogenized, pasteurized Hollywood films. Recommended for rental, though a high-priced purchase ($30 retail) is likely of interest only to devoted Hitchcock groupies.
Though not Hitchcock's best work, Frenzy is still a worthy film, given its due by Universal. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• "The Story of Frenzy" Documentary
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