Frenzy

Frenzy ★★★★

"Yes, it's a tie alright. It's another necktie murder!"

The penultimate film of Alfred Hitchcock's long career is Frenzy, from 1972. After watching so many of his early works from the 1930s and 40s in the last couple months -- I've been ranking them here, 43 so far -- it's really stunning to see how different a film made in the 1970s looks compared to those early black and white noirs. As well, a Hitchcock movie that's very solidly an R-rated one is quite surprising. But hey, that he was willing to constantly push himself into areas he hadn't previously explored is admirable.

Deadly rapes are occurring in London, and the public has deemed the unknown serial murderer responsible as the necktie killer, for how he finishes off his victims; he's clearly a "criminal sexual psychopath," as one calls him. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is down on his luck after getting fired from his pub job, and when he visits his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) -- who runs a matchmaking business -- she's nice enough to take him out and slip him some cash before he spends the night at the Salvation Army. Richard's friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who's previously been refused at Brenda's office for his inappropriate sexual behavior and requesting "certain peculiarities," comes back to pay her a visit later in rage. There, he rapes and strangles her with his necktie. When Richard returns later as well, seeing a locked door which Bob purposely left confuses him; as he leaves in a huff, Brenda's secretary sees him and soon he's implicated in her murder. One friend is happy to see the other as the suspect, and as Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) narrows down the search time is running out for Richard to prove his innocence and find the real killer, who's by his side the whole time.

Yep, it's another "wrongly accused man" in a Hitchcock picture. We've seen them before decade after decade. Could a tried-but-true trope stay fresh? Yes it does, because of his impeccable storytelling and sense of timing to heighten the dread and suspense. Based on Arthur Le Burn's novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square and adapted for the screen by Anthony Shaffer -- and certainly inspired by the famous Jack the Ripper and Christie murders in London -- on the surface this is the sort of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 40s and 50s, but with a harder modern edge and macabre presentation.

To be clear, this isn't Irreversible or The Nightingale when it comes to explicit horrific sexual violence, but it does feature rape and murder so be forewarned. Juxtaposing Frenzy with the fun romps of Hitchcock's most popular era can be jarring, so this might not be one of those movies to enjoy with Mom and Dad. But hey, maybe they're open-minded and appreciate good filmmaking like you.

This isn't just the usual "wrong man" narrative, as Richard is a very flawed person with reason to be suspected: a drunk, broke, gruff fellow whose divorce papers mention cruelty to Brenda in the past -- he says it was just a ruse so they could divorce sooner -- he's far from a sympathetic leading character to root for. But, we do know he's innocent, and we know that Bob is a sadistic sociopath, so obviously Hitchcock makes it easy to pick the right guy. How the story unfolds when Richard himself doesn't know what we know is fascinating, with wicked twists and suspense from a filmmaker who still knew how to thrill audiences after nearly 50 years of pictures.

Particular elements to watch for: the Golden Globe-nominated score of Ron Goodwin, the menacing psychopathic mania that Barry Foster portrays, and naturally the brilliant set pieces and camerawork by Hitchcock himself. The best set piece is a thrilling scene involving a dead body with rigor mortis and a sack of potatoes; suspense and dark comedy marry here. And Hitchcock has several spellbinding shots including a long walk out of an apartment, down a staircase, and backwards out into the street in an unbroken take. Really cool.

What many call his last great film is indeed a return to form after a few late 60s pictures that focus on political intrigue and world affairs. In Frenzy, Hitchcock is at the top of his game in a thrilling dark murder mystery filled with the desperation of the innocent and the guilty.

Added to Alfred Hitchcock ranked.

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