*. An aerial shot comes swooping in on London’s Tower Bridge and . . . what is that music? A fanfare?
*. Well, that’s what Hitchcock wanted, as much to announce his own return to England perhaps as to set any kind of opening note for what’s to come. Because I can’t think of anything less appropriate to a tawdry slasher flick.
*. There’s a bit of a story behind the score, and it leads one to reflect on the movie this might have been. Perhaps not better or worse, but definitely one with more interesting credits. Henry Mancini had originally been hired to do the score but because Hitchcock wanted something jauntier he hired Ron Goodwin.
*. Then there’s the script. It’s based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern and Hitchcock had approached Vladimir Nabokov to do the adaptation. He didn’t get Nabokov but got Anthony Shaffer instead. And again I think we missed out on something that might have been really interesting.
*. Finally, the cast. Michael Caine was Hitch’s first choice to play the killer Bob Rusk but he didn’t want to be associated with what he thought was a disgusting part. Vanessa Redgrave turned down the role of Brenda and Helen Mirren didn’t want to play Babs. Oh what might have been.
*. As it is, we get Jon Finch in the starring role here, playing Dick Blaney (“Blamey” in the book, which I guess was a little too obvious). Finch was a hot property at the time, coming straight from Polanski’s Macbeth, but he fell off the radar after this. Fun fact: He was cast to play Kane in Alien but fell ill at the start of shooting so John Hurt got to give birth to the xenomorph.
*. After that opening shot of the bridge we come to a man making a speech about the government’s plan to start cleaning up the Thames. They’re going to get all the poisons and pollution and other “waste products of our society” out of it. One such waste product immediately arrives in the form of a naked body floating in the scummy water. And that really sets the tone. Because we’re in slasher territory here and bodies are just offal, or (as we’ll later be shown) sacks of dirty potatoes.
*. Yes, Hitch was back in Blighty, and even more specifically in Covent Garden, where he’d grown up as his dad was a greengrocer. But London, and the movies, had changed a lot. Everything just feels unnecessarily sordid here, which may not be an unfair assessment of England in the 1970s. It’s not just that a sexual serial killer is strangling women with neckties, it’s even in the language.
*. We’re introduced to Blaney as an ex-air force guy tending bar but drinking on the job and, in the words of his boss, spending half his time “pulling [the] tits” of the waitress Babs “instead of pulling pints.” Babs responds to the bar owner by saying that he’s always fingering her. You don’t expect to hear the characters in a Hitchcock movie talking like this. One can understand why Caine might have had his doubts about getting involved.
*. Instead of Caine we get Barry Foster as Bob Rusk, the Necktie Murderer. He’s a doozy, looking a bit like a seedy Michael Caine with even wilder sideburns and sweating profusely while committing his atrocious acts. That sweat, and grime, complements the nasty language in giving the sense of how far down in the world things have come. This is a dirty movie, with all kinds of waste products on display. Remember how Marion Crane was killed in a shower, and Norman Bates cleaned up the mess? In this movie, Rusk is the kind of degenerate who polishes an apple that’s already half eaten.
*. “Just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave,” says the hotel porter. Seeing those lusts in action is worse. If Hitch had made this movie ten years earlier it might have ended his career, like Peeping Tom did Michael Powell’s. But by now he could get away with it. Plus, Psycho had been a hit.
*. Another big reason he could get away with it is that critics could fit Frenzy in with earlier, much loved, works by the Master of Suspense. The innocent man on the run, for example, and the drolleries mixed with suspense. There’s even the one standout sequence where the camera goes back down the stairs while Rusk is killing Babs. That’s very nice.
*. So was Hitchcock really back? Some critics were more generous than Gary Arnold of the Washington Post, who wrote that Frenzy “has a promising opening sequence and a witty curtain line, but the material in between is decidedly pedestrian. The reviewers who’ve been hailing Frenzy as a new classic and the triumphant return of the master of suspense are, to put it kindly, exaggerating the occasion … If this picture had been made by anyone else, it would be described, justly, as a mildly diverting attempt to imitate Hitchcock.”
*. I think this is mostly right. The floater is a catchy start but the ending feels a bit like a punchline we’ve been waiting a couple of hours for. The onscreen murder is just vile, perhaps deliberately so, and the potato truck sequence labored. The Chief Inspector’s sufferings at the dinner table also play like leftovers. More waste products of our society, I suppose. More ugliness disguised as art.
*. That said, I do prefer this movie to Torn Curtain and Topaz and it does exert a sort of horrible fascination. There are times I’ve even found myself liking it. I also cut Hitch some slack as he was quite old and frankly well past his prime but he wasn’t just mailing it in. Movies had changed though, and even more than that the world had changed as well. You can’t go home again.