The Master Goes Home
words by Jane Nightshade
Alfred Hitchcock was 72 years old when he made Frenzy (1972), a macabre thriller about a London serial strangler nicknamed The Necktie Killer and the innocent man who’s accused of his crimes.
It was Hitchcock’s penultimate film, and the first British film he’d made in 23 years. Undoubtedly, Hitchcock’s 41 total years in Hollywood gave him opportunities undreamed of in England: a regular output of critically and commercially successful films, plus an entertainment empire that included two successful television series, a bi-monthly fiction magazine that’s still in print, and more than sixty fiction anthologies bearing his name, often with witty titles like Alfred Hitchcock’s A Hearse of a Different Color.
He was an international superstar with an instantly recognisable physique, facial profile, and voice. He was worshipped by a coterie of younger filmmakers, led by the French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, for his groundbreaking techniques. His best work was studied in film journals, which were just then beginning to recognise that the fat kid from Leytonstone, East London, might possibly be the most influential filmmaker of all time.
All that was true, but by the summer of 1971, when he began principal filming on Frenzy (on location in London and at Pinewood Studios), pundits were whispering that the old master had lost his touch. His previous two films, the Cold War thrillers Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), received lukewarm reviews from critics and audiences alike. Ever the superstar with the common touch, Hitchcock was wounded by the public’s disinterest in his anti-Communist spy films. It was time to get back to basics, which for him meant going home — literally, thematically, and stylistically.
Going home geographically
Hitch chose the old market streets of Covent Garden as the setting for much of Frenzy’s action. His father ran a greengrocer’s shop in Leytonstone, and he never lets the audience forget how much he knows about that particular occupation. Crates of fruit and veg, lorries full of potato sacks, working men in overalls packing and unpacking — his camera caresses them like an old soldier reminiscing over his war medals. Food was very important to Alfred Hitchcock, and epicurean themes run throughout the film, most prominently in a running joke where Oxford, the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the Necktie Killer investigation, is tortured by a wife who forces increasingly bizarre meals upon him. Cruelly, the Necktie Killer grabs a half-eaten apple after raping and strangling the woman who was munching it, and takes a bite as he leaves the scene of the crime. There’s even a lingering shot of a Full English breakfast, presented reverentially, as if it were an exhibit at the Tate. Macabre though it might be, Frenzy is a love letter to both English food and London itself; not the London of royalty, glittering West End shows, and business tycoons— but the London of smoky pub-dwellers, stone-faced cops, greengrocers, and fish-and-chip shops.
Going home thematically
Frenzy also represents a homecoming for the Master of Suspense in his choice of cinematic themes. He returns to the familiar premise of an innocent man (Jon Finch, as Richard Blaney) on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. The London police — who frightened Hitchcock traumatically as a child — aren’t necessarily “the good guys” here; one official cynically remarks that the Necktie Killer is good for the tourist trade. The murderer (Barry Foster, as Bob Rusk— a greengrocer like Hitchcock Senior) is jaunty and likeable, at least when he’s not brutally strangling young women. As well, the traditional Hitchcockian dark humour flows liberally throughout Frenzy, beginning as early as the opening scene, where a pompous official lectures a quayside audience about the success of a recent programme to clean up the Thames — just as a strangled victim’s corpse floats into view.
Going home stylistically
Frenzy looks and feels quite different from Hitchcock’s most glamorous American films of the 50s and early 60s. There are no dazzling blonde women in lavish designer gowns, no exceedingly wealthy people, no internationally famous stars — just good, solid British actors, familiar at home but not so much abroad. As in early Hitch films like The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), much care is devoted to following working class folks, the rhythms and quiet desperations of their very ordinary lives. Finch, the innocent man hunted by police, conveys a down-on-his-luck former RAF officer who gets sacked for tippling from the stock while working as a barman. Things get worse when his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is murdered by the Necktie Killer and everyone thinks he’s the culprit. Before she’s murdered, the ex-wife runs a marriage bureau, where her most recent successful match is a large, domineering woman with a small, meek man. We meet the two lovebirds as they leave the bureau’s office, and listen while the woman hilariously checks off an interminable list of duties she expects her new husband to perform. We can easily envision Hitchcock chuckling at this little slice-of-life aside, crafted by Anthony Shaffer, who also penned the script for the brilliant murder puzzle Sleuth (1972).
The credits open with a magnificent aerial shot of the Thames winding its way through London, accompanied by a plummy and majestic musical sequence that’s just perfect for the visuals.
Whatever the style or theme of his films, Hitchcock’s storytelling techniques are always remarkable. For example, Frenzy features a scene with Finch standing in the courtroom dock, awaiting the jury’s verdict. This may well have been a cliched, humdrum scene in another director’s hands. Hitchcock, however, shoots it through the glass of the courtroom’s double entry doors. We only see the backs of Finch and other participants dimly through the glass, and we only ever hear the proceedings when a guard nudges the doors open a crack — which he does for the verdict and again for the sentencing. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling. Then there’s the famous sequence with Finch’s love interest, Babs (Anna Massey), unwittingly heading home with the Necktie Killer. By this time, we know what’s going to happen to Babs, but we are not witness the murder. We see Babs enter Bob Rusk’s apartment, the door close behind them, and then watch as the camera tracks slowly and silently down a long, dark staircase and out onto the street — a shot that serves as a solemn and chilling epitaph for poor Babs.
Hitchcock also picked a winner by hiring Ron Goodwin to compose the score. It’s one of the best scores of any Hitchcock film, although not quite approaching the genius of Hitch’s favourite composer, the great Bernard Hermann. The credits open with a magnificent aerial shot of the Thames winding its way through London, accompanied by a plummy and majestic musical sequence that’s just perfect for the visuals. Hitch also scored with his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor. His most frequent lensman, the American Robert Burks (who won an Oscar for Hitch’s To Catch a Thief in the 50s) died tragically in a fire in 1968. The British Taylor had served as Director of Photography for three early films of Roman Polanski, including the creepy horror/thriller Repulsion (1965), for which Tayor received a BAFTA nomination. A few years later, Taylor would enter the history books as the man who shot a modest little sci-fi movie called Star Wars (1977).
The result of Hitchcock’s London homecoming was a smash hit. Critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic sang the praises of Frenzy. The whisperers were silenced —the fat kid from Leytonstone was back.
Hitchcock would return to sunny Hollywood for his last film, the comedy-caper Family Plot (1976). Starring an ensemble cast headed by Bruce Dern and Karen Black, it’s a decent but low-key entry into the Hitchcock canon. The old master chose England as the location for his real grand good-bye: Frenzy.
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