The helicopter shop that opens Frenzy, lavishly gliding over the River Thames and under London’s Tower Bridge to Ron Goodwin’s triumphant score, is a splendid visual gag; England lays out the symphonic fanfare to welcome Alfred Hitchcock back home, and the director produces a floating nude corpse in return. The strangled body belongs to the latest victim of the “necktie murders” that have been terrorizing the city, and the movie right off the bat starts playing with audiences’ suspicions by cutting to hothead bloke Richard (Jon Finch) putting on his tie at home. That the real killer is not him but ruddy, dandyish pal Robert (Barry Foster) is no spoiler, but evidence that the picture will be a synthesis of Hitchcock’s themes, with the wrong-man and the psychotic killer only two of the motifs making return appearances.
With a very strong cast and sharp dialogue by Anthony Shaffer, Frenzy is easily the strongest of the master’s final works, and, if there’s an understandable tendency to overrate its nasty vigor in between the polished slackness of Topaz and the wan whimsy of Family Plot, there’s also an autumnal brilliance and subversion executed with renewed intensity. Like many a twilight work by an old master, much of it has the feel of personal stock-taking: The Lodger, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and Young and Innocent are all in here, so to speak, yet the return to the land of Hitchcock’s most lightweight work has been spiked by the new rating system.
Indeed, the director makes the most of the then-recently formed R-rating to swim more explicitly in his obsessions. Two furious sequences in particular seem crafted to make hellions like Peckinpah and De Palma take note: Robert’s prolonged rape-murder of Richard’s ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) harks back to the horrific crime at the center of The Virgin Spring, while the killer’s sweaty attempts to recover a tell-tale pin from the prying hand of his latest victim (with both scrambling predator and slain prey crammed in the back of a potato truck) shows that gallows humor and viewer-manipulation have scarcely waned in the auteur’s old age.
Less jazzy but no less virtuosic (and certainly no less disturbing) is the long, reverse tracking shot that links the off-screen murder of Anna Massey to the bustling street just outside the building, and the daring, hilarious portrayal of “normalcy” exemplified by the Scotland Yard inspector (Alec McCowen), who painfully suffers the gastronomical horrors unleashed by his wannabe-gourmet wife (Vivien Merchant). The master at his most jaundiced, Frenzy displays a magnifying rather than mellowing of the ugliness inherent in his worldview, but why should he have it any other way? Hitch’s patented cameo here is telling: Bowler-hated in the crowd hearing a speech about cleaning up the dirty river, he’s the only one not clapping. To the end, he found polluted waters far more interesting.