Watching Hitchcock’s last five films in one week can be a somewhat infuriating experience: ‘Marnie’ is an uncomfortable misfire; ‘Torn Curtain’ never takes flight; ‘Topaz’ is dull and ‘Family Plot’s silly, albeit kinda fun. They all contain great elements, and all are gorgeous to look at, but none really work as a satisfying whole. Then there’s ‘Frenzy’ (1972), nestled away in Hitchcock’s filmography like a fish head in some soup or a corpse amongst potatoes. It’s a tasteless movie and what flavour is identifiable is sour and astringent so it might leave your palette in a bit of a state afterwards but it slowly does something the other movies failed to do — it actually hooks you in.
The first on-screen murder is unforgivably nasty and so uncomfortable it risks losing the viewer completely. I know I considered switching it off at this point. This isn’t helped by an unsympathetic leading man with extreme anger issues and a dour demeanour or the fact that Hitchcock has deliberately stripped away any vestiges of continental glamour and chic and replaced them with an English earthiness and patina of sleaze. It all feels so needlessly grubby as though Hitchcock is seeing how far he can push us without realising we’ve already been asking him to stop.
Then a few things happen in relatively quick succession which don’t exactly turn ‘Frenzy’ into an outright classic but I was suddenly feeling a vague sensation I hadn’t felt during the last few Hitchcock movies and I found myself attempting to identify it. I believe it is called “engrossed”.
The first evidence of being reeled-in is during the second murder. By now we know (and have for some time) who the killer is as we follow him and his poor unsuspecting victim up to his room and to her fate, only for the camera to then pull away before the gruesome act is committed in a move so impressive I’m convinced De Palma stole it for his craning away from the bathroom window shot in ‘Scarface’. If you fell asleep during ‘Topaz’ then this camera move alone will jolt you fully awake.
After this ‘Frenzy’ then spends a big chunk of its running time with the murderer, a man so seedy looking he’s like a box of Trill in a wig but at least has some sort of corrupted panache, as he frantically has to retrace his steps due to a slip-up, essentially derailing his carefully prepared plan. It’s overly macabre, contains misplaced humour and is still distasteful, but it’s also undeniably effective and tense.
Although my favourite aspect of ‘Frenzy’ are the dinner scenes between Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) which are, quite frankly, fucking nuts. These scenes are here purely so Inspector Oxford can discuss the case with his wife and we can all get a clearer idea of what’s going on and what the Inspector is thinking. Nothing too crazy, then. However, she’s also an aspiring gourmet chef so keeps serving her husband an unending series of experimental and absolutely disgusting dinners for her husband to “enjoy”, and some of the dishes presented to him are as revolting as the actual murders. It is genuinely surreal.
Not only that but the language they use to communicate with each other is as chewy, overwrought, dense and ridiculous as Mrs. Oxford’s cooking resulting in a truly bizarre dynamic between this married couple. When a colleague arrives at their home with information about the case, and thankfully saving the Inspector from his dinner, Inspector Oxford greets him by declaring “Sergeant Spearmen, you are positively glutinous with self approbation.” I mean, who the hell speaks like that?! It makes no sense but I’d be lying if I didn’t laugh out loud and hard and now consider it one of the best lines of dialogue I’ve heard so far this year.
None of this makes ‘Frenzy’ one of Hitchcock’s top tier films as it’s still all a little too nasty, grubby, messy and with tonal clashes (murder, rape and slapstick should NOT be in such close proximity to each other) more violent than any of the visuals. But compared to the rest of Hitchcock’s output around this time it at least has momentum, direction and urgency. Much like Mrs. Oxford’s soup ‘Frenzy’ feels it’s been made out of smelts, ling, conger eel, John Dory, pilchards and frog fish. It’s revolting but at least it contains some kick and bite.