Reposted from 8 February 2008 as a tribute to Anna Massey, who died yesterday.
'Frenzy', Hitchcock's penultimate film, is often dismissed as one of his lesser works, a violent and misanthropic little number, a disappointment that was mercifully superceded by the playful plotting and 'Trouble With Harry'-style humour of his swansong,'Family Plot'.
It's also cited for its controversial aspects. 'Frenzy' contains what no Hitchcock film that came before it had (but which some of his best had strived for, albeit working around the edges due the social, and censorial, mores of the time): graphic violence (sexual assault, strangulation), nudity (body doubles ahoy!) and profanity - the script, by Anthony ('The Wicker Man') Shaffer, uses the word "bastard" with the same liberality as'Goodfellas' uses "fuck". Indeed, one of the numerous anti-social pleasures of 'Frenzy' is the vehemence with which Jon Finch, playing down-on-his-luck former squadron leader Richard Blaney, spits it out.
Blaney is the ... no, not hero. He's quarrelsome, obstreperous, self-pitying and loud-mouthed. Okay; start over: Blaney is the ... no, not protagonist either. The suffix "pro-", as in "pro-active" doesn't suit him. For most of the film he's completely in the dark, unaware that his sometime friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) is behind the killings that he finds himself in the frame for.
If you've never seen 'Frenzy' and you're cursing me for not putting "spoiler alert" in capital letters before that last paragraph, pray desist with the Blaney-like "you bastard" and be assured that I'm not giving anything away. Hitchcock reveals Rusk's guilt early on. It's not a whodunnit, after all. It's about how Blaney, through his own bullishness, paints himself as fitting the murderer's profile, how Rusk capitalises on it, and how Blaney, with the full force of the law against him, tries to clear his name.
Which brings me back to something I was debating earlier. We've pegged Rusk as the villain of the piece. But Blaney - let's just call him the main character - isn't much of a hero. So who's our main man? Who do we root for? There's Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan), the journeyman copper socially embarrassed by his wife's pretentions to nouvelle cuisine (Oxford's dinner table expositional dialogue, delivered while he queasily faces up to a succession of repulsive-looking meals, are a comedic highpoint). But he's only in the film for the second half and, apart from twigging late in the game that Blaney might be innocent, he doesn't exactly do much.
There are two sympathetic female roles - Blaney's ex-wife Blenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and his current girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey), but with the murderer targetting women ... well, you can pretty much guess the rest.
The most frequently levelled criticism is the film's treatment of women. There's no way around it, so here goes: the necktie murderer (so named for the apparel he leaves around their neck, post-strangulation) rapes his victims first. While nowhere near as explicit as that in, say, 'Straw Dogs' (made a year before in 1971), the rape scene in 'Frenzy' is easily the most disturbing thing Hitchcock ever filmed, Rusk murmuring "lovely ... lovely" as he forces himself on his victim.
Rusk's luring of his next victim into his apartment is handled a lot more subtly, and with a moment of technical bravura: as Rusk closes the door behind them, the camera floats back down the stairs in complete silence, out through the lobby and, with the first tinges of traffic noise impeding once more on the soundtrack, into the street and away from the building. The effect, particularly the use of silence, is powerful. A pity Hitchcock couldn't have thought his way around the earlier scene with such finesse and technical aplomb.
The Argento-like camerawork in this scene makes it one of two genuinely memorable sequences in the film. The second, involving Rusk's dumping of a body in the back of a truck - and his desparate attempts to recover a piece of evidence he realises he's left on the corpse - spins out into a blackly comic extended set-piece. Claustrophobic, grotesque and a damn sight funnier than it ought to be, Rusk's tussle with a body stiff with rigor mortis in the back of potato lorry is pure Hitch. And if it doesn't quite the achieve the level you'll-never-look-at-a-King-Edward-in-the-same-way-again greatness that 'Psycho' does with shower curtains, it’s still an effective signifier of Hitchcock’s streak of the perverse.
i.m. Anna Massey (11 August 1937 – 3 July 2011)