The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: London is terrorized by a sex killer known as the Necktie Murderer. Following the brutal slaying of his ex-wife, down-on-his-luck Richard Blaney is suspected by the police of being the killer. He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence.
James: Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Frenzy is a great flick! Even better than I remembered. This film puts Hitchcock back on track, in my book. It has lots of mystery and suspense, and a ton of great, classic shots. Good stuff.
Jason: This film was a total surprise, probably the biggest surprise of this entire project. I liked this movie way more than I figured I would. Sure, it’s looking a bit dated, being set in early-1970s London, but damn, man, Frenzy is remarkably assured. What’s great about this movie, to me, is the way it combines the horror of a Jack the Ripper tale with the black humor that’s so unique to Hitchcock. This thing is tense and disturbing, yeah, but it’s got a wicked sense of humor, too. And lots of nudity—a first for Hitchcock!
James: Yeah, Frenzy takes Hitch back to the top of his game. Personally, I thought Stage Fright was a bit more surprising, but this one ranks right up there. I found it amazing that Hitch still manages to push the boundaries with what he’s showing on screen. He’s more forward with the sexuality, and the violence is spotlighted a little more than usual, too. Yet at the same time, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of it.
Jason: As I was watching, I realized that Frenzy was bringing to mind a lot of Hitch films that have come before, but in a really good way. This film is almost a celebration of Hitchcock’s favorite themes and subjects. I mean, you’ve got the whole notion of following the actions of a killer (as we saw in Dial M for Murder, Shadow of a Doubt, and Psycho, among others), the innocent man on the run while trying to clear his name (as we saw in The 39 Steps, Saboteur, I Confess, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, and others), the dark, dark humor in disturbing scenarios (as we saw in The Trouble with Harry and others), and we get lots of images that create these little echoes in your mind of other techniques from previous films. In a way, Frenzy really is a terrific career-capper for Hitch.
James: This film has pretty much all of our favorite Hitchcock elements. Speaking of this, does Frenzy’s opening scene remind you of The Lodger? Looking up from the waterfront, at the crowd there, reminded me of the lynching scene in The Lodger.
Jason: The lynching scene? I actually didn’t make that exact connection, but obviously The Lodger does come to mind, with its Jack the Ripper story and mystery. Actually, while watching the opening moments of Frenzy, I was reminded of the beginning of Young and Innocent, when the girl washes up on the beach.
James: Oh yeah! I love this opening, the way the naked girl floats up with a tie around her neck and the crowd starts murmuring. Within seconds, we already know what’s been happening in London the past few weeks, and the film already has us hooked.
Jason: Before we get too far, I wanted to mention the terrific opening-credits sweep across the Thames, firmly setting this film in London. It’s this regal, celebratory approach to the setting, and it feels like some kind of pomp-and-circumstance homecoming for Hitch. We move in under a drawbridge, with its two “legs” in the air, almost sexually. And we close in on the politician making his speech about cleaning up the river, and here comes the body. Perfect! Not only that, but we get two shots of a Hitch cameo.
James: Man, the old boy is looking old.
Jason: I agree, sadly. Okay, so then we focus on the pub where our protagonist, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), is working—but not for long. I was chuckling a bit at the 1970s-era trappings right away … the hideous hairstyles and clothing, the beads in the doorways, and just the mood of the whole thing. The people just seem to be a bit dirty and sweaty in their skins. Does that make sense?
James: I hear what you’re saying. I thought the same thing. The 70s were just ugly. Almost any film shot around this time looks immediately dated. You know, when we first meet Richard, we’re immediately suspicious of him, yet at the same time, we’re on his side because of the way he’s treated by the pub’s owner, Forsythe (Bernard Cribbins). What perfect manipulation that is. I mean, is Richard the killer? And if so, why are we pulling for him?
Jason: Yeah, right away, we see that our protagonist, Richard, is down on his luck. He gets fired by the asshole pub owner, and we don’t know it yet, but Richard’s anger and circumstances are going to soon start putting him in the wrong places at the wrong times. This is a nice gradual setup that really works once all attention is on him as the primary suspect in the Necktie Murders.
James: The one aspect of Richard that makes me like him the most is the fact that he refuses to mooch off his friends. He’s down on his luck and has no money, yet he doesn’t ask for any help. That endeared me to him, for some reason.
Jason: Yes, that’s a great character trait.
James: Another reason I liked Richard is that he doesn’t win money at the races. That’s the typical luck for the typical, average guy. I think Hitchcock really nailed that Everyman notion this time. But I’ll admit, the first time I saw Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), I thought he was slimy, and I quickly had my doubts about him. What were your immediate thoughts of Rusk? Does he not just seem to be the antagonist right away? Maybe it’s his look, or the sweaty nature of the 70s in general, but I was like, Yeah, he’s the one.
Jason: Honestly, I didn’t think anything about him. I mean, Richard is just as 70s-sweaty as Rusk is. When we meet him, Rusk seems like a good chap, a friend of Richard’s who’s always at the ready for a pint down at the pub. Even later, as he’s coming on to Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), Richard’s ex-wife, in her office and becoming increasingly creepy, it took me a while to realize that he’s the murderer. He and Richard seemed to have an easy camaraderie. When Richard tells Rusk he’s been fired from the pub, Rusk says, “You weren’t pissing in the beer again, were you?” Their initial dialog suggested a fairly long friendship, so no, I didn’t suspect him.
James: Hahaha. I didn’t read it like that, but yeah, that’s good.
Jason: One thing I noticed about these early scenes, having read the biography, is the focus on the working-class greengrocers of London’s East End—a direct reference to Hitch’s childhood. His father was a greengrocer, so he knew that life.
James: I, too, noticed the working-class element of this film. I was actually trying to figure if Hitchcock was attempting to say something with all the vegetables everywhere, but by the end, I think it was just his way to show the working class, which somehow grounds the film.
Jason: Well, your mention of vegetables brings up an obvious motif throughout the film: food. There’s food everywhere in Frenzy, from the greengrocers constantly scuttling through the streets, to the key potato-truck incident, to Rusk picking his teeth after eating Brenda’s apple, to the grapes that Richard crushes in this opening sequence, to the “gourmet” meals that the police detective eats with horror … it’s everywhere. It’s like a character in the film.
James: There is certainly a lot of food in this film, but I never found it to be really intrusive in any way. I thought of it as just part of the setting.
Jason: In his book, Donald Spoto thinks all the food in this film points to Rusk’s act of “devouring people.” If you think about it, Rusk is constantly picking at his teeth, even right after his murders.
James: Hmmm, Rusk devouring people in a metaphorical sense? I like that. Anyway, moving on, we’re introduced to most of the main cast early on. What did you think of the leading woman, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey), Richard’s girlfriend from the pub? She’s a completely different kind of lead Hitch female, but I liked her. She has this quirky look, and she certainly acts the part rather nicely. And I love the way we learn that Babs and Richard are sleeping together, simply through their subtle dialog exchange in that early scene at the pub.
Jason: I like Babs. She’s got spunk. Unfortunately, she’s got that British overbite thing going on. But she’s attractive in her own way. She stands by her man, and as you say, she’s got some subtly humorous lines. I like the openness of their sexuality, and I must admit that I was genuinely surprised when she ultimately became Rusk’s second victim in the film. When she disappeared from the story, I really missed her presence in the narrative. Do you think that’s a flaw of the film, leaving the story without a balancing female presence for the last half? Or do you equate the shock of her exit with that of Psycho? At least that film had Vera Miles to pick up the female slack, but this film doesn’t have an equivalent character, unless you count the chief inspector’s wife.
James: I don’t equate Babs’ death with Marion’s in Psycho. Her character isn’t important enough. I can see where you’re coming from with the film lacking a balancing female, but I didn’t mind it at all. The murder happens late enough in the film to not have that effect. Plus, her death adds something to the drama.
Jason: Okay, but before we jump ahead to some of the events I’ve alluded to here, I want to mention our introduction to Brenda Blaney, Richard’s ex-wife, who—years after their breakup—owns a matchmaking business. “If you can’t make love, sell it!” Richard yells at her at one point. The thing that I find interesting about the whole episode of Richard going to the agency to talk with her is that Richard comes across as a total asshole. He’s such a grumpy, self-centered guy, and yet we’re still mostly on his side. Brenda herself seems like an okay lady, so I assume it must have been Richard who broke her heart. Or are we to assume by what he yells at her that she’s frigid? Regardless, he definitely comes across as cynical and abrasive. Why do we still like him?
James: Good question. Why do we still like him? Maybe we feel for him just enough in the film’s early scenes that it helps us accept him through these later ones? Richard totally comes across as an ass, but we don’t really know why he and Brenda got a divorce. Heck, maybe it wasn’t his fault. I did enjoy the way Hitchcock managed to fill the film with sexual innuendos and jokes. Richard’s quote is a great example. There’s also that humorous couple in the first scene at the matchmaking agency who seem to be a terrible match, but they end up walking off happily together. I find that totally interesting. And I loved the fact that Brenda essentially sells love.
Jason: Agreed about the sex/relationship humor of Frenzy. At times, Hitch comes across as a dirty old man in this film, but I’m loving it.
James: I liked Brenda’s secretary, Monica Barling (Jean Marsh), at the matchmaking agency. She has this odd, suspicious look about her, and her demeanor is really well developed. She really stands out in her scenes, whereas Brenda comes across as quiet and cold. Sure, Brenda seems nice, but her demeanor is off-putting.
Jason: Yes, I like the secretary too, and I like that she’s immediately set up as suspicious of Richard, so it’s believable later when she has to (falsely) identify him as Brenda’s murderer. As for Brenda, you’re right, she’s a bit stiff and cold.
James: I immediately didn’t like her, even though she helps Richard. I didn’t hate her, but something turned me off about her.
Jason: Well, since you don’t like Brenda, let’s talk about her murder scene. First of all, when Rusk walks into the agency, strutting and creepy, I’m just wondering what the hell he’s up to. I’m wondering about his history with Brenda. You say you had your suspicions all along, but I didn’t know what he wanted. I just thought his actions were increasingly disturbing and had something to do with bizarre but harmless sexual tendencies that Brenda had dealt with before. What I’m saying is, because she knew Rusk and had a history with him and understood his tendencies, I didn’t really buy that he would choose her as a victim. Why does his rage come to a head now? What’s the trigger for this murder? Hmmm.
James: I wasn’t too clear on Rusk’s motivations, either. Is it possible that he also knew the other women he killed? It’s hard to say. But with Brenda, the murder did seem off for some reason. Maybe it just seems too risky? Then again, maybe his rage is a result of women not liking him. But that wouldn’t explain his murder of Babs. Regardless, I really like Brenda’s murder scene. I like the way it keeps building and building.
Jason: The whole scene is brutal. Rusk gets increasingly threatening as he talks with Brenda. Finally, he forces himself on her, and Hitch even shows us some more nudity. This film is definitely the most lurid of all his movies. And the scene gets more disturbing. As Rusk murmurs, “Lovely … lovely … lovely,” we know he’s raping her, and we know that he’s the Necktie Murderer.
Jason: Yeah, that doesn’t hold up, does it? Anyway, now the whole “wrong man” scenario is set in motion, and I smiled as I saw it all being set up. We can see how Richard’s hot-tempered actions would be suspicious after the fact, and I love the moment when we see Rusk exit the crime scene (the agency), then pan over smoothly to see Richard approaching. And we just know he’s already in deep shit.
James: Yeah, watching the wrong-man setup unfold is almost painful. We know it’s coming, but we’re powerless to stop it. What a great setup. I winced when I saw the secretary walking back to the agency from her lunch break, on her way to spotting Richard and discovering Brenda’s body. Oh yeah, we know it’s on now.
Jason: And now, as in so many Hitch flicks, our hero is on the run. I like how Richard hooks up with Babs, and even though he’s on the run from the police, he makes time to check into a hotel and spend a sultry night with her. This whole sequence is pretty naughty, with Richard checking in as Oscar Wilde and booking the Cupid Room, and the bellhop asking Richard, “Can I get you anything from the pharmacy?” (nudge, nudge), as well as the full-frontal nudity later …
James: Good stuff.
Jason: And when the proprietors see the story about Richard in the newspaper, that he’s the primary suspect in the murder, I about bust a gut when the man says, “He’s right upstairs!” and the woman cries out, “Do you mean Oscar Wilde??” By the way, that woman, Gladys (Elsie Randolph), played the spinster in Rich and Strange!
James: She starred in Hitch movies in 1931 and 1972! Say, what did you think of the couple that helps Richard—Johnny Porter (Clive Swift) and Hetty Porter (Billie Whitelaw)? I’m not sure how I felt about Richard finding a place to hole up. I wanted him to be on the run and appear to be guilty of the murder of Brenda and Babs. Sure, the bitchy Hetty points out flaws in Richard’s alibi, but those weren’t strong enough for me. I wanted the picture to be a little muddier so that when Johnny is talked into not going to the police, he would have more doubt about the whole thing.
Jason: You know, I hadn’t really thought about Johnny and Hetty in the grand scheme of things. But you’re right, they represent a dead spot in the middle of the film. That’s a good point. It would have been much more dramatic to see Richard without the safety net of a hideout. I wonder why Hitch chose this route? It would have been much more interesting for him to hide out with Babs, although that would have been one of the first places the cops would have looked. Hmmm. Still, even that would have introduced more energy into the story—when Babs is killed, he would have been even more of a suspect, after the cops would have found out he was staying at her place. See, we should have written this screenplay.
James: You know what I didn’t like at all? The scene in which Richard all but proves he isn’t the murderer, since he was in the couple’s apartment when Babs was killed. Hetty ends up striking down Richard’s potential alibi. Sure, it’s fairly tense because he had a way out but doesn’t get it, but it’s also frustrating—for two reasons. First, Richard’s girl was just murdered and it doesn’t seem to trouble him that much, and second, Hetty’s reasoning is weak. The scene gets the job done, but not in a very powerful way.
Jason: I agree with you about that scene. Everything about Johnny and Hetty seems underwritten.
James: And the whole story arc with Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan)—what’s the deal with the his wife (Vivien Merchant)? Seeing her always cooking those crazy, disgusting meals is such a big part of the movie, but I have no idea what to take from it. Is it simply comic relief?
Jason: I liked the character of the chief inspector, and the whole dynamic with his wife. I love that she makes these horrible, indigestible meals, and he has to eat real food at the precinct. It all adds to this movie’s obsession with food. And of course, she makes some kind of quail dish, introducing Hitch’s bird symbolism into the film. But I like their relationship, overall. It seems to fit in with a lot of other older-couple marriages in Hitch’s movies. Some of the inspector’s expressions and gestures while he’s trying to eat that food—priceless. And the wife functions as an amateur sleuth—a favorite character of Hitch’s—while her husband outlines the case as he sifts disgustedly through that fish soup.
James: There is some funny stuff in there, and I guess I can see where you’re coming from.
Jason: So now we come to the death of Babs. I still think this is a shocking death. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitch was going for a similar effect to Psycho, not because of the star power of the actress in this case, but just because Babs isn’t set up as a potential victim. I think he’s manipulating audience expectations by killing off not one but both of the film’s female leads. I know I was surprised. I expected her to survive.
James: It was a little surprising, but nowhere near as stunning as Psycho.
Jason: There’s a definite sense of foreboding as Rusk offers Babs a place to stay after she quits her pub job. And when he’s walking with her up the stairs to his flat and says, “You’re my type of woman,” you think Uh oh. Perhaps this movie’s best shot comes next, as the camera follows them upstairs, then recedes silently back down the stairs and out into the street. There are two uses of silence in this whole sequence that are simply expert. The first is when Babs is out in front of the pub, and Rusk is just about to approach her. All the sound in the film suddenly drowns out as if muffled. The second is that sweep out into the street, when we know Babs is about to meet her doom. Hitch is a senior citizen at this point, but he’s still got it.
James: I loved the silent pullback during Babs’ murder scene.
Jason: An equally effective moment is when we see Rusk come to the realization that his lapel pin is gone, just after he’s disposed of Babs’ body in the potato truck. We see him do a quick flashback to snippets of the murder, then search his flat frantically. He opens those bottom drawers of his dresser, and we see her clothes in there. It’s a bit disturbing the way he just casually rifles through her clothes, and we know that he’s placed them there following Babs’ rape and murder.
James: Seeing Babs’ clothes that way … that’s so perfect. We don’t see Babs being killed, we just see her clothes. That makes the murder even more powerful for us because our minds play out the horrible scene that we don’t see.
James: This scene and the potato-truck scene totally make the movie. Frenzy needed something ghastly at this point. Also, this whole sequence shows that Rusk is fallible. I loved watching him realize that his pin is gone, then seeing him search frantically for it.
Jason: So Rusk goes back to the potato truck to get his lapel pin. He gets stuck in the truck as it’s driven away, and as he’s thrown about back there, he has all kinds of trouble with Babs’ stiffened body and all the potatoes flying around. There’s a lot of grisly humor in this scene that had me rolling.
James: Once again, Hitchcock has created a scene that pulls us in two directions. On the one hand, we want Rusk to be captured because he’s the bad guy and we want Richard off the hook. But on the other hand, we want the drama to continue. We want Rusk to be successful here so that we can see a bigger showdown later. It’s this pulling in two directions that makes the scene so effective. Of course, it’s also got great humor. I laughed out loud when Babs’ foot was crammed into his face. Hahaha.
Jason: The scene in the truck is just plain hysterical. I was laughing hard. Potatoes rolling everywhere, Babs’ stiff naked legs scissoring all over the place, her foot mashing into Rusk’s face—great black humor. And when Rusk finally finds the pin clutched in her fingers, he has to crack them open because of rigor mortis. Very grisly, but very funny, in its own way. Loved the shot of the police following the truck, too, seeing the body fall out the back.
James: I’m laughing again, just thinking about it.
Jason: Now we come to the part of the film in which Richard is caught and accused. In one more unfortunate move, Richard goes straight to Rusk for help, unknowingly sealing his doom. Rusk hides Richard in his flat and points the police straight to him. Hitch gives some great audience manipulation in the scene in which Richard is looking through Rusk’s drawers to find room to store his stuff, and Richard’s almost to the drawer where we’ve seen Babs’ clothes when the police barge in. We think Richard was moments from discovering the truth, but in reality, Rusk has stashed Babs’ clothes in Richard’s bag.
James: Richard going back to Rusk is a great plot twist. We know the truth, but Richard doesn’t. That’s very important for the drama of this film. But what I really like is how Richard’s position among the fruit is reminiscent of the scene in which we meet Rusk. I like how a very similar shot can have two completely different emotions once we know the truth of what’s happening.
Jason: And after everything is said and done, in a confidently shot scene, mostly in silence, Hitch shows us that Richard is tried and found guilty, sentenced to 25 years in prison.
James: Reminded me of Grace Kelly’s sentencing in Dial M for Murder.
Jason: Nice catch! Now, Frenzy essentially becomes the story of Inspector Oxford, and you could say that it’s thanks to Mrs. Oxford that Richard’s case is reopened after the fact.
James: I loved the whole final act of this film, which also reminds me of Dial M for Murder, in that suddenly we have this inspector who steps into the film’s spotlight and solves the whole mystery. At the same time, we have the addition of even more humor, this time with the inspector’s wife. Personally, I think the plot device works well in both films.
Jason: Yeah, I enjoyed watching the inspector flash back on Richard’s screaming rage in the courtroom. “It’s Rusk!” And everything falls into place as he visits the secretary at the Blaney agency with Rusk’s photograph. (She identifies him as Mr. Robertson, a masochist.) And yeah, we get more funny scenes with Mrs. Oxford, in which she insists Richard was innocent all along. Loved the shot of her breaking the crisp bread as they’re talking about Babs’ rigor mortis.
James: At the same time, Richard is still “doing.” He’s not just stuck in prison and helpless. He’s about to escape the prison and go after Rusk. I think that’s what’s key here. We have two elements moving forward to take down Rusk, and they work hand in hand. And both are leading to Rusk’s apartment, the perfect ending location.
Jason: As far as Richard taking action inside prison, staging a jailbreak, did you have the fear that he would somehow fail in his escape and somehow doom himself, not knowing that forces were at work outside to set him free? I mean, how ironic would it be for him to get himself killed by a guard, moments before the inspector saves the day and frees him? Might have been an interesting, though obviously downbeat ending.
James: I’m with you. Part of me expected (or perhaps wanted) something to go wrong with Richard’s escape. I actually thought he’d get to Rusk and possibly kill him, which would then doom him for murder even though he would be cleared of any previous wrongdoing. But the downbeat ending … they just don’t happen that often.
Jason: Hitch has done downbeat endings before, though. Look at Vertigo. The ending you outline would have been fantastic, but as it is, it ain’t half bad. I mean, just the grisliness of Richard unknowingly hacking away at that dead girl in Rusk’s bed is pretty terrific.
James: Did you expect a dead body in his bed? I loved it. And hearing Rusk coming up the stairs, then realizing he’s pulling a wheelbarrow … nicely done. The realization of the fact that Rusk is coming back up the stairs is priceless.
Jason: I sure didn’t expect Rusk to be in that bed when Richard starts pounding it, but I also didn’t expect the body of another murder victim to be in there. That’s great stuff, especially in light of the fact that the inspector bursts in at just that moment, and you think that poor Richard is further implicating himself. He’s put himself at the wrong place at the wrong time again. That’s great writing, man.
James: Yeah, the entire final part of this film is perfect. It really has it all.
Jason: Then Rusk comes in, all guilty, and the inspector says, “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie.” Terrific!
James: “You’re not wearing your tie.” That’s so perfect. I also liked the fact that Rusk doesn’t run. There easily could’ve been another 5-minute chase sequence, but instead, the movie’s done. That’s the way it should be.
Jason: So, taking a global view, what did you think of Rusk as a villain, overall? Or for that matter, Richard as a main character? I think they’re both a bit lightweight. We don’t know much about Rusk, and as we said, Richard comes off as self-centered and sullen and unlikable. And what about the women? Just wanted to talk for a moment about the effectiveness of these characters. I would say that I like this movie more for its plot than its characters, more for the humor and underlying themes and technique than for the actors portraying the parts. Know what I mean? I guess I’d say that’s where Frenzy can’t compare to the great character-driven films of the classic Hitch era.
James: I’m with you. No character really stood out for me in Frenzy. I don’t think it was necessarily due to the acting, just that there was nothing outstanding about any of them. And like you said, the plot and humor are so good that this film doesn’t need big personalities. Might that have helped? Certainly. But as it is, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Jason: So, I’d rank Frenzy fairly high, considering the surprise of it this late in Hitch’s career, but it’s definitely not up to the caliber of his best work.
James: Same here.