Richard Blaney is down on his luck: divorced, jobless, and suspected of a serious of horrific strangling murders after his ex-wife becomes one of a serial killer's victims. We're never in doubt about the real criminal, a Covent Garden merchant called Bob Rusk, or about Blaney's innocence, but no one else will believe the truth. After his imprisonment, Blaney manages to escape and tracks Rusk down to his apartment to wrest justice from the killer.
1972's Frenzy marked a return of the Master of Suspense to the mystery genre after his pair of less successful spy thrillers, Topaz and Torn Curtain. It also allowed Hitchcock to revisit his childhood stomping grounds of Covent Garden in London. There's a wonderful shot early in the film from the rooftops overlooking the busy streets, really capturing a great sense of the sights and smells of this bustling part of a great city.
Before we even meet the main character, the hapless and wrongly-accused Richard Blaney, we've already been treated to both the grisly and very public discovery of a strangled body floating in the Thames, and Hitchcock's signature cameo – watch for him in the crowd a few minutes in, wearing a bowler and framed in perfect profile by the people around him.
After all the American heroes in Hitchcock's cannon, from North By Northwest's Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to Rear Window's L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), Jon Finch's Blaney is refreshing and unique, a blue-collar working man fired from his job after being accused – rightly or wrongly we never really know – of theft. His defender is the barmaid Babs, destined to become a victim of the serial killer.
First, however, the killer murders Blaney's ex-wife Brenda, in a fitful assemblage of fast cuts reminiscent of the famous shower sequence from Psycho, and just as memorable. The most horrifying part of the crime is that Barbara knows early on that she is going to be raped, but the killer's ultimate intentions don't occur to her until he is finished with the sexual assault and removes his tie. Up until that point, she seems to truly believe the worst will be over if she only allows herself to be raped.
The script, written by playwright and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (The Wicker Man) from the novel by Arthur La Bern, strikes all the rights notes, building the series of circumstances that lead to Blaney's appearance of guilt perfectly. Hitchcock, however, takes a strong story and puts his own obsessively planned touch on it. There's a moment that in lesser hands could play as a cliché, for example, in which Blaney emerges from his ex's office onto the street, observed by her returning secretary who we know is moments from discovering her employer's brutalized body. Hitchcock keeps his camera on the street and makes us wait... and wait... for the scream we know is coming.
Early on, Frenzy also features one of the most accurate and succinct profiles of a sexual sociopath ever voiced in cinema; this script knows the pathology of its antagonist in a way that would make John Douglas proud. Unlike so many films featuring psychopathic killers, Frenzy gets its right. The exciting but vastly erroneous “Criminal Minds” would be well off to take notes.
This is truly one of Hitchcock's greatest, a thriller that stands the test of time, featuring excellent performances and characterizations, and some of the director's finest depictions of a wide variety of human relationships and motivations.
And it's a great yarn as well, told with panache and inventiveness. Watch the way Hitchcock moves outside the room in which Blaney and his ex-wife are arguing to linger on the face of Brenda's secretary as she dresses to leave the office, or
Frenzy was Hitchcock's penultimate film; the last, Family Plot, doesn't hold up nearly so well, and it's almost a shame it wasn't Frenzy we remember as the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career.
In a year when a remake of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth is in theaters, take the opportunity to visit or revisit another of his screenplays, a fine amalgam of a great script and a superb director, and one of the best thrillers ever made.