Alfred Hitchcock entered the 1970s with his commercial reputation virtually in tatters, a far cry from his stature at the start of the 1960s. Then, he'd been in the middle of the massively successful trio of movies, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, and was a ubiquitous presence on television thanks to his anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- but the series ended, and he'd suffered three expensive box-office failures in a row, Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz, in the second half of the 1960s. He redeemed himself with Frenzy, however, which marked his return not only to England for the first time in 20 years but also to the subject matter with which he'd started his career in thrillers back in 1926 -- murder, and a hunt for a serial killer in London. As the latest female victim of the "Necktie Murderer" is found in the Thames, raped and strangled, we meet Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a bitter, belligerent ex-Royal Air Force officer who can't seem to find his way in life. He drinks too much and holds grudges too easily, and has an explosive temper, which is very near the surface as he's just lost his job. We also meet his girlfriend, a barmaid (Anna Massey); his ex-wife, a professional matchmaker (Barbara Leigh-Hunt); and his best friend, Covent Garden fruit seller Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Their connection to the necktie murders will be clear to us in the first 30 minutes of the movie and, not coincidentally, completely misinterpreted by the police, as Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan) and his men tighten a circle around the wrong man, who rapidly runs out of options and allies.
The chase and suspense are classic Hitchcock, favorably recalling a dozen of his earlier movies, from The Lodger and The 39 Steps through Saboteur and Spellbound to Dial M for Murder and North by Northwest, with some new twists and the added energy afforded by the extensive use of actual London locations. There's also a good deal more sex and nudity here than Hitchcock was ever allowed to use in his earlier movies, owing to the relaxation of "decency" standards that had taken place in the years leading up to this production. The suspense derives from multiple interlocking and overlapping layers of uncertainty -- when will each of the two men, suspect and murderer, slip? (And which will slip first?) When and how will the police realize their mistake, and will it be in time to save the innocent man? Amid the straightforward storytelling and thriller elements, Hitchcock manages to slip in a few bravura cinematic moments, the best of them a pullback shot down a flight of stairs into a busy street as the killer invites his next victim into his home, as well as a scene aboard a truck, with a murderer desperately wrestling with a corpse hidden in a sack of potatoes. Frenzy was adapted from Arthur La Bern's novel Goodbye Picadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by mystery aficionado Anthony Shaffer, but for all of that and its decidedly modern trappings of sex and violence, it bears the indelible stylistic stamp of Alfred Hitchcock.