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The title might seem a bit misleading based upon the first fifteen minutes of Roman Polanski‘s Frantic, where we watch what seems like a rather generic journey from the airport to the hotel in downtown Paris. In the back of a taxi, Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) sits alert, staring blankly ahead while his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) rests her head on his shoulder. While the typical Paris introduction in movies hits all the hotspots, this ride starts with a flat tire on a crowded highway. We see crowded roads and traffic stopped by a garbage truck. This is not the lover’s Paris.
The two are in town for a medical conference and as they are exhausted, decide to stay inside for the day, but things take a turn when they realize she has taken the wrong suitcase with her from the airport. Richard makes a call to the airline and then takes a shower and it is from here where the tone shifts. Looking from inside the shower, through the water splashed glass door to the bedroom beyond, we witness Sondra take a phone call and her attempt to give a message to Richard but one he doesn’t hear so she pauses, then steps out of view. A suitcase on the floor at her feet is dragged behind her. It will be the last we see of her for nearly the length of the movie. Where she went and why and with who is the mystery Walker must now try and solve. Doing so is no easy task as he is first faced with bureaucracy, red tape, and miscommunication. Then much, much more.
Harrison Ford has always been an actor of great intensity who, no matter his often off-screen inaccessibility, has given the characters he creates tremendous appeal. With Frantic, a film that is decidedly not an action story–a genre Ford has long made a career as one of its most successful stars–he finds opportunity to be a true leading man in the tradition of Cary Grant, an everyman ensnared in a deadly game of murder and intrigue.
Watch in the beginning as he transitions from the curious husband out of the shower, naturally thinking perhaps Sondra has went down to the lobby, however improbably it seems, to a stalwart investigator. Concerned, he dresses, but not in panic for what could possibly be wrong? He searches the lobby and the outside sidewalk and then returns to the front desk and asks to see the manager, calmly explaining that his wife is missing. There is a potency to his action, a reserved man teetering on an unfamiliar edge in a land where he doesn’t speak the language. It is the start of a series of frustrating encounters with hotel security, police, and embassy staff that leave him jaded and feeling helpless, but more so, alone. That is important and shifts his entire approach to learning of his wife’s whereabouts.
Consider a call he makes to his daughter after realizing his wife has indeed been kidnapped and every avenue he’s been down leading him either further down the rabbit hole or worse. As his happy teenaged child expresses delight in hearing from her father, she hears a tinge of worry in his voice, but he does his best to mask his fear and dismay, unable to tell her the truth and instead, wishes her well and to return to a party she is hosting. They hang up and then he breaks down.
Look at a pivotal scene on a rooftop where Richard must make his way across a steep, slippery labyrinth of slopes and angles with a damaged suitcase. He is not a graceful secret agent, but an imbalanced, terrified doctor who missteps and nearly plummets to his death, clinging to an antenna while the contents of the case trickle out and down to the edges. This lengthy, dialogue-free sequence is a staggeringly effective piece of direction, but it is made doubly impactful due to Ford’s believable, desperate performance. The scene is a metaphor of the film itself, a man in the wrong place, on a dangerous ledge, mishandling a mysterious situation.
It is Ford’s humanity in the role, a hero that defies heroics, that lends itself to such greatness, but at the same, could be reason why audiences rejected it on release. His co-star for the second act is the stunning Emmanuelle Seigner playing a young French woman whose suitcase is confused with Sondra. She is Michelle, a petty smuggler who has brought back to France something of great value and worth a lot of money to some very bad people. A leggy, sultry woman, in any other film, especially by today’s standards, she would be mostly reduced to sex, a distraction and or throwaway plaything for the star to bed. Here though, that’s the farthest from Richard’s mind. For example, at her apartment, when the girl removes her top to change clothes in view of the doctor, Richard simply closes the door. There is no temptation, or as such, he shuts it out, as this is a character who will not let the casual acceptable vices of typical thrillers dent him in the slightest.
That’s the real gamble for the movie, where most audiences want their star to get the girl as it were, a formula that has been the cornerstone of any potboiler Hollywood thriller. Frantic isn’t interested in romance, at least the extramarital persuasion. Conversely, Richard might be considered the greatest romantic, risking his life to bring back his wife. His devotion to her is uncompromising throughout and that in itself is the real core of the story, one that may have been made in sacrifice to the traditional paint-by-numbers film script but pays off in great dividends for the film fan seeking greater challenges in their movies.
Ford carries this film with the same physically dominating and impressive presence he has in most of his films, but there is a depth here that goes beyond the traits that have made him special in his bigger hits. In no way diminishing his great work as Indiana Jones, here he has no outwardly obvious character traits to define him, nor a costume in which to create the memorable silhouette of an indestructible hero. This is a character much more identifiable, vulnerable, desperate, and yet intelligent and trustworthy enough for the audience to embrace.
While Polanski’s vivid direction is exceptional, from the brilliant opening credits montage that has names dropping in and zooming forward as if the film already implies you will be racing to catch up to its shadowed back alleys and late night club moments that give this Paris a dangerous edge, it is the characters within this setting that make Frantic worth examining. And examination is the correct word since every frame invites your eyes to wander into the peripherals to soak up the atmosphere and search for clues. Frantic is a cinematic masterpiece.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach
Stars: Harrison Ford, Betty Buckley, Emmanuelle Seigner