A suitcase full of Macguffins and Harrison Ford doesn’t even speak French! Polanski’s 1988 attempt at mimicking The Fat Man has stood the test of 23 years relatively well. When Richard Walker’s (Ford) wife goes missing whilst they are in Paris for a medical convention his ordered world descends into the seedy, corrupt and eventually political underbelly of the city. In a move Alfred would’ve approved of, Walker has no idea for his wife’s disappearance and little understanding of the wider events until the final twenty minutes or so.
Frantic was made after Pirates in Polanski’s career. Pirates was a disaster in terms of gross and there is a feeling that Polanski felt he could deliver a commercial thriller to regain some of his status and most importantly his treasured “final cut”, allowing him the freedom to make the pictures he desired personally. He’s right, Frantic is a functional, sometimes breathless homage to Hitchcock. The twists and revelations that befall Walker as he desperately tries to understand what has happened build satisfyingly, the threats feel real, the Macguffin plausible and nicely ambiguous. Made by a debutante, Frantic would be considered remarkable but in Polanski’s ouevre sits in the corner quietly. There are flashes of the Repulsion maker’s best. Seen from Richard’s perspective, his wife’s last moments before her disappearance make for a poignant reminder of her throughout the rest of the film, a feeling that we are looking for OUR wife and a textbook example of how camera placement can be crucial to the story (and of what a director actually does).
Ford is an interesting choice. A stoic actor intelligent enough to rarely play against type. He has a tendency to look uncomfortable in a suit and has trouble acting weak, like Eastwood he is a REAL AMERICAN HERO and suffers when asked to be confused and vulnerable. Required to do both here, he just about gets away with it, the language barrier proving enough of a cover for his overwhelmingly heroic persona. The sight of Ford sniffing coke off a dealer’s fingernail or getting cold cocked naked is certainly novel and definitely entertaining. Looking back, it seems incredible that the man who plays the flawed, modern man better than most wasn’t asked. Michael Douglas has made a career out of playing Richard Walkers. Affluent, successful men inches from the whole package, the American dream. Still, Ford does his best, even managing to conjure some chemistry between himself and the young, French girl he reluctantly teams up with (Emmanuelle Seigner).
A supporting cast of Arabs, French Police, snooty hotel staff, an unusual Jamaican, a dead drug dealer and Frasier’s Dad round out the film, adding colour and texture to a wonderfully drab, rainy Paris. Walker’s wife, Sondra, played by Betty Buckley is, ahem, nicely aged, making her a realistic partner for “trying to be regular guy” Ford. Realism is, surprisingly, not something Hollywood always aims for in these situations.
Frantic could easily be described as sub-Hitchcock and even sub-Polanski but that just boils down to not being either Chinatown or North By Northwest. Frantic is a solid, uncomplicated, baggage free thriller, delivered efficiently by a director smart enough to leave anything unnecessary out. The Walker’s arrive in Paris, the wife goes missing, the situation escalates, a resolution is reached, the credits roll. Easy. Hollywood should make 20 or 30 of them a year….