Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

FRANTIC (France-USA, 1988)*** 1/2

Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Polanski and Gerard Brach. Cinematography, Witold Sobocinski. Editing, Sam O'Steen. Production design, Pierre Guffroy. Music, Ennio Morricone. Produced by Thom Mount and Tim Hampton. Cast: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, John Mahoney, Betty Buckley, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Yorgo Voyagis, David Huddleston, Gerard Klein, et al. A Warners release. 120 minutes. Rated R.

From its first shots, FRANTIC generates and keeps up such terrific suspense that it makes most (if not all) other thrillers of the 80s taste like porridge. The suspense is deliberate, slow, stretched out in an utterly commonplace atmosphere --and it is exceptionally effective. San Francisco doctor Walker ( Harrison Ford) arrives in Paris, with his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley, ) for a medical convention, with a bit of tax-exempt sightseeing on the side and a second honeymoon away from the kids. They are exhausted by the long trip and jet-lag. On the "peripherique" -- the belt-road around Paris-- their taxi has a flat. Even this red herring happening carries suspense. They later totter into the Grand Hotel. The bleary-eyed couple of generic American tourists are dutifully determined to start their stay with croissants and a roll in bed. But bed and breakfast are not to be. While Ford is showering noisily, with gleeful anticipation of things to come, the phone rings and his wife answers. When the man steps out of the shower, the lady has vanished.

You' re made to feel all along that something ominous is going to happen, but since you don't know what this might be, every moment, object and tiny event is laden with suspense.

Director Polanski has assimilated better than any other filmmaker the techniques of Alfred Hitchcock, where the most common thing could be uncommon, where the blandest face could become sinister, where the extraordinary lies within the ordinary. Later, Polanski  also pays additional, discreet homage to the Master in ways that Hitchcockians will spot -- from the ironic use of the Statue of Liberty to a rooftop scene. But there's a difference in attitudes. Hitchcock mocks gently both his principals and their entourage, while Polanski practices a restrained irony only on the surrounding people and places . He is entirely serious about his protagonist Harrison Ford.

Tension mounts unrelentingly as Ford goes from puzzlement to questions in the lobby, from fruitless inquiries on the spot to the police station, then to the US. Embassy. Finally he is forced to embark on his own, desperate, frantic search.

Every imaginable frustration stands in his way, and every stumbling- block is genuine and observed with sardonic precision --even black humor -- by the script and its execution. Ford speaks no French and is at the mercy of the good will of interpreters. The hotel personnel is amiable but skeptical : wives have been known to fly the coop -- not a big deal in France. The familiar quirks and annoyances of daily life in Paris add to the difficulties  --like people on the phone who don't want to be disturbed and hang up. Complicating  Ford's miseries are the peculiar, private and official Gallic attitudes toward any problem. Compounding this are their specific attitudes toward Americans, whom they see as un-Cartesian, unsophisticated simpletons. Underlying that is the familiar, slightly sadistic pleasure (which the entire planet shares) in getting back at the Yanks who have had it so good for so long. Let the Americans stew.

The cops treat Ford with haughty superiority. The American Embassy people -- once the breathless Ford has run through the gauntlet of security measures-- are cold, indifferent and unhelpful. The doctor is on his own, in a Paris  shown with superb calculation and naturalness, neither as Gay Paree nor as an artificially sinister metropolis.

Against all odds, Ford --who ought to be distracted to perdition with worry -- somehow  keeps his wits. Taking his main clue from a wrong suitcase, the harassed, dead-tired husband doggedly follows it and becomes involved in a nightmarish investigation . It  leads him to odd but very real places, and to fringe people. Among them stands out a black-leather young woman, Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner). She's sexy, with long legs that Polanski's camera caresses with low-angle shots, but Ford does not .

The film is smart. It  gives you some of the conventions of "film noir" but it does not get into all-out cliches. The girl 's erotic presence is palpable (her dancing is like vertical copulation), but this is not used as a distraction or a love interest. Keeping up mercilessly the suspense of the search is what matters.

There does come a point where some filmic overkill sets in --and I mean this more figuratively than literally-- where, in plot twists and in persons introduced, too much is too much, especially by the standards of Alfred Hitchcock who would have built up developments more soberly while he would have kept going with character development. (That's why I think of the construction of his pictures as "clean." ) Even so, the first part of Frantic is masterly, the second part confident of itself, and the third, in spite of its gimmickry, still has some good touches.

Harrison Ford, a true professional whose talent and versatility tend to be forgotten because of his Han Solo and Indiana Jones roles, confirms here the appeal of his unpretentiousness. Newcomer Emmanuelle Seigner gets off to a pretty indecent start. She's the granddaughter of the legendary Louis Seigner, star of the Comedie Francaise. The supporting cast, especially the hotel and police people, are perfect in their realism: the more you know France the better those actors are. Polanski chose them and directed them with impressive precision.

Roman Polanski was born in Paris in 1933 of Polish-Jewish parents who returned to Poland three years later. Soon after came the occupation by the Nazis, the persecution of Jews and the deportation of his family to death camps. Roman, who had escaped the Germans, survived. Later he studied and made films in Poland, became famous. A cosmopolitan who knew well big cities, he used them in his works with moody authenticity: London in Repulsion, Paris in The Tenant, New York in Rosemary's Baby, Los Angeles in Chinatown.

The production values of Frantic are outstanding. Polanski surrounded himself with a who's who of collaborators. French scenarist (and director) Gerard Brach worked here with Polanski for the ninth time. Among his fifty-odd screenplays are The Two Of Us ("Le Vieil homme et l'enfant"), Quest For Fire, The Name Of The Rose, Jean De Florette, Manon of the Spring, Maria's Lovers. Editor Sam O'steen had already three Oscar nominations (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Chinatown, Silkwood). Designer Pierre Guffroy had won two Oscars (Tess, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Composer Ennio Morricone is a legend in his field. Director of photography Sobocinski, a Polish collaborator of Andrzej Wajda, proved again what an incredible source of great cinematographers Poland is, especially the film school at Lodz, Polanski's alma mater.

Curiously, this is the second movie called "Frantic," at least in English. The first (called in France Elevator to the Gallows) was also a thriller, also made in France, also set in Paris. It was one of the very first works of the French New Wave, and the first fiction feature by Louis Malle, who, curiously, as in the case of Polanski, was one of the few European filmmakers to be very successful with the pictures that they made in America.

Oddly, except for a small, faithful following, Frantic has been underrated and paid little attention to from the time of its release on.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel