Review: Frantic (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #744

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 26, 1988
Sub-Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States, France
Budget: $20,000,000
Box Office: $17,600,000
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Producers: Tim Hampton, Thom Mount
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach, Robert Towne (uncredited), Jeff Gross (uncredited)
Cinematography: Witold Sobociński
Score: Ennio Morricone
Editing: Sam O’Steen
Studios: Warner Bros., The Mount Company
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Stars: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, Betty Buckley, John Mahoney, Jimmie Ray Weeks, Yorgo Voyagis, David Huddleston, Alexandra Stewart, Gérard Klein, Dominique Pinon, Artus de Penguern

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Foo Fighters “Learn To Fly”

[2] Charles Trénet “La romance de Paris”

[3] Grace Jones “Strange”

[4] Ennio Morricone “Frantic”

There are few prospects more daunting than that of a long-haul international flight. Let’s just presume that you remembered to pick up your passport from the dresser just before leaving home, that there’s not a discrepancy with your tickets, and that the flight isn’t delayed ten minutes before boarding. By all accounts, it has run reasonably smooth thus far and, in little over twelve hours time, you’ll be landing in your destination and all set to commence your cross-Atlantic adventure. However, once the hostess wraps up her pre-flight safety demonstration and the fasten seat belt sign above your compartment begins to flash, that’s over 720 grueling minutes to endure, packed tight into your economy seating, without a possible avenue for escape.

Around thirty minutes has passed before the pungent odor of the overweight gentleman in 37H’s chafing buttocks begins to drift back into your proximity. By that point, your in-flight meal is about to arrive, and you curse your rotten luck for selecting the aisle seat as the hostess trolley takes the skin off your elbows for the third time in as many minutes. Dinner is then served but, as you peel back the lid on your vacuum-packed food tray to reveal a sloppy pasta bake that curiously resembles a diseased skin graft floating in a pool of orangutan sweat, you suddenly don’t feel peckish anymore.

You take the execute decision to catch a quick forty winks but are unable to claim a single one, thanks to the constant whining of the snot-nosed little brat in 34H. It’s little Timmy’s first time flying and his ears just popped due to altitude adjustment. Just as his parents manage to calm him down, there’s an unexpected bout of turbulence and he throws up in the lap of the poor unfortunate sitting next to him. It just so happens that the occupant of 34G is none other than you, after switching seats before take off because a pair of newlyweds couldn’t bear to be parted.

Eventually, with your fast-slipping sanity hanging by the most slender of threads, the captain announces that he’s about to make the final descent. A tremendous wave of relief washes over you and, after almost an hour of waiting around for border control to grant you entry while busting for a poo, you arrive at the carousel to reclaim your baggage and the nightmare finally appears to be over. Or is it?

Fancy-pants surgeon Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) have the answer to that question and have just endured a similarly torturous ten-hour flight from San Francisco to gay Paris, albeit likely in the first class cabin being waited on hand and foot. While pleased to be back in this great city, twenty years after they spent their honeymoon here, the only sight they wish to see right now is the interior of their eyelids. Resting up is imperative as this trip is intended for business not pleasure and Richard is expected to give a public address at a medical convention packed wall to wall with dignitaries before the jet lag has had a chance to wear off.

On the upside, their arrival at their deluxe hotel is greeted with friendly smiles and staff more than willing to bend over backwards to accommodate their every whim. Better yet, while not the most spacious, their room is clean and bed linen fresh. Regrettably, Sondra appears to be having a little trouble unlocking her suitcase and, after a short spell of unsuccessful grappling, the realization sinks in that she has collected the wrong person’s luggage.

It’s an inconvenience for sure but nothing a quick phone call won’t fix and, while she does precisely that, Richard grabs the opportunity to take a well-deserved shower. After a thorough and refreshing soak down, he grabs a towel and makes his way into the bedroom to join his wife. However, Sondra’s no longer present.

Perhaps she has gone down to reception to exchange her travel bag or popped out for a breath of fresh Paris air. It’s certainly no cause for concern and, after half a day spent practically conjoined at the hip, a few minutes apart could be just what the doctor ordered. With lids growing ever heavier by the second and that cozy divan looking ever so inviting, he slumps to the mattress and drops almost instantly into a deep and restful sleep. In a few short hours, Richard will awake feeling positively rejuvenated, lean over and kiss his still snoozing wife of twenty years tenderly on her forehead, and be set to tackle whatever challenges the new day brings.

Or perhaps not. You see, Sondra still hasn’t returned and Richard is now beginning to grow just a tad frantic. Without dalliance, he does the common sense thing and quizzes the front desk about her movements but, while she may have been spotted leaving the hotel with a gentleman of Eastern persuasion, that’s about all they can report. Warning signs are now starting to flash and Richard decides it is time to inform the authorities.

Alas, with his French vocabulary sketchy to say the very least and no pocket phrase book to bail him out, his pleas fall on the deafest ears. To be fair, Sondra hasn’t been missing for long enough to consider it suspicious and Paris is a huge sprawling metropolis, easy to lose your bearings in. But he knows his beloved and just knows something serious is up so takes his inquiry directly to the local embassy. And a fat lot of good that does.

Fuck it, if nobody is willing to help him, then the only thing left to do is help himself. This will mean playing detective, collecting clues, and tracking her down using any means necessary. It isn’t long before he recruits the services of streetwise sex pot Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose suitcase it was that Sondra took mistakenly back at the airport.

Richard is just grateful for any assistance he can get by this point, although Michelle seems to be fretting more over the 10,000 francs she was promised on safe delivery of said luggage than the whereabouts of his vanished wife. This begs the question – what the bloody hell was she carrying that was so damn valuable? More importantly to Richard however – is his significant other about to pay the ultimate price for the most elementary of mix-ups?

Roman Polanski’s Frantic wastes little time in hitting its stride and steadily builds suspense through an excellent opening act. It then develops into your more typical cat-and-mouse affair as we follow our exasperated lead down a number of blind alleys, with Ennio Morricone’s predictably on-point score as constant reminder that the greatest perils may well still lie ahead. However, while our attention seldom waivers, the second act could perhaps have done with a little trimming back, and 119 minutes feels at least ten too long. Thankfully, Polanski rewards our perseverance with a more than eventful final third and, after serving as gun-for-hire director for dead-in-the-water swashbuckler Pirates the year previous, demonstrates that his touch for generating and sustaining suspense is still very much intact.

Harrison is perfectly capable of selling the frustration and confusion of a man fast approaching his tether’s end and we’re willing him on all the way. He also excels in numerous instances of tension-breaking slapstick and this assists no end in warming to his otherwise rather chilly demeanor.

There’s a gloriously hairy Hitchcockian scene atop a rooftop and, while Dr. Indiana Jones would have scoffed at such a diminutive obstacle, Dr. Richard Walker cannot bank on his trusty bullwhip to snag himself some eleventh-hour spire. Through it all, Ford doesn’t put a solitary brogue wrong and Seigner supplies precisely the youthful energy required to help him roll back the years accordingly. The fact that neither character appear to give a rat’s ass about the plight of the other results in an offbeat chemistry that, to their credits, both actors make work.

Polish filmmaker Polanski has been responsible for some of modern cinema’s most memorable motion pictures and Frantic is never quite worthy of inclusion in such an elite. That said, subtlety has always been a vital tool in Polanski’s trade and, rather ironically, initial snatch stands out by remaining utterly ambiguous. When Sondra vanishes into thin air, it plays out completely devoid of intrusion. There is no forced entry, no sign of struggle, or full-throated scream and this makes her disappearance all the more disconcerting. Despite the fact that she’s only on-screen for a rather of minutes, she’s all we find ourselves thinking about. Polanski plants these seeds of doubt and leaves it to his audience to culminate them begrudgingly. And that my frantic friends is the mark of a true master.

Whatever controversy surrounds his private affairs disinterests me entirely as I’m not here to make misinformed judgments on his character. I am however here to acknowledge exceptional filmmaking and he has a canny knack for coming up trumps on that front. The eighties were preparing to wind down by the time Frantic emerged from the bustling Paris crowds and it is very much a product of its decade. It’s also one of the most effortlessly suspenseful noir-tinged pot-boilers of its epoch and proposes a rather sound argument for checking our luggage tags before dragging them off the carousel. As for those long-haul cross-Atlantic flights – well that’s a whole different movie.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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