Get Frantic, Watch Frantic [1988]

opening frantic movie
Frantic 1988
“Dancing in bars in restaurants/staring eyes chill me to the bone”

A man and a woman sit nervously in a nightclub. Sleazy patrons in shiny suits manoeuvre around hot young models, popping champagne. Cigarette smoke drapes over our couple. As the eerie reggae of Grace Jones’  “I’ve Seen That Face Before” fills the club, the young woman leads the man to dance. Dressed in a skin-tight red dress, she rhythmically slinks over him to the music. The man, on edge and exhausted, begins to forget his troubles –if only for a moment. Her winding body and feline eyes move closer to his. He dances with her until their embrace is stopped short when his attention is drawn across the room. A goon leans on the wall, glaring; his boss sits at their table, waiting for a chance to talk.  The speakers continue to play the music as the man breaks through the crowd, hoping to get the answers he came for.

Frantic is one of those movies that never really builds tension. Instead, Polanski allows the tension to coil around you like some celluloid predator, so as a viewer you don’t really go on a journey, you merely escape constriction. Not since Deep Throat has a film been so aptly named ….I mean, uh…so I’ve heard…

“You’re looking for the white lady, isn’t that so?”

In this film, we aren’t in familiar territory trying to right some wrong (the opening line is “Do you know where you are?”); every one of us watching is an alien to this place and to the sordid Parisian underworld that Harrison Ford’s distraught Surgeon must navigate in order to discover the whereabouts of his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley). Polanski shows us a secretive nightlife, and in the day, all that remain are the cigarette butts and dregs of beer discarded by shadowy figures that linger there. It’s a place of vagrants, disinterested drunks and drug dealers – oh, and electronic switches for nuclear devices.

Written by Polanski and Gerard Brach (who also co-wrote Polanski’s Bitter Moon) and released in 1988, Frantic tells the story of Dr Richard Walker, in Paris with his wife for a medical conference. After a long flight and busy check in, the couple retire to their room, hoping to stave off jet lag and see some of the City of Love before Richard’s speeches at the conference the next day. After a shower and a shave, our Doctor comes into the bedroom to find his wife has mysteriously disappeared.
Initially, there is no feeling of ‘something bad’s gonna happen’. No dramatic fight or slick car crash (I see you, Unknown!) signals the beginning of the adventure. The wonderful score by Ennio Morricone opens to Richard and Sondra in the back of a cab; the bleary Parisian dawn superimposed over the tired couple – even then, any atmosphere the composer lays on is slowly pushed aside by the cabbie’s cheerful reggae.

“I’m cold, Walker.”
Richard trawls the local bars and hotels looking for his wife. After finding her bracelet on the cobblestones outside the hotel, he discovers she left there, arm in arm with an unknown man. Any pleading to the US embassy is fruitless, even after stumbling over the murder of a Cypriot agent in a car. It is only after the discovery of the mysterious ‘Krypton’ (a trigger for nuclear weapons) that they show any interest. They intend to play Richard – get him to exchange the item for his wife’s life while they hope to steal it back afterwards. His only real help is the beautiful, streetwise Michelle (Emmanuelle Seinger), who was paid to smuggle the ‘Krypton’ into France in her suitcase, only to mix her luggage up with Mrs Walker’s.  Her interest is financial but will she give up everything to see the couple reunited?

Part of ‘Frantic’s’ appeal is its setting – in the labyrinth the director sets up for the characters. Each scene is claustrophobic, Richard is trapped in one way or another. Even the wide open spaces are uninviting to say the least; there’s a scene on a rooftop, but you won’t be admiring the view. The bars and clubs are not places for relaxing – they are where the low-lives of Paris come to feast.

Just like he did in Chinatown & The Ninth Gate, here Polanski puts his protagonist through his paces, and we are along for the ride. Nods to Hitchcock and classic Film-Noir pepper the movie. There’s a sultry, dangerous female, conspiratorial authority figures and dimly lit bars. Apartments get turned over, and there may be someone in the closet. The hero is beaten up, exhausted and utterly confused – for the next few days, his life revolves around a ‘MacGuffin’. Ford’s Richard is on his last nerve by the time an exchange is set at the River Seine, and until the very end viewers are left worrying about the outcome.

Pictured: Emmanuelle Seigner in Frantic [1988]
Pictured: Emmanuelle Seigner in Frantic [1988]
In 2011, Liam Neeson went all Frantic on us when he starred in Unknown, a movie in which an American Dr (Neeson) arrives in Europe (Germany,this time) for a conference, only to become embroiled in international espionage and identity crisis. He’s helped by a beautiful young foreigner (Diane Kruger) and has to navigate a city he doesn’t know, where nobody tells him the truth and many lives are at stake. Chances are you’ve seen this movie ($135m on a $35m budget) though it tries to marry slick action with gritty tension and fails. Whilst Neeson’s movie builds tension and utilises showy action sequences, Polanski’s movie has grit under its fingernails. We don’t watch a show, we participate and that makes the tension real. Watching this movie means following Richard through every misleading conversation, every fake promise. It’s not about the ‘Krypton’, falling into the hands of those pesky Arabs; we navigated this seedy underbelly of lies and corruption with the good Doctor.  All we want is our wife back!