By the time he had made Frantic (1988), filmmaker Roman Polanski was in need of a commercial hit at the box office. His previous film Pirates (1986) bombed spectacularly both with audiences and critics. In a canny move, he cast Harrison Ford as the lead actor in his new film. As luck would have it, Ford was in a very interesting place, career-wise. Thanks to the massive success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, he had the clout and the confidence to try riskier films that played around with the public’s perception of him. With Blade Runner (1982), Ford played an emotionally distant cop hunting down replicants in a future dystopia. In Witness (1985), he played a gruff Philadelphia cop who hides out in Amish country when he uncovers corruption in his department. Mosquito Coast (1986) may have been his most challenging role as an inventor who moves his entire family to the jungles of South America and gradually loses his mind.
Finally, he took a stab at comedy with Working Girl (1988) playing a no-nonsense business executive helping a plucky young secretary masquerading as a financial executive broker an ambitious merger deal. Throw in Frantic and you have a pretty diverse collection of films that saw Ford unafraid to play abrasive even sometimes unlikable characters. With Polanski’s film, Ford would be on the director’s turf, thrust in a world of moral ambiguity with a dash of paranoia. It made for a fascinating clash of styles and results in an excellent thriller and something of an under-appreciated work in both men’s filmography.
“Do you know where you are?” These are the first words spoken in Frantic and they foreshadow the feelings of displacement that the film’s protagonist will experience. Sondra Walker (Betty Buckley) says these words to her husband Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) as they drive from the airport to their Paris hotel in a taxi cab. He’s there to attend a convention and en route their taxi develops a flat tire. The driver is unable to fix it which is not a good start to the Walkers’ trip so far and a bad omen for what is to come.
Polanski establishes the dynamic between Richard and Sondra in a relatively short time as they get settled in their hotel room. Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley do an excellent job portraying a couple that have clearly been married for some time. This is evident in the familiar shorthand between them, like how they act towards each other, the playful needling Sondra gives her husband about the swanky luncheon he’s supposed to have with the chairman of the convention at the Eiffel Tower. This early scene also establishes how out of his element Richard is as she points out that he doesn’t speak French and doesn’t even know how to use the hotel room phone. We see how easily they can get on each other’s nerves and how they quickly reconcile like any couple who has been in love for a long period of time.
They soon discover that Sondra grabbed the wrong suitcase at the airport and has someone else’s luggage. Richard takes a shower and in those few minutes his wife disappears. Polanski places the camera in the shower with Richard so that we see and hear what he does. The camera slowly pushes in in an ever-so slightly way – it’s subtle but does make you wonder what’s happening in the other room. Initially, Richard most likely assumes that Sondra went out to buy some clothes or is in another part of the hotel. However, enough time passes that he becomes understandably concerned and decides to search the hotel lobby. Polanski’s camera follows Richard from a distance so that he looks slightly diminished and out of sorts in this strange and disorienting place.
When the hotel staff is unable to help him, Richard hits the streets. We quickly see how disadvantaged he is as he wanders into a flower shop and tries to explain to the two people who work there about his wife. They don’t speak English and assume that he wants to buy her flowers. He has slightly better luck at a nearby bar when a scruffy-looking, bearded barfly (played by Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) claims that a couple of his friends saw Sondra being forcibly pushed into a car. When he asks the man to take him to the spot where it happened he finds her bracelet on the ground.
Richard goes to the local cops and then the American Embassy but neither are much help, mired as they are in bureaucracy and paperwork. Understandably frustrated, he decides to conduct his own investigation, one that takes him through a Paris you won’t see in any tourism ads. Along the way, he tries some cocaine (?!), discovers a dead body and meets Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), a mysterious and beautiful young woman who picked up Sondra’s suitcase. With Michelle’s help, he begins to figure out what happened to his wife.
Harrison Ford is quite good as a man clearly out of his element, the classic stranger in a strange land. He plays a normal guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As the film progresses, Richard becomes more savvy and uses his intelligence to piece things together. This is not your typical man-of-action role that we normally associate with Ford. For example, there’s a nice scene where Richard takes a break from searching for his wife and calls home just so he can hear the reassuring sound of his daughter’s voice. Ford does a nice job of showing his character on the verge of tears, trying to keep it together as he chit chats with one of his children who is oblivious as to what is happening to her parents in Paris. Polanski lets the scene play out in one long, uninterrupted take, the camera gradually pushing in on Ford and focusing on his visibly upset face. He conveys a touching vulnerability in this scene and watching this film again is a sobering reminder of what an excellent actor he can be.
Of note, the always reliable character actor John Mahoney has a minor role as an ineffectual American bureaucrat who does little to help Richard and proves to be more of an annoyance than anything else. And what kind of influence did Grace Jones have on Polanski to get her song “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” played so often and prominently in the film? The lyrics to the song are certainly appropriate to what Richard is going through in a kind of New Wave meets film noir way as Jones describes the dark side of the nightlife in Paris.
After the failure of Pirates, Polanski began work in Paris on an adaptation of the Belgian comic strip character Tin-Tin with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, Ford’s then-wife. The actor flew in to visit her just as Warner Brothers asked Polanski if he had a project. The director remembers, “I said yes, of course; it was so good to be asked, because my last film, Pirates, was such a flop, so painful in every way, I was in the deepest depression.” However, he had to come up with an idea and thought of a thriller set in Paris. Polanski talked to his writing partner for 25 years, Parisian screenwriter Gerard Brach about a story and then he told Ford who agreed to do the film. The studio agreed to finance and distribute it with a budget under $20 million. With Frantic, Polanski wanted to show the Paris he knew, “the one with garbage collectors, not the one in Irma La Douce.”
The rest of the cast fell into place with Polanski being impressed by the maturity of Betty Buckley in her audition tape, and 21-year-old ex-model Emmanuelle Seigner who the director had been living with for three years. On set, Polanski has a reputation for being a very hands-on director in order to get exactly what he wants out of an actor. For the scene where Ford’s character almost falls off a steep roof, he and Polanski actually climbed out on it to work out the shots. Either one of them could have been killed had they slipped. Buckley remembers that during the climactic shoot-out, “I knelt beside a woman who’d been shot, as Harrison checked out her wounds, Roman directed me to see a horrible injury that wasn’t actually there.” Unhappy with her reaction after multiple takes, Polanski secretly told his makeup man to create extremely gory wounds. On the next take, Buckley remembers, “it was so ugly I wanted to vomit. I totally lost it on camera, which was not my choice. But Roman got exactly what he wanted.”
Most critics heralded Frantic as a return to form for Polanski after the disappointing Pirates. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “even with its excesses, Frantic is a reminder of how absorbing a good thriller can be.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Ford’s performance: “He's able to convey great determination, as well as a restraint that barely masks the character's mounting rage, and he makes a compelling if rather uncomplicated hero.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “What Frantic signals is a return to form for the turbulent Pole. It’s not great, but it’s good enough to be excited about, both for itself and the promise it holds out for the future.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “The humor, much of it built into Harrison Ford’s phenomenal characterization of a reasonable man drowning in irrationality, is deft and sly.” Finally, Newsweek magazine’s Jack Kroll felt that “Frantic is Polanski’s best movie since the 1974 Chinatown.”
Frantic’s premise is pure Hitchcock albeit with Polanski’s trademark perversity. The screenplay only doles out information as Richard uncovers it which helps us identify with him – we only know what he does. The director doesn’t skimp on the thriller aspects of the film either. There’s a tension-filled scene where Richard scrambles across a very precarious rooftop with the piece of luggage that everyone seems to be after. There’s also a car chase through the streets of Paris as Richard pursues the men who have his wife. Unlike most thrillers made nowadays that are all frenetic action and spastic editing, Polanski lets his story breath. He takes the time to establish the main characters and allows us to empathize with Richard’s situation, one in which is eerily relevant to today’s political climate and feeds on the anxiety Americans have with traveling abroad. Polanski still fulfills genre conventions at the film’s climax with an exciting shoot-out but delivers a bittersweet ending reminiscent of his 1970s output and this must’ve been jarring to audiences at the time expecting an uplifting ending more typical of Ford’s mainstream work in the 1980s.
Check out Movie City News which did a really nice appreciation of Polanski's film.
McBride, Stewart. "Roman Empire." The Advertiser. March 12, 1988.
Scott, Jay. "Polanski Has Transformed Loss into Artistic Gain." Globe and Mail. February 28, 1988.