Roman Polanski’s movie “Frantic” was released in U.S. cinemas on Feb. 26, 1988, so it now marks its 29th anniversary. The movie was released two years after Polanski’s box office failure “Pirates,” which was also savaged by the critics. In comparison, “Frantic” did well at the box office and drew positive reviews by critics who felt it was a solid if not spectacular return to form for the Polish director.
The movie, about an American physician arriving in Paris for a medical conference who thinks his wife may have been kidnapped, was praised as a Hitchcock-style thriller with a first-rate lead performance by Harrison Ford.
Today, “Frantic” is largely forgotten. It was made in-between two Academy Award-winning films by the director, “Tess” in 1980 and “The Pianist” in 2002.
“Frantic,” like many of the other movies that Polanski made after leaving the United States in 1978, has largely been written off as being sub-par compared to his 1960s and 1970s efforts, which included “Knife In The Water,” “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”
Seen today, “Frantic” is clearly a very well made and tense thriller.
Dr. Richard Walker and his wife Sondra arrive from San Francisco to Paris, check into their plush hotel with a view of the Eiffel Tower, and are fighting off jet lag. Walker takes a shower as Sondra struggles to open her luggage. She starts to think she might have picked up the wrong suitcase when their hotel phone rings. Sondra answers, says something to Walker — and he can’t hear her because he’s in the shower — and she leaves the room. She never comes back.
It’s a great set-up. Walker sets out to find his wife, and he becomes increasingly convinced that she got kidnapped because of that suitcase, which indeed is not theirs. But the local police don’t take him seriously because they think Sondra ran off with a secret lover in Paris. The American Embassy says there isn’t much they can do. Walker is completely on his own, until he meets Michelle, the young woman whose suitcase his wife accidentally picked up.
In addition to the suspense of this unraveling mystery, the original script by Polanski and his longtime collaborator Gerard Brach includes plenty of examples of the kind of dark humor that Polanski employed so richly in movies like “Cul De Sac,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant.” There’s the scene where Walker drives a getaway car with a dead body in the driver’s seat; the scene where he meets a Rastafarian in a seedy nightclub who tells him he knows where to find the “white lady”; and the scene at the airport where Walker bumps into some medical colleagues who assume Michelle is his sexy young mistress. All of these scenes are complemented by Ford’s performance as a kind of dazed anti-hero, similar to the lead character in Polanski’s Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” a man wholly unprepared for this intense and dangerous situation, and anything but a conventional action hero.
“Frantic” is set in Paris, and after those early scenes of the Eiffel Tower, the director gave audiences, as he has put it, the seedier side of Paris, the one not seen much by tourists. He takes the audience into nightclubs where drug deals are made — or far worse.
Polanski would continue to make films set in Paris, including “Bitter Moon,” “The Ninth Gate,” “Venus In Fur,” and his upcoming “Based On A True Story.” But “Frantic” is most unique in the contrast that it offers to an earlier Polanski film set in Paris, his 1976 movie “The Tenant.” Both movies deal with the plight of the immigrant — although in starkly different ways.
“The Tenant,” based on the novel by Roland Topor, is about a Polish immigrant, Trelkovsky, who moves into a small apartment left vacant because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. His neighbors frequently complain that Trelkovsky makes too much noise, and the shy young man starts being obsessively quiet inside his unit. When he refuses to sign a petition to evict another tenant, an older woman with a disabled daughter, his neighbors file a complaint against him with the local police chief — who asks Trelkovsky about the fact that he’s not French. Trelkovsky comes to believe his neighbors are plotting a similar fate for him as the one that claimed the life of the previous tenant.
In “The Tenant,” Polanski’s sympathies were entirely with the immigrant, the outsider, trying desperately to fit into a xenophobic and closed society. In “Frantic,” though, it’s the immigrants who are the problem.
When Walker becomes convinced that his wife was kidnapped because she accidentally picked up Michelle’s suitcase, he assumes she was smuggling drugs in from the United States. But he’s wrong: Michelle actually was smuggling in a device that triggers nuclear weapons, and Sondra has been kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. Along the way, both Michelle and the terrorists are pursued by two Israeli agents whose job it is to prevent that triggering device from getting into the terrorists’ hands.
“Frantic” was made in the late 1980s, well before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the rise of ISIS, the slaughter of the staff at the Charlie Hebdo French weekly newspaper, and several other recent and devastating terrorist attacks in Paris. In “Frantic,” Polanski’s Muslim criminals are not men who barge into public places with guns and begin shooting into the crowd. Instead, they are sophisticated, wealthy, and run a nightclub that appeals to rich Arabs as a cover for their more insidious plans. Whether their motives are financial or political isn’t entirely clear; but they are violent and dangerous, and they kill the drug dealer who hired Michelle to smuggle the device into Paris, and later Michelle as well. And it seems likely that their goal is to have the power to launch devastating nuclear attacks, something the Israeli agents fully understand.
It’s a viewpoint that Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen would appreciate.
Conclusion: In “The Tenant,” the immigrant faced a lonely plight trying to find acceptance in the older, bourgeoisie France. “Frantic,” on the other hand, anticipated a time when native Parisians had reason to fear the risks that immigrants posed to their society, particularly those from the Middle East. It’s an aspect of the movie that doesn’t get mentioned much by critics, although it’s there.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..