Frantic ★★★½

Gone in a flash

Harrison Ford is an hallucination in a rumpled suit and loosened tie, strands of unruly hair falling over his forehead and a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. Everything about him feels perfectly right, as if he's a projection of ourselves. As he slides down a blackening well, enveloped by horrors, we are able to say, 'Yes, that's exactly the expression I would give, that's exactly what I would say, how I would feel.' He's the ideal conduit for an audience to play out their own anxieties.

Polanski honours tradition by casting him in Frantic, a modern-day North by Northwest. The 'wrong man' in this case is an American doctor whose wife disappears shortly after their arrival in Paris, where he is scheduled to attend a medical conference. Never are Polanski's gifts as a filmmaker more apparent than in this early scene. Ford remains in the foreground, lathering up and singing to himself, while through a doorway we catch glimpses of his wife as she moves in and out of the frame. She takes a phone call and says something he can't hear over the water. The camera closes in almost imperceptibly on this space, forgetting Ford, as the film's ominous score gently rises. It's chilling, because we know that she has vanished and that Ford will later chastise himself for not making an effort to know what she'd been trying to tell him. Polanski puts the audience ahead of Ford without making his lead character look foolish, and he does all of it without any frills - just impeccable framing and the conservative use of panning and score. It's the work of a master in full command of his instrument. When Ford emerges from the shower and discovers his wife isn't around, he assumes she's gone out for something and will be back any minute.

After seeking assistance from hotel management, the French police and the American Embassy (all to no avail), Ford decides to conduct his own investigation, which of course draws him into a seedy underworld of Parisian bars and nightclubs. He forms an unlikely association with a young woman implicated in the conspiracy, which informs the second-half of the film. This doesn't work nearly as well as the first half, where the tension hinges upon Ford's distressed isolation in a foreign country. The minute Polanski gives him a friend the movie devolves into formula which, after such a strong first act, becomes a source of disappointment. The denouement is hurried, with too much emphasis being placed on the fate of one character. Polanski overestimates how much we've come to care about him/her, and we feel the movie vying for an emotion that isn't there. For the most part, however, the movie has us, in part for its sensible screenplay, Polanski's lucid direction and (above all else) Ford's endearing screen persona.

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