Sometimes it's good to give movies a second chance. Take Frantic, for
instance. Despite the considerable star power offered by the presence of
Harrison Ford, this sucker essentially tanked at the box office in 1988 and I
only gave it a screening on videotape. My recollection of this experience is
minimal; clearly the movie didn't make much of an impression, and what vague
memories I possessed told me that I hadn't enjoyed it.
As such, when I espied it in the William C. Jacobson Memorial Film Library
(otherwise known as my Dad's DVD collection) I thought I should give it a
shot, but I didn't expect much. Happily, I received a very pleasant surprise.
Though not without its flaws, Frantic actually works well as a tense and
The movie clearly follows a very Hitchcockian model as it tells the story of a
man (Ford) whose wife (Buckley) has mysteriously disappeared while they attend
a conference in Paris. Director Roman Polanski starts out the film with shots
of the very ordinary couple as they go about their very ordinary business, and
only slowly starts to turn matters askew. He skillfully shows the
difficulties Ford encounters as a stranger in a strange land, and he even has
a little fun with some stereotypes such as the legendary French rudeness (a
lot of people hang up on others in this movie). The movie proceeds at a
natural but provocative pace and it offers only a few relatively slow or dull
scenes; for the most part, Polanski does a good job of keeping the viewer
intrigued and involved in the plot.
Really, the film's biggest fault - SPOILER COMING UP! - results from the
reason why Ford's wife was kidnapped. It seems that she took the wrong
suitcase from the airport; she got one that contained a smuggled atomic bomb
detonator, whereas the bad guys got her blouses and pantyshields. Ford and
Buckley plan to return this to the airline and hopefully get her bag, but the
villains take her away before that can happen.
All this makes me wonder: why didn't they just show up at the hotel, say there
was a mix-up, trade bags with her and be done with it? Probably because that
would make for a dull movie. I had to let my disbelief evaporate to enjoy
this movie, because I thought this aspect didn't make much sense. I mean, the
bad guys got a suitcase that didn't contain what they wanted; they must have
figured that the other suitcase would have it, but they come to the hotel and
take her but they don't bother with the suitcase? Why?
As the film proceeds, you learn that the suitcase was left for them in a
locker and that they were supposed to get just one item (a ceramic Statue of
Liberty) from that locker. Okay, maybe this confused them; they got a whole
bunch of stuff instead of just one thing. But since they later ransack Ford's
hotel room to try to find the item, and since they must have figured that
there was a suitcase mix-up, why didn't they just take the damned thing when
they came to get Buckley? Man, the more I think about it, the less sense it
So take the simple solution: don't worry about it and just enjoy the ride.
The film features Ford in his Fugitive mode as he battles to find his
kidnapped wife. The comparison to his work in The Fugitive goes beyond the
fact that his character's a decent guy who has been wrapped up in events
beyond his making; in both films, he plays a doctor named Richard. Spooky!
Anyway, I'm very much in the tank for Ford; he could fart all his dialogue and
I'd still think he did a great job. You can almost always count on him for
some solid acting, and Frantic is no exception. This is especially crucial
since the success of the film really rides on Ford; he appears in virtually
Virtually the rest of the cast fill a supporting role; Ford's the only lead
actor in Frantic. Buckley's adequate as his wife, though she's not in very
much of the film, and she isn't asked to do much when she is. Emmanuelle
Seigner plays a much larger role as a young French babe who smuggled the
Statue. Although she certainly is French and she's certainly pretty hot, she
certainly can't act too well, or if she can, she certainly doesn't demonstrate
that skill here. She basically cops a lot of patented French attitude and
pouty sexiness, which pretty much is fine; since Ford's rowing this boat, she
can just sit back and get a tan.
One cast-related disappointment: John Mahoney gets pretty high billing on the
DVD's case, and that interested me. Best known as Frasier's Dad, he's a
terrific actor and I looked forward to seeing his work in this film. Well,
despite his relative prominence in the credits, he barely shows up in the
film; his role only slightly exceeds cameo range. Like I said, Ford dominates
this film; of the rest of the cast, only Seigner receives any significant
Warner Bros. released Frantic as part of their bargain, no frills line of
DVDs. They should call this the "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" program,
because the DVDs I've seen from this line have been pretty poor.
Unfortunately, Frantic doesn't deviate from that pattern.
First of all, the picture definitely lacks the quality we've come to expect
from DVD. While it maintains a pretty good level of sharpness throughout the
movie, it boasts a filmy kind of haze during much of it. This may be grain,
but it doesn't look the way grain usually appears in a film; really, it
appears more like the kind of mucky film you'd get if you left soapscum on the
camera lens. It's not a completely pervasive phenomenon, but it happens
Overall, the image seems pretty flat and drab. Occasional scenes look pretty
lifelike, but these are the exceptions. It's not a terrible picture, but it
doesn't offer much of a step up from VHS.
Even if the image was crystal clear, it would still possess problems because
Frantic offers a poorly cropped pan and scan transfer. Virtually all of
these bargain DVDs appear in full screen renditions. This didn't seem to be
too much of an issue because when most of these films ran theatrically, they
were matted projections that simply blocked off the top and bottom of the
original negative; while I prefer letterboxed films, some people liked these
full screen versions better because they actually offered MORE material than
had appeared on the movie screen.
Unfortunately, that isn't the case with Frantic. This DVD shows a full
screen image that consistently either cramps the actors - they often seem
"crammed" into the frame, as if there wasn't enough room for all of them - or
it simply cuts them out of the image altogether. I'm no letterboxing zealot;
if I hadn't noticed any issues, I would have said so. But the negative
aspects of pan and scan transfers abound here, much to the detriment of the
Somewhat more successful is the film's Dolby Pro Logic mix. Actually, it's
not a very good example of a surround track. The rear channels get used
infrequently; music dominates their activity, although a few surround effects
(gunfire, planes) appear. Happily, the sound quality of the program is pretty
good. At times, the music and sound effects seem tinny or canned, but they
generally sound natural and accurate. Dialogue virtually always sound clear
and real. It's a modest soundtrack, but it largely accomplishes its goals.
As noted previously, the line of DVDs from which Frantic emanates offers no
frills in return for its very low price. And they meant it, too; no trailers,
no subtitles, no foreign languages, no nothing - just the movie and chapter
search. You get what you pay for.
Although the DVD release of Frantic clearly possesses a significant number
of faults, I ultimately have to recommend it. It's a poor transfer that
offers no extras, but it's so damned cheap! The fact of the matter remains
that you can get this DVD for virtually the same cost as the VHS version.
It's a fine film, and if you want to own it, crappy DVD and crappy VHS are
your only choices. If just because the format tends to be more durable,
crappy DVD seems to be the more sensible choice. I just wish I could paint a
rosier picture of the release, because this film is good enough to warrant a
more elaborate version.