1/06/2007

Frantic

One recurring problem I’ve been having in studying neo-noir is the old writing adage that everything has already been done before. In the 70s and 80s, there seemed to be a reinvention of the old noir ideas of femme fatales, guilt complexes, antiheroes caught up in situations they hadn’t planned.

And then in the 90’s with the introduction of Tarantino and the abundance of Elmore Leonard adaptations, the landscape changed to include flash over substance, the “too cool for school” dialogue and visuals that in most cases (Tarantino excluded) caused noir to be all dressed up with no place to go.

Case in point: 2 Days in the Valley which fooled some critics with its Robert Altman’s Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction hybrid but mostly ended up annoying viewers who’ve seen it all done better before.

Being influenced by the masters is admirable indeed but in some cases is best left to the hands of the masters-- masters of reinvention such as Roman Polanski who helmed the legendary neo-noir Chinatown in the 1970s.

In the 80s, he trained his eye on Hitchcock with his homage to the master, Frantic—a darkly comical, The Lady Vanishes in Paris plot. It’s deceptively simple but will cause viewer’s brains to work over time as we watch an American doctor (played by Harrison Ford back in his prime) look for his wife who vanishes from their Paris hotel room shortly after arrival. There’s the classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin (defined by David Mamet in "On Directing Film" as “that thing which the hero is chasing”).



It seems that there was a fatal error—the wrong suitcase got into the wrong hands and the villains are holding Ford’s wife hostage while chasing a confusing MacGuffin—we don’t know exactly what it is for the longest time and neither does Ford as Mamet notes that it’s unimportant and just keeps viewers on the side of our hero.

There’s a fascinating female character used as a fatale sidekick to Ford—she’s comical, sexy, maddening and their chaste, odd dynamic of opposites keeps the chemistry rolling.

* Spoiler Ahead


As in Chinatown, there’s a deadly conclusion and one woman ends up dead—those who know Polanski’s tragic history of losing his mother and grandmother to the Nazis during World War II and the brutal murder of pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson in the late 60s realize that there’s a recurring bleak fate that pervades the heroines in his oeuvre. Alas, even though we expect it, it’s still a shock.

Overall, Frantic is clever old school Hitchcockian noir with new twists—using a simple MacGuffin and moody characters and situations over the hyper visuals that dominated the genre in the 90s.