Frantic (1988), Anna Kirenina (1935)


Two classics especially entertaining; they are gifts from the archives; Time has lost its belittling battle with Frantic and Anna Kirenina.

They are pure gold today.

Frantic: Lets give credit: No Hitchcock, no Frantic. No noir-inspired Roman Polanski as Director, no Frantic.

Not a box office success, Frantic has emerged as one of the great thrillers. The story: A prominent physician (Harrison Ford) in Paris for a medical conference finds that his wife (Betty Buckley) has been kidnapped owing to a coincidence Dickens might envy: a suitcase switch in which the wife ends up with the “MacGuffin,” Hitchcock’s reference to “the mysterious object in a spy thriller that sets the whole chain of events in motion,” prominently in Hitchcock the coveted bomb formula in Notorious, and in Frantic a lethal material hidden in a cheap replica-trinket of the Statue of Liberty and known as Kryton (does Superman receive any indirect credit here?), which makes possible an electronic switch for detonating nuclear weapons and which Intent Agents from somewhere in the Middle East, pursued by Intent Israeli Agents, have planned to obtain covertly after a young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner), ordinarily a drug courier or “mule,” agrees to interrupt her usual drug-carrying to smuggle into Paris on an airline flight one of the small detonators. Seigner gives a marvelous performance throughout, stealing scenes, and Harrison Ford performs his usual compelling acting as he pursues the rescue of his wife and a resolution of the chase after the deadly detonator.

Highlights: one brief afternoon scene in which a nameless quartet is practicing some inspired “electronic/fusion” music; Polanski’s superb use of the walk-about ploy for locking in viewer attention, a device in many paintings in which you see directly across the picture frame a pathway into the scene, an invitation to “cross the frame” and walk about in that world, a tactic in Frantic rendered by the use on cars of front-bumper-level cameras which gobble up the unravelling roadway inches above the sweep of pavement and pull the viewer into the heart of the story, e.g., some wonderful opening scenes in which the physician and his wife speed in a taxi into the center of Paris and hence the story itself; Hitchcock’s ubiquitous titillations in his movies arising from our fear of heights is stunning in Frantic in a scene which finds Ford teetering on a Parisian roof; also enjoyable in Frantic are the familiar ploys in suspense stories of mistaken identity and the hero finding him- or herself unable to solve the mystery through officialdom and thus impelled to bring resolution without help save help from the opposite gender; and most importantly, Ennio Morricone’s score reminds of Bernard Herrmann’s suspense-cueing music for some of Hitchcock’s thrillers.

Highly recommended for a revisit.

Anna Kirenina: With a movie based on a novel by Count Tolstoy and starring Greta Garbo, Frederick March, Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, and Maureen O’Sullivan, what could go wrong? Well, virtually nothing does. Garbo especially captures you: Graham Greene, not a notably cheerful cheerleader, wrote excitedly of this movie version of Anna Kirenina: “(Garbo gives) a sense of the greatness of the novel.” But there isn’t a weak performance anywhere in the movie, and most are superb.

I cannot think of a more important story about the global dilemma of women being treated unfairly, if not far too often criminally, than Tolstoy’s novel. Here is a clue from the brilliant Isaiah Berlin which we will pursue in making such a claim: Berlin writes:

“I find that I admire Tolstoy more & more. His point of view is often dreadful: his conclusions paradoxical in the most absurd & offensive ways: but he is always very clever, he has a kind of grim high spirits, a sharp quality like a big bread knife which makes suitable nonsense of the absurd theorists of his time. His parody of the 19th century is very good….”

Tolstoy, rural mystic, really doesn’t like the whole business of Czarist Russia: None of it. The males in Anna are generally reprehensible, especially as creatures of a corrupt society. So: Poor Anna, part of high society, discovers a great need for a loving man that intensifies in a cruel marriage in which her husband (Rathbone at his despicable best) shows monstrous: This awful man far exceeds the already damning descriptor, “cad.” But Anna’s departure from their misery and into the arms of dashing and love-pleading cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Frederick March) seems both irresistible and the fount of all foolishness in that brutal system. This adulterous adventure sets in motion her destruction, a complete ruin. Why? Well, in a “satire” of the 19th century Russian power levels, we receive a hint from the very first image in the movie: a large pot of caviar on a banquet table in a drunken celebration of military leaders and campaigns, eventually leading to intoxicated vodka-downing competitive games. Predictably in Tolstoy’s idealistic scorn, Count Vronsky, like his colleagues, enjoys romantic conquests–which prepares us for his later betrayal of Anna after they have become a pair and she has suffered the attack on her from “righteous” society lions. I guess we might say that Tolstoy didn’t believe love has exceptional chances in human society.

Highly recommended.