Thriller Triple Feature: Frantic (1988), Marathon Man (1976), & Buried (2010)

Whew! The hostage and I have been busy. Well, I’ve been busy mentally tormenting him to consent to marrying me (then my domination will be complete!), and he’s been busy trying to resist. But after I forced him to watch The Ugly Truth (2009) three times in a row, he finally relented and agreed to my devious plan. However because of that, we’ve had very little time to write. I fear it will only get worse from here, as now we have a wedding to plan! And a month to do it. Still, it felt wrong to not write at all before we sign off for the month, especially as we’re still watching movies and all these thoughts are just floating ’round in my brain.

I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to watch film genres in runs. It’s not intentional; it just seems to be a strange coincidence of the movie dispensing gods (i.e. Zip). Well lately, it’s been thrillers. And as these films show, it’s hard to make a thriller that works all the way through, and sometimes shorter is better. I’m going to take this last piece of advice myself, and abbreviate my reviews for your reading pleasure (and so I don’t have to sit in front of this computer for the next 3 hours).

Frantic (1988): “Directed by Roman Polanski” is a double-edged sword: you’re likely to see something interesting regardless of whether the film works as a whole, but there’s also about a 83% chance that it’ll involve some strange sexual leap of logic that those of us with fewer (or less strange) perversions can’t take with him. On occasion, it all works beautifully together, as in Chinatown (1974), Repulsion (1965), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The strange sexual element in these films fits with the narrative, and often is essential to the story. I only have a problem with it when the sexuality is shoved in where it doesn’t really belong, as is the case with Frantic. Harrison Ford stars as a man whose wife is abducted on a trip to Paris; as he cannot convince local authorities that she was kidnapped, he seeks her out himself, becoming entangled with a sexy young criminal in the process. The first 45 minutes or so are absolutely fantastic – Polanski is never worried about boring the audience, and he allows the story to unfold naturally. There’s a particularly excellent scene in which Ford takes a shower (wait, I’m not going where you think with this… probably), and we see snippets of the action unfold in the room beyond through the doorway, with the noise of the shower masking the dialogue. This puts the audience in the position of knowing only slightly more than the protagonist himself. Ford plays his role very well, and our panic builds as his does. But then he runs into the little criminal Michelle, and the story kinds of loses all rationality.

**SPOILER** Despite Michelle’s repeated betrayals of Ford, including one that directly threatened his wife’s life, he continues to help her and use her help. When she dies at the end, we’re supposed to feel sad or outraged I think, but I just felt relieved that Ford wouldn’t have to deal with this brat anymore. As far as I can tell, we’re supposed to buy their continued relationship because Ford is sexually drawn to Michelle – I can only hope that the majority of men on the planet would not overlook the intentional near death of their beloved wife because the chick had a rocking bod. I know Polanski was messed up by what happened to Sharon Tate, and who wouldn’t be? But I think it has seriously damaged his attitude and feelings towards sex, and that shows in his films. Sometimes it works, but Frantic is not one of those cases.

Marathon Man (1976): Directed by John Schlesinger and written by one of my faves, William Golden, Marathon Man tells the story of an American grad student studying in Paris (Dustin Hoffman) who becomes embroiled in a former Nazi’s diamond scheme following his brother’s murder.  OK, it sounds absolutely ridiculous when phrased like that, and I know there are better ways to put it, but now I kind of like the cheese factor. Because the movie itself is anything but cheesy. It is incredibly tight, incredibly well-acted, and horrifying at times. I’m sure every movie fan on the planet is familiar with Laurence Olivier’s ruthless Szell, standing over Hoffman, wielding dental instruments of torture, and repeatedly demanding, “is it safe?” *shudder*

My only gripe with this film was the extended ending with numerous showdowns. **SPOILER** I can see the necessity of the showdown in the farm-house, although I roll my eyes a bit at the idea that the Hoffman character isn’t hero worthy until he kills someone (even if it is in obvious self-defense). But my real problem is with the Hoffman/Olivier showdown in the sewer. Moments before, Olivier is walking through the diamond district of Paris to get an idea of how much his hidden stones are worth when he is recognized as the mad Dr. Szell by former concentration camp residents. They chase him through the street but he escapes – how much more satisfying would it be to see his former victims cause his downfall? There seems to be an idea amongst writers/producers that every action movie needs to end with a showdown between the hero and the villain. It ain’t true! And sometimes it’s just a limp extension of a great movie, like this was. They even sucked out on having Hoffman exact his revenge – of course Olivier falls and impales himself on his dagger (oh sweet symbolism); we couldn’t have the hero do anything shocking like kill the villain. It reminded me of the complete cop-out endings caused by Cary Grant’s public image: Suspicion (1941) and Charade (1963), both strong movies that in the final seconds revealed that Grant wasn’t playing a bad guy after all! (wah wah.)

Don’t get me wrong; Marathon Man is a very good thriller and really worked for me up until the ending. Even the ending was only a relative let down. I thought that it didn’t live up to the rest of the movie, and that it would have been improved if it were about 15 minutes shorter. But the movie is a classic for good reason.

Buried (2010): Strangely enough, I think Buried worked the best of these thrillers from start to finish. That’s not to say it is overall of better quality, but it maintains the tautness and believability through to the end, and doesn’t drag on past its time. Ryan Reynolds plays a contractor in Afghanistan whose convoy is ambushed; he wakes up to find himself buried in a box with a cell phone, on which he receives a call demanding a ransom. He is to use the phone to contact people to arrange for the ransom. When I heard about this movie, I thought that there was no way it was actually just Reynolds in a box for 95 minutes. Well, it really is. But with the inclusion of the phone, the director Rodrigo Cortes and writer Chris Sparling are able to tell a full narrative by bringing other characters in, even if that character is just a voice. Reynolds is at his best, making the audience feel his fear and desperation, and Cortes manages to squeeze an insane amount of tension from the premise. He was smart to keep it at 95 minutes, as the concept can only work for so long; it threatens at times to crumble, but it doesn’t. **SPOILERISH** And it’s the only movie reviewed here that I think had the courage of its convictions when it comes to the end.

Those are abbreviated reviews, you ask? Yup. I’m usually much more chatty and opinionated. There we have it, and the hostage and I are off for the month. See you in August!

K

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~ by K. Harker on June 26, 2011.

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