UNDER A fancy Parisian hotel shower, Harrison Ford sings Cole Porter's "I Love Paris." It's about as close as he gets to Gay Paree. In Roman Polanski's smart thriller "Frantic," the City of Light is a murky smear of hotel lobbies, neon signs, Pizza the Huts and callous bureaucrats who misunderstand you, if they're listening.
Which is a problem for visiting conventioneer Dr. Richard Walker (Ford). He doesn't speak French and, stepping out of that shower, he finds his wife Sondra's been kidnapped.
Cowritten by Polanski and longtime collaborator Gerard Brach, "Frantic" is chock full of Hitchcock (rooftop vertigo, the precious widget everyone's after, the perils of showering). Walker's only clue is an unidentified woman's suitcase of clothes, a scrawled phone number and a Statue-of-Liberty souvenir. A dumbfounded, jetlagged fish out of water, he flounders from concierge to cop, useless embassy factotum to blase' baggage official to (as things accelerate) a dead man named De'de' and a live wire named Michele (Emmanuelle Seigner).
But they're only trappings. "Frantic" is vintage Polanski, with its relentless paranoia, irony, diffident strangers (the smug bartender, the sullen embassy Marine) and nutty cameos (including that culty punk from Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva" as a drunken witness, and a Jah-jivey Jamaican who mistakes Walker's wife-search for a cocaine hustle). And Polanski forgos the mood-marshalling Hitchcock cellos for his own brand of good old quiet tension -- here made eerier by Witold Sobocinski's high and low camera angles.
Near movie's end, a meaty conflict lies unresolved. This world of null-and-voids makes wacky but warm Michele the most appealing mate for Dr. Walker, and she obviously outshines Mrs. Walker (Betty Buckley). Well, Polanski solves that problem as only he can. He also leaves us with the least romantic, culture-shocking tour of Paris since Jacques Tati's "Playtime." Is it time for the exiled maker of "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" to come home?
FRANTIC (R) -- At area theaters.