By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 15, 2001 at 1:04 AM

Just in time to coincide with the release of the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most thrilling movies of all time comes the nasty French film "With a Friend Like Harry." Foolishly compared to the work of Hitchcock, it does build decent suspense and is devilishly funny at times.

Michel (Laurent Lucas) is on vacation with his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three young daughters. It's an unbearably hot summer day and the girls are miserable. They pull over at a gas station to rest and rethink their travel plans.

In the bathroom a man begins staring at Michel. He turns out to be Harry (Sergi Lopez), an old school mate. Though they haven't seen each other in 20 years, Harry immediately recognizes Michel and starts a conversation. They chat briefly before parting ways.

As Michel and his family are about to leave, Harry stops them and invites them to his place for dinner. Because of the girls they politely decline the invitation, so Harry invites himself and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) over to their place for a drink.

They all journey to Michel and Claire's vacation home out in the middle of nowhere. They bought it five years prior and have been slowly fixing it up. It has done their marriage more harm than good, though.

Harry and Plum end up staying on for a couple of days, and Harry makes it clear that he desperately wants to become involved in Michel's life and "help" him as much as he can. First he offers financial assistance, explaining that for him money is no object. Next he buys Michel and Claire a brand new SUV. Then he starts taking a much more active approach.

Without giving away too much, Harry thinks that Michel has baggage in his life that is preventing him from reaching his true potential and being happy. Harry appoints himself as Michel's savior and does whatever he thinks needs to be done.

"With a Friend Like Harry" is a more than competent thriller that does a great job of displaying the stressfulness and ups and downs of Michel's life. It's also sprinkled with dark humor that perfectly matches the increasing tension and complications.

On the other hand, the movie never bothers to probe into Harry's mind or even attempt to explain his bevavior. Why is he obsessed with Michel? What makes him capable of doing the things he does? What has he been doing for the past 20 years? Too many relevant and important questions go unanswered.

The ending is also a bit of a letdown. It doesn't fully utilize the suspense that has been built and seems too convenient and easy.

Nevertheless, "With a Friend Like Harry" is a mostly successful thriller carried by Lopez's excellent performance. It's good, but it could have been great.

Grade: B

"With a Friend Like Harry" starts Fri., June 15 at Landmark's Downer Theatre.