It could also be said that his career ended like a fireworks show as well... it just kinda petered out, the sky went dark. But for a number of years, Frankenheimer gave us some excellent films. They were usually films of some social conscience or of some philosophical nature or with a psychological telling. His protagonist often had some obstacles to master. All the while the audience is treated to a magic carpet ride on the human spirit.
He was the one of the voices of the 60s to me. His best work was done then. For me the aw-shucks, wholesome life of the midwest in the 50s gave way to the wild west (Southern California) in the 60s. It was quite a leap. I was drawn to the 60s. I was determined to benefit from the coupling. I yearned to reinvent myself somehow but often not sure how to bring that about. So I listened to voices, some of whom came from friends, coworkers, professors and some came from the movies.
John Frankenheimer was one of those people I listened to... quite literally. In 1963 a UCLA friend took me along to a campus film lecture by Frankenheimer. I was mesmerized. He was tall, authoritative but kind, well-spoken, a manly man. He not only discussed movies, his own and moviemaking in general, but ventured off into many personal feelings and observations, which I to this day remember as being stunning in their candor. So, I began in earnest to see his work and I feel lucky to have caught all the great stuff.
He would go on to become famous in his trade and with some of the attentive filmgoers who began to realize certain commonalities in his work... frequent filming in France, helping to bring to life intriguing camera angles, having a strong sense of environment and for the creative atmosphere he encouraged on his sets. Ultimately, six actors would come to receive Oscar nominations for roles in Frankenheimer films.
He loved movie-making and damn if I don't think that shows in his films. He worked five times with Burt Lancaster and at least from a hindsight point of view, I am not surprised. Frankenheimer encouraged an atmosphere where people spoke up and Lancaster insisted upon it. Given that they were each authoritative manly men, it's amazing their partnership worked out. Lancaster was always a skeptical kind of guy and was always looking out for Burt Lancaster. On the other hand, he was a producer and understood time is money and he usually wanted to get on with the process. Ah, Frankenheimer's kind of man. He didn't mind hassling with an actor some, but you had to hit a bullseye with him.
The future director was born in New York and fell in love with movies at an early age. As a patron he was excited by them and attended at least weekly. His first favorite actor was Robert Mitchum... hmmm, I think I'm really connecting to this manly man thing. Isn't it odd they never worked together?
During college he gave serious thought to becoming an actor but after graduation and now in the military, he discovered a love of being behind the camera, directing primarily. He had joined a film squadron and became enamored of making documentaries. He likely discovered directing because he saw that it allowed one to be in charge. That appealed greatly to him. Despite the earlier statement of his providing space for creativity on everyone's parts, there was also never much doubt that it was a Frankenheimer film.
In the early 1950s he would take along all he knew as he drifted into live television. He always said it was a medium he loved. He did seem to relish being thrown to the wolves. It ignited the creative process for him and provided the adrenaline rush he craved. He liked live television so much, he said, that he would have gone on doing it forever had it not disappeared.
Nonetheless, in 1957 he turned to movie directing with The Young Stranger, starring James MacArthur as a kid who is misunderstood by his wealthy father (James Daly). It was an ok movie, perhaps more in line with a live TV show, however, and it did so-so business with the young crowd. Frankenheimer returned to television and stayed there for four more years.
Enter Mr. Lancaster. I wish I knew who was hired first for The Young Savages or more to the point did Lancaster have anything to do with hiring this director. It wouldn't be unlike him since he had his nose in all aspects of the business, including a handy list of who's who. Regardless, the film got some attention with its hard-hitting story of a DA involved in a racially-charged case of the murder of a blind Puerto Rican boy.
All Fall Down was the first Frankenheimer film I saw and I absolutely loved it. Rather downbeat in tone, it was about a southern family where a young, idealistic son idolizes his pond-scum, womanizing, older brother. The ensuing drama and pathos kept most folks in their seats. Warren Beatty and Brandon deWilde (you decide who had which role) were the brothers and Karl Malden and Angela Lansbury their clingy parents. A brooding tale of a train wreck where no one comes out better, it was a so-60s kind of film with two very stuck generations trying to make sense of it all. I had made a note to keep an eye open for the next Frankenheimer film. I didn't have long to wait.
Mere months later came his second pairing with Burt Lancaster in the acclaimed Birdman of Alcatraz. It was a bit puffed-up version of the 40-year prison life of Robert Stroud who, due to his solitary existence, became an authority on birds when a number of them strayed into his cell and stayed for a spell. It was a tour-de-force for Lancaster and costars Malden, Thelma Ritter, Betty Field and Telly Savalas all turned in wonderful performances. Some of those marvelous, signature Frankenheimer camera shots are in abundance here.
|Lansbury driving Harvey crazier|
He had one more in him for 1962 and I offer that this is the best of his career, The Manchurian Candidate. It is the chilling story of a Korean War vet who has been brainwashed and trained to kill on command when presented with a visual prompt. The story itself just froze me in my tracks. After awhile I got weary of my jaw dropping at what I was seeing on that screen. Brain-washed Laurence Harvey and his diabolical mother, Angela Lansbury, gave the performances of their careers and Frank Sinatra turned in one of his most respectable and understated performances. If you haven't seen this film, you truly should (and not the cheesy remake of a few years back).
Then it was back to Lancaster again and his frequent costar Kirk Douglas in a riveting political thriller Seven Days in May. A super cast including Fredric March, Edmond O'Brien and Ava Gardner are featured in a story of two warring Washington D.C. factions involved in a plot to overthrow the President because he supports a nuclear disarmament treaty. It may have been a little predictable but it still completely held my attention while I ogled this superb cast. Frankenheimer made some famously quotable quotes, among them, Kirk Douglas wanted to be Burt Lancaster all his life.
The same year, 1964, the director and his frequent lead actor would team for the fourth time in the suspenseful war film, The Train. It concerned the efforts of a resistance leader who has assumed the responsibility of getting a trainload of French art treasures bound for Nazi Germany to safety. Costarring two European acting giants, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau, the suspense-laden film had all the earmarkings of a Frankenheimer film, including fabulous acting, nail-biting excitement and that imaginative camerawork.
I was at a party once at Rock Hudson's house where all he could do was talk about Seconds, what a wonderful freeing director John Frankenheimer was and that he (Hudson) just gave the performance of his career. Since, I have heard many agree with that last part. I didn't like Seconds when it first came out and 25 years later I gave it another shot and felt the same. It's a New Wavish science fiction thriller about a bored-with-his-life John Randolph who has someone surgically alter his looks and he comes out looking like Rock Hudson. Both times I think I was on the edge of getting it, but it never came to me. Can you help?
In 1966 came Grand Prix, a hugely-publicized, larger-than-life, Cinerama production that featured dazzling car races and a rather nonsustaining story featuring an international cast including James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune. I kept falling asleep but those bloody racing engines would wake me up. I will say, however, that Frankenheimer's talent for the documentary form was evident in those racing scenes.
The Fixer, about a Jewish handyman wrongfully imprisoned in Russia, was worthy of a peek for me because it costarred two of my treasured English actors, Alan Bates and Dirk Bogarde. I did not overall think it was one of Frankenheimer's best efforts but it certainly beat his next film, The Extraordinary Seaman starring David Niven and Faye Dunaway which was beyond wretched. If this film didn't cause Frankenheimer's phone to stop ringing, nothing ever would. Let's not discuss it any further.
His next two were fun for me but misses with the critics and the public. He last paired with Lancaster in The Gypsy Moths (who was himself pairing for the third and final time with Deborah Kerr) in an interesting but offbeat rendering about stunt pilots. The director considered it his favorite film. Then there was I Walk the Line (with liberal use of Johnny Cash songs) starring Gregory Peck as a sheriff who goes over that line with a lusty moonshiner's daughter played with gusto by Tuesday Weld. It was a dirty little film with some offbeat casting and a bizarre love story but I loved those actors so my attendance was a must.
This was 1970 and from then until his last film in 2002, Frankenheimer's output was spotty at best. Most of his films were not successful in a number of ways and sadly most of them I never saw. But there were three exceptions.
Black Sunday was another one of those riveting thrillers. Robert Shaw starred as a cop out to stop terrorists Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller from riding over the Super Bowl in a blimp they plan to blow up. The director's visual images are truly exciting.
The Iceman Cometh was a filmed play, a genre not altogether popular with the public, then (1973) or now. It is a Eugene O'Neill work about a salesman preaching sobriety to a bunch of drunks who live in a flophouse above a bar. The acting of Fredric March, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Jeff Bridges was the stuff of acting schools.
In 1998 he had his last critical and box-office success with Ronin. He really knew his way around the thriller and his car chases were among the best in the business. It was about a U.S. Intelligence agent who forms a core group to retrieve a package that is wanted by both the Russians and the Irish. With another international cast, this time headed by Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgärd, it's one of my favorites of this genre and I haul it out for a viewing every now and then.
John Frankenheimer was one of the last of the take-charge-of-every-aspect directors. He had his fingers into everything on his productions. Most of his films, whether exciting thrillers or sensitive character-driven stories or political intrigues, were well worth seeing while sitting up straight and paying attention. He usually gave one his money's worth of entertainment.
He developed a healthy alcohol addiction in his later life and it is considered the culprit in his years of cinematic misses. What a shame. He was married twice, the second time to an actress with the unlikely name of Evans Evans. He died at age 72 in 2002 from a stroke that resulted from spinal surgery.
Review of Prisoners