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House of Frankenheimer: The Long, Storied Career of Director John Frankenheimer



If John Frankenheimer did nothing other than work in television during the 1950s, he still would have had a formidable career. A protege of legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, Frankenheimer was in the control booth on the night that Murrow attacked Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy on live television.

McCarthy seemed omnipotent before that night. His often delusional and opportunistic broadsides against alleged Communists in the media could make or break careers. Murrow, along with everyone who worked with or for him, was therefore taking his career in his hands when he became the first prominent broadcaster to go against the tide and show unequivocally that McCarthyist tactics were unscrupulous and that McCarthy himself was a public menace.

Miraculously, rather than engulfing Frankenheimer at the very start of his career, the McCarthyist tide began to turn after the on-air rejection of McCarthy. The senator’s influence crumbled. Instead of becoming an industry outcast, Frankenheimer, along with the other “Murrow boys,” became a symbol of broadcast integrity.

Among the new opportunities that opened to Frankenheimer in the rather porous TV industry of the 1950s was the chance to direct dramas for an experimental omnibus program entitled Playhouse 90 — a show which, to broadcast aficionados, has come to symbolize storytelling excellence in the same way that Murrow’s program represented the apogee of TV journalism.

Days of Wine & Roses

Among the Playhouse 90 segments Frankenheimer directed was the original dramatization of J.P. Miller’s alcoholic love story Days of Wine & Roses (1958), which was so well received it was remade as a theatrical feature by director Blake Edwards in 1962.

In 1959, Frankenheimer made his movie debut with The Young Stranger, followed in 1961 by The Young Savages — two minor works designed to comment on the growing generation divide of the early ’60s. By the time Blake Edwards made his motion picture version of Frankenheimer’s most famous television classic, Frankenheimer was hard at work on his first big-screen masterpiece — a movie so ahead of its time that it took over two decades for the full scale of Frankenheimer’s achievement to be recognized.

The Manchurian Candidate

That film was called The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a paranoid political thriller and Cold War satire based on the novel by Richard Condon. Working from a brilliant screenplay adaptation by George Axelrod, Frankenheimer gave the world a blackly humorous, through-the-looking-glass send-up of recent American history, in which American war heroes were depicted as brainwashed automatons and a McCarthy-like senator turned out to be a Communist surrogate using Red-bashing smear tactics to take over the American government.

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

As sly and sophisticated as Condon’s premise was, it is Frankenheimer’s stunning visualization that makes The Manchurian Candidate such a brilliant achievement. Drawing on his experiences in live TV, Frankenheimer staged mock political broadcasts played out simultaneously on small armies of television screens — a device which has resurfaced in his work as recently as 1998’s Ronin. To illustrate the brainwashing of a captured squad of American soldiers, Frankenheimer staged one of the most famous tracking shots of the entire decade, in which the camera pans around a roomful of innocuous Midwestern ladies having a tea party (the “cover” story inserted into the soldiers’ psyches by their Communist captors) and then, without cutting, pans the room again to reveal a drab hospital amphitheater filled with a rogues gallery of Communist apparatchiks. As a tour de force of camera choreography, it’s a moment that rivals the famous opening sequence of Welles’ Touch of Evil,the hallucinatory impact underscoring the paranoia of everything else in the film.

Though well-received in its day, it took a re-release of The Manchurian Candidate in the mid-1980s before the film came to be fully acknowledged as a cinematic classic.This was due, in part, to the prolific Frankenheimer output that surrounded the film. Remarkably, two additional Frankenheimer films were also released in 1962, and they were both signature works: All Fall Down (an early showcase for Warren Beatty) and The Birdman of Alcatraz, the latter of which remains in some ways Frankenheimer’s most popular work.

The Manchurian Candidate climaxes with an assassination scene at a political convention that is among the most suspenseful set pieces ever committed to film. It was this sequence, more than any other, that would haunt Frankenheimer’s middle career, largely due to his growing familiarity and friendship with the Kennedys. Frankenheimer has said that it is an apocryphal industry legend that Manchurian Candidate was pulled from general circulation after John Kennedy’s untimely death out of a sense of guilt over its vivid depiction of an assassination from the assassin’s point of view. But the fact is that the film all but disappeared for over 20 years, even as the Kennedy clan’s lives were so consistently disrupted by gunfire.

Seven Days in May

For his next political thriller, Frankenheimer created Seven Days in May, in which a liberal president (Fredric March) is the target of a right-wing general (Burt Lancaster) who attempts a military coup. Given the perceived liberalism of John F. Kennedy at the time of the film’s production in 1963, it’s possible to see Seven Days in May as a sort of fantasy fulfillment for Frankenheimer, in which the political hero of the moment (JFK) faces down reactionary forces and emerges triumphant.

By 1964 when Seven Days in May was released to solid box office and excellent reviews, John Kennedy was dead, and a traumatized Frankenheimer was on to other subjects. The Train (1965) reteamed Frankenheimer with Birdman Burt Lancaster for a WWII action epic, in which Frankenheimer used real locomotives to stage a spectacular train crash. In 1966, Frankenheimer created another tour de force entitled Seconds, a wildly experimental thriller in which an elderly businessman goes to a rejuvenation clinic and wakes up as Rock Hudson.

Rock Hudson in Seconds.

Rock Hudson in Seconds.

Outrageously experimental in tone, Seconds was, in many ways, a precursor to the psychedelic cinema that would flourish later in the ’60s. Even more so than The Manchurian Candidate (which was actually fairly successful), Seconds is a “cult classic.” Though a resounding (and, for Frankenheimer, bewildering) flop in its time, Seconds has found an audience among film buffs and cinema historians, and there has even been recent talk of remaking it at a major studio.

Though politics had virtually disappeared from Frankenheimer’s films by this point, he was in the process of entering into the most political phase of his personal life. His Kennedy connections made him a natural as media advisor when Robert Kennedy attempted a presidential run of his own in 1968. In L.A. for the California primary, RFK spent what turned out to be the last day of his life with John Frankenheimer at Frankenheimer’s Malibu beach house. When Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan immediately following his election win, Frankenheimer suffered what he has openly characterized as a nervous breakdown. He relocated to Europe for a time, and his artistic output became more scattered.

French Connection 2

There were still the occasional career highpoints for Frankenheimer. In 1973, he retraced his steps and directed a television adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, to wide acclaim. His 1975 sequel to The French Connection was an unexpectedly terse, tough-minded, and uncompromising follow-up in which Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle was captured by his enemies in the underworld and forced into drug addiction. Though a box office failure, French Connection 2 provided Hackman with the vehicle for one of his greatest performances, and proved that Frankenheimer’s talent remained undimmed.

Black Sunday

Black Sunday

1977’s Black Sunday returned Frankenheimer to political subjects, with terrorists commandeering the Goodyear blimp in a plot to blow up the Super Bowl. While it was no Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday indicated that Frankenheimer was perfectly capable of prettifying even rather unlikely story material with his considerable directorial chops. The film was a substantial hit, although its box office prospects were deflated somewhat by Two Minute Warning, a snipers-at-the-Super-Bowl quickie which beat Black Sunday to market that same year.

After Black Sunday, Frankenheimer seemed, for almost 15 years, to lose his way. The absolute nadir of this period has to be The Prophecy, a laughable ecological horror film from 1979 starring Talia Shire. Even when Frankenheimer seemed to regain some of his stride, his work began to seem curiously dated. For The Holcroft Covenant, Frankenheimer reunited with Manchurian Candidate screenwriter George Axelrod to make a film starring Michael Caine. In the late ’60s, this would have been a dream triumvirate, but the whole combination seemed tired by 1985.

Against the Wall

In the early ’90s, Frankenheimer made another political thriller called Year of the Gun starring Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone. A pallid travesty of some of his most significant themes and staging ideas, Year of the Gun seemed like a sad coda to a once stunning career. But TV came to Frankenheimer’s rescue once more when he made the 1994 telefilm Against the Wall about the infamous Attica prison riots. In a sense, Frankenheimer was again revisiting his past achievements (like Birdman of Alcatraz, Against the Wall dealt in true-life prison drama). But unlike Year of the Gun, Against the Wall was a resounding success which revived Frankenheimer’s reputation when he grabbed an Emmy Award for his direction.

Hollywood quickly remembered that Frankenheimer was alive and well and a very talented filmmaker, which led to a notorious project that was simultaneously the fulfillment of a dream for Frankenheimer and one of his most notable professional nightmares. In 1996, New Line Cinema decided to make a new version of the H.G. Wells science-fiction classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. The original director was also the film’s screenwriter, who was fired in mid-production owing to his inability to handle his very famous and famously temperamental actors. Frankenheimer was asked in, and jumped at the chance, thanks to the fact that Moreau was being played by the one actor Frankenheimer had always wanted to work with: Marlon Brando.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

By all accounts, the two men got along swimmingly. Unfortunately for Frankenheimer, the second lead was being played by Val Kilmer, a notable talent in his own right, but an actor who was rapidly emerging as the most reputedly “difficult” performer of his generation. Unwilling to put up with what he considered to be unprofessional behavior, Frankenheimer is rumored to have reworked the script as he shot in order to cut Kilmer’s screen time to the bone (he later told interviewers that he would refuse to cast Kilmer again, “even if I was directing the Val Kilmer Story”).

Given those unfortunate circumstances, the final film was actually better than it had any right to be. When Moreau inevitably failed in the marketplace, critics who understood Frankenheimer’s difficult role as directorial pinch-hitter were in some cases effusive, and in most cases, rather kind.

De Niro in Ronin

De Niro in Ronin

In 1998, Frankenheimer returned to Europe to direct Ronin, a political thriller starring Robert De Niro. An amateur racer who had given the world the forgettable James Garner vehicle Grand Prix in 1966, Frankenheimer combined his intimate knowledge of France (where he had lived for a time during his expatriate period) with his kinetic love of automotive motion to create an action film with stunning chase sequences.

Though a commercial disappointment in America, Ronin was a critical success and became a substantial international hit. Articles with a limited sense of history sited Ronin as Frankenheimer’s big “comeback,” in a career that has actually been punctuated by them.

Reindeer Games

Finally for the director was Reindeer Games starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron. This turned out to be his last feature (he died in 2002 but did complete one episode of The Hire – a web series for BMW, as well as a drama biog for HBO about Lyndon B. Johnon called Path To War). Sadly Reindeer Games turned out to be something of a damp squib but it did prove, if nothing else, that Frankenheimer’s 41-year career as a theatrical filmmaker showed he was a director who was built to last.