"My name is John Frankenheimer, and I directed this movie."
DVD and laserdisc enthusiasts may recognize that quote: director John Frankenheimer began nearly all of his "Director's Commentaries" with them.
Note the use of past-tense.
John Frankenheimer, my all-time favorite film director, died at 4:07 p.m. today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of a massive stroke due to complications from spinal surgery. He was 72.
Born in 1930 in Queens, New York, Frankenheimer wanted to be a professional tennis player; thank the Fates he changed his mind, or film lovers would be all the poorer.
Frankenheimer began his career as an assistant at CBS during the days of live television. His enthusiasm, his intelligence, and his knowledge of the camera quickly earned him a chance to direct. In 1957 he helmed the live broadcast of the Emmy Award-winning The Comedian, written by none other than Rod Serling. It starred Mickey Rooney, Edmund O'Brian, Kim Hunter(who many of you might remember from the original -- and best -- Planet Of The Apes, co-scripted by Serling), and a surprisingly effective Mel Torme. What distinguished "The Comedian" from other live television dramas of the period was not only its superb script (which remains one of Serling's most angry and poetic) but Frankenheimer's maverick direction. Until The Comedian, most directors had been limited to the use of one, sometimes two cameras, but Frankenheimer bullied CBS executives into letting him use three--an unheard-of gamble. Not only did Frankenheimer use three cameras, he used them simultaneously during the breathtaking and still-magnificent opening sequence, which still stuns today. (The Comedian is readily available on home video; if you've never seen this benchmark production in television history, you'd do well to go out and rent it. Do it tonight, in fact. It will help you realize just what a master film-maker we have lost. End of mini-sermon.)
Frankenheimer would work again with Serling on the 1964 political thrillerSeven Days in May, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Martin Balsam, John Houseman (in his first film role), Ava Gardner, and the great Fredric March. Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel, Seven Days In May depicts what happens when a military plot to overthrow the United States government is uncovered one week before the President is scheduled to deliver his State Of The Union Address. Though it contains a minimum of action, the film is nonetheless gripping, suspenseful, and, at several points, outright nerve-wracking. It also boasts a famous confrontation scene between Lancaster and March toward the end of the movie which Frankenheimer often said was his personal favorite of all the scenes he had directed. Considering that his career spanned five decades, that's no small recommendation. That confrontation sequence remains on of the most taut, literate, and brilliantly directed sequences I have ever seen.
I'd rather not spend the rest of this node regurgitating biographical information that can readily be found on other sites (The Internet Movie Database springs to mind]); so if you'll allow me, I'm going to talk about a handful of personal favorite Frankenheimer films, then list a filmography at the end.
A lot--a lot--has been written and said about the film that put Frankenheimer on the map, The Manchurian Candidate. How effective you'll find the film today depends on your personal level of cynicism. Candidate--a satire in the truest sense of the word--deliberately sets out to make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not it's supposed to funny. Admittedly, some of the scenes in the film have an aura of comedy about them which I think was intentional, while others -- scenes obviously intended to be serious, unintentionally draw chuckles. Laurence Harvey's British accent seems ludicrously out of place for a veteran of the Korean War, especially since he's supposed to be American, but once you get past his voice, you cannot help but admire his rich, complex performance. The final sequence, filmed in Madison Square Garden, remains one of the most beautifully edited and unbearably suspenseful ever put on film. (Many critics and film scholars credit Frankenheimer as having created the template for the modern political thriller; viewing such films as Candidate, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday, and the recent HBO film The Path to War (which is now Frankenheimer's swan song, and a great one, at that), this accolade seems almost understated.
In 1966, Frankenheimer turned out a pair of films that could not possibly be more disparate in subject matter and execution; Seconds and Grand Prix. Frankenheimer did not want to make Grand Prix, but was forced to do so after Seconds bombed at the box office. Both remain excellent examples of Frankenheimer's unique directorial style, but Seconds is by far the superior work.
Based on the novel by David Ely, it tells the story of a depressed, middle-aged businessman (John Randolph, in a superb and often overlooked performance) who is offered a "second chance" at life in a new body, with a new identity. Desperate to find some meaning to his existence, the Randolph character allows himself to be transported to the main offices of this mystery corporation, where he meets the doctor who is in charge of the "reborns," as the subjects are called. The doctor is played by the late Will Geer, who many of you know only as "Grandpa Walton" from the hit television series "The Waltons." In Seconds, Geer erases all traces of "Grandpa" from your mind with his sly, compelling, malevolent performance; his character simultaneously earns your respect and sympathy while giving you the creeps.
The Randolph character--after being brainwashed and blackmailed, agrees to undergo the surgery necessary for his rebirth. He emerges as Rock Hudson (in a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier, who the studio claimed did not have the box-office draw of Hudson). Though at first seduced into a false sense of security by the trappings of his new life, the Hudson character finds himself longing for the one he left behind--and therein lies his tragic downfall.
Rock Hudson gives a career-changing performance, easily his finest, and nowhere is that more evident than in the film's last thirty minutes as both his body and psyche begin to crumble before your eyes. All of this leads up to a final seven minutes which culminate in (what is in my opinion) the most nerve-shattering and terrifying last scene of any science fiction, fantasy, or horror film ever made. Period.
Seconds was recently released on DVD, and if you rent--or better, buy it--make sure to listen to Frankenheimer's commentary. He not only offers a fascinating glimpse into the visual choices made by himself and cinematographer James Wong Howe (who won an Oscar for his work on the Paul Newman film Hud), but in addition offers one of the most eloquent and frightening oral histories of the Hollywood witch-hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. With the exception of Hudson and Frankenheimer, everyone who worked on Seconds (both in front of and behind the cameras) had been blacklisted. Frankenheimer says several times--almost gleefully--that he purposefully hired the cast and crew because they had been blacklisted. It's his way of spitting in McCarthy's face. Bravo.
Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a tremendous hit at the box office, and remained Frankenheimer's most financially successful film until 1998's Ronin. The script by veteran playwright Robert Alan Arthur (who co-wrote All That Jazz with the late Bob Fosse), ultimately focuses too much on the soap-opera level problems of the drivers and their families, but it's when the film gets on the racetrack that Frankenheimer and Howe blindside you. When faced with the challenge of filming a lengthy race in such a way to make it interesting for film audiences, Frankenheimer decided he wanted to have the camera become part of the actual race, so he and Howe designed a special camera and camera harness that could be attached to the front driver's-side of the car, giving the illusion that the viewer was riding on the hood during the race.
You've seen this same shot about a million times over the years in every car chase that's been filmed. You have John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe to thank for it. Until Grand Prix, no director had ever attempted to film a race or chase in this manner; nowadays, a director would feel like a fool not to include at least one such shot in an action film.
The decades of the 70s and 80s were not good ones for Frankenheimer. In addition to a string of box-office disappointments (films such as I Walk The Line and 99 and 44/100% Dead), Frankenheimer was battling depression and alcoholism which began shortly after the assassination of his close friend, Robert Kennedy.
Most people know the story of how Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel the night of the senator's murder, but during an interview with Larry King, Frankenheimer offered a chilling post-script to the tale: He had left the podium area (where he'd been standing next to Kennedy) about three minutes before Kennedy's speech was finished in order to get his car, drive it to the front of the building, and be ready to pick up the senator. As he sat there with the car idling, he tuned to the news on the radio in time for a special bulletin: Senator Robert Kennedy had just been shot and killed along with acclaimed movie director John Frankenheimer.
"I heard them announce my death on the radio," he said. "It was horrifying and surreal and made me weep."
It also made him angry. Starting with the 1975 thriller French Connection II (a film in many ways the equal of William Friedkin's 1973 multi-Oscar winner, and in some ways even better), Frankenheimer's movies became infused with rage and disillusionment which was often difficult, if not impossible, for both audiences and critics to deal with. Many claimed that he had lost his touch as a director, but nothing was further from the truth. Watch Black Sunday and see how much of Bruce Dern's emotionally overwhelming breakdown scene you can look at, or test you mettle with the merciless heroin withdrawal sequence in French Connection II; even 1979's box-office disaster Prophecy (which was re-edited without Frankenheimer's particpation or approval, though he bore the brunt of the blame when the film flopped) seethes with rage during its first forty-five minutes. (Many scenes in the film's second half were re-written and re-shot by a different director, and it shows in the inconsistent, embarrassingly sloppy visual and thematic compostion.)
A few other films to mention: Dead-Bang; despite an awful script, this film should be seen to prove what a gifted director and solid cast can do with sub-standard material; The Island of Dr. Moreau; Frankenheimer came in on this one after the orginal director was fired and half the cast had quit: considering what a debacle the production was when he inherited it (and his well-publicized difficulties with actor Val Kilmer), it's a wonder this film got made at all, let alone be as watchable as it is; 52 Pick-Up; without a doubt the best film version of any Elmore Leonard novel, full of rage and cynicism and dark humor, with outstanding performances from the entire cast; and Ronin, another film wherein Frankenheimer was handed a paper-thin script (co-written by David Mamet under a pseudonym), but managed to instill the story with an immediacy and intensity that made its two-hour running time fly. Crackling performances, muscular editing, and two stunning car chases which forever raised the bar on that particular action-movie staple shouldhave earned Frankenheimer an Oscar nomination for Best Director. (Despite winning a plethora of other awards, Frankenheimer was never nominated for an Oscar, not even for The Manchurian Candidate; don't try to tell me that Hollywood knows "quality" when it sees it.)
On a much more personal note, as a writer, Frankenheimer's films have had a profound and lasting influence on me; he taught me how to temper anger with dry humor, how to pace a story, how to visualize scenes, and, most of all, how to always give the story the spotlight. I am more saddened than I can possibly express by the death of this great American director. I think it might take a while for filmgoers to realize what a brilliant man they've lost, but realize it they will. And maybe they'll cry like I did.
"My name is John Frankenheimer, and I directed this movie."
You sure did, pal; that you did.
A Partial Filmography of Director John Frankenheimer:
The Path to War 2002
Reindeer Games 2000
George Wallace 1997 (TV--Emmy Winner, Best Director)
The Island of Dr. Moreau 1996
Andersonville 1996 (TV--Emmy Winner, Best Director)
The Burning Season 1995 (TV--Emmy Winner, Best Director)
Against the Wall 1994 (TV--Emmy Winner, Best Director)
(Note: Frankenheimer remains the only director to win in the "TV Movie or Minseries" category four years in a row)
Year of the Gun 1991
The Fourth War 1990
52 Pick-Up 1986
The Holcroft Covenant 1985
The Challenge 1982
Black Sunday 1977
French Connection II 1975
99 and 44/100% Dead 1974
The Iceman Cometh 1973
Story of a Love Story (a.k.a. Impossible Object) 1973
The Horseman 1971
I Walk the Line 1970
The Extraordinary Seaman 1969
The Gypsy Moths 1968
The Fixer 1968
Grand Prix 1966
The Train 1964
Seven Days in May 1964
The Manchurian Candidate 1962
Birdman of Alcatraz 1962
All Fall Down 1962