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John Frankenheimer (1930-2002)


American film director, an expert in thrillers. Frankenheimer started his career in live television dramas in the 1950s and then established himself as one of the Hollywood's leading talents. Frankenheimer's best-known works include The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a suspense film of political intrigue, and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), almost a documentary set in Alcatraz. Several of his films are based on books, written by such diverse authors as Evan Hunter, Richard Condon, Robert Ludlum, Bernard Malamud, and Elmore Leonard.

"Many of my films concern the individual trying to find himself in society and trying to maintain his individuality in a mechanised world. I do feel that society wants everybody to be exactly the same. It's so much easier. I think the theme of the indomitability of the human spirit is very much there, and the fight against regimentation." (Frankenheimer in The Cinema of John Frankenheimer by Gerald Pratley, 1969)

John Frankenheimer was born in New York, the son of Walter Frankenheimer, a German-Jewish stockbroker, and Helen (Sheedy) Frankenheimer, an Irish Catholic. Frankenheimer attended La Salle Military Academy where he was one of the best tennis players and the captain of the tennis team. After quitting tennis, he took up amateur automobile racing. At Williams College he studied English, graduating with a B.A in 1951. Frankenheimer had become interested in acting at the college, and for a year he acted in summer stock. Eventually he dropped acting on account of shyness. 

While serving in the Air Force, Frankenheimer learned the fundamentals of film technique and made several document shorts white stationed in Burbank, California. "Of course I made some terrible movies, but I did learn what I was doing, at the Government's expense," he later recalled. Frankenheimer's first wife was Joanne Evans, with whom he moved to Washington D.C., and then to southern California. The marriage was an arrangement of convenience  at that time they were living together and the only way he could take her with him was to marry her so that the governmet would pay for it. After divorce he married in 1954 Carolyn Miller; they had two children. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1961 Frankenheimer married Evans Evans, an actres, who appeared in several of his films.

Encouraged by John Ford, he decided to pursue television as a career. After his demobilization Frankenheimer began to work for CBS-TV in New York as assistant director and soon he was promoted to director on the 'You Are There' program, hosted by Walter Cronkite. During this period Frankenheimer directed for 'Climax' and 'Playhouse 90' anthology series. His dramas included adaptations from Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Later he said: "I was convinced and confident that having done a the number of television shows that I did, it was over 125, helped me in many ways in becoming a film director." These works earned him 14 nominations for Emmy Award and he won twice the television critics award as best director.

In 1956 Frankenheimer directed his first motion picture, The Young Stranger, starring James MacArthur, James Daly and Kim Hunter. In The Young Savages (1961), a story of juvenile criminals, based on Evan Hunter's novel A Matter of Conviction, Frankenheimer started his collaboration with Burt Lancaster. Lancaster played in Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud, a murderer and a real life character, who becomes in jail the world's leading authority on caged bird diseases. The film was not a huge success in cinemas, but become popular in television. Frankenheimer had heated arguments with Lancaster about how to shoot scenes, and after finishing the film he swore he'd never work with the actor again. Two years later he made with Lancaster and Kirk Douglas Seven Days in May, a story of an attempted right-wing military coup. Based on the best-selling cold war novel published by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II it continued Frankenheimer's examinations of America's political intrigues. President Kennedy helped persuade United Artists to finance the film. He also lent White House locations for it. In this film Frankenheimer had problems with Ava Gardner, who accused after a few drinks that the director had a homosexual relationship with Douglas. "Listen, I've known Ava for years," said Douglas to Frankenheimer. "She must be just a little high." (from The Ragman's Son by Kirk Douglas, 1988)

The Manchurian Candidate was based on the prophetic novel of Richard Condon. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) are Korean war heroes, who have been brainwashed during their captivity by scientists from the Pavlov institute. Shaw is conditioned to kill, his target is the Presidential nominee. His domineering mother, Angela Lansbury, turns out to be a dedicated Communist. She is married to a U.S. senator, John Yerkes Iselin, clearly based on Joseph McCarthy, the famous anticommunist crusader. At the end, in the Madison Square Garden, Shaw shoots his mother, his stepfather, and himself. The popular belief that many American soldiers had succumbed to brainwashing in the Korean war contributed to the fame of the film. In addition it was rumored that Lee Harvey Oswald has seen  The Manchurian Candidate before assassinating President Kennedy. The film was pulled from circulation for over twenty years. It began its comeback in 1987 when it was shown at the twenty-fifth New York Film Festival.

Frankenheimer started to work in the mid-1960s in Europe, where he directed such films as The Train (1964), about the French Resistance trying to sabotage a plan to transport a cargo of priceless art treasures to Germany, Grand Prix (1966), his first colour movie, and The Fixer (1968), a tale of anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia, which was scripted by Dalton Trumbo from Bernard Malamud's novel. After completing The Train, Frankenheimer moved with Evans to a Paris flat. Seconds (1966) was so badly received at the Cannes film festival that Frankenheimer boycotted the press conference. "I feel better about The Fixer than anything I've ever done in my life," said Frankenheimer in an interview. When the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune worked with Frankenheimer in Grand Prix, he noted that Kurosawa and Frankenheimer were similar in their professionalism. "He kept saying, 'Very good, once more.' I started calling him that, and it became a joke in the company." (from The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith IV, 2001) The turning point in Frankenheimer's personal life was the tragedy of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, his friend. Kennedy had stayed at the director's Californian home the night before he was assassinated while running for president, in 1968. Moreover, he drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the fatal shots were fired.

Critics noted the decline of Frankenheimer's work already before The Gypsy Months (1969), an existential interpretation of the Icarus myth. The director had started to drink and suffered from depression. 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), starring Richard Harris and Chuck Connors, was a failure. Later the Italian director Sergio Leone claimed that Frankenheimer practically stole his idea of a cemetery under the water of the Hudson River and used it at the beginning of his film. Frankenheimer himself was not happy with his side-step into comedy and planned a permanent return to "semi-documentary realism."

With the exception of The French Connection II (1975), a mediocre sequel to William Friedkin's original police thriller, and Prophecy (1979), Frankenheimer's films from the 1970s were commercial disappointments. Black Sunday (1977) is famous for its editing  181 cuts in the final three minutes. The sequence, set over 80,000 spectators of the Super Bowl, shows a deadly airship, pursued by an Israeli secret agent on a rope beneath a helicopter. The Challenge (1982), a story of a blood feud over two antique swords, was filmed for the most part in Kyoto. Frankenheimer's alcoholism expanded on the set. After he returned to the United States, he went into detox program.

The Holcroft Covenant (1985), a film version of Robert Ludlum's paranoid thriller, revealed again plans to build a new Nazi empire. The British actor Michael Caine player a New Yorker. 52 Pick-Up (1986), produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, was a screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel. Two years earlier the blackmail story had been filmed in Israel as The Ambassador.

In the 1990s Frankenheimer returned again to television. He won an Emmy award for directing Against The Wall (1993), a retelling of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. The Burning Season (1994) was awarded with three Golden Globes and Emmy for directing. His third Emmy Frankenheimer won for Andersonville (1996), and fourth for George Wallace (1997), which also received the Golden Globe for Best Film for Television. In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) the director Richard Stanley was sacked after three days and Frankenheimer continued the unlucky horror film. In the bizarre adaptation of H.G. Wells' "scientific romance", Marlon Brando played a geneticist who is destroyed by his own creations. Brando was tough to work with, and Frankenheimer said later that "If I was penniless and desperate and the only job available was working with Brando, I'd rather lie down in the gutter and die." Ronin (1998), shot in Europe, was a violent chase thriller, built around a Hitchcockian McGuffin, a briefcase. Noteworthy, the audience never learns what it contains, except that it is the thing that everyone wants.

Before his death, Frankenheimer had began to work on Exorcist: The Beginning, but was forced to quit the movie. For years, he had suffered from lung cancer, which had spread to his spinal chord and vertebrae, and in May 2002 he went into the hospital for reconstructive back surgery. In June, he returned to the hospital. Frankenheimer died of a stroke in Los Angeles, on July 6, 2002. His last theatrical release was Reindeer Games (2000), starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron. Roger Ebert called it the "first all-Talking Killer Picture." Path to War (2002), an HBO television movie, expressed Frankenheimer's sympathy toward President Lyndon Johnson, whom he saw as a "modern-day King Lear." 

For further reading: The Cinema of John Frankenheimer by Gerald Pratley (1969); John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin by Charles Champlin (1995); Andersonville: The Complete Original Screenplay by David W. Rintels, et al. (1996); The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film by Gerald Pratley, John Frankenheimer (1998); 'The Machurian Candidate' in Film: The Critic's Choice, ed. by Geoff Andrew (2001); Pictures About Extremes: The Films of John Frankenheimer by Stephen B. Armstrong (2007); A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer (2011)  

Selected films:

  • The Young Stranger, 1957 (starring James MacArthur, James Daly, Kim Hunter, screenplay by Robert Dozier)
  • The Young Savages, 1961 (starring Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, John Davis Chandler, based on the novel A Matter of Conviction by Evan Hunter)
  • Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962 (starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis)
  • All Fall Down, 1962 (starring Warren Beatty, Brandon de Wilde, Angela Lansbury, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy)
  • The Manchurian Candidate, 1962 (starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, based on the novel by Richard Condon)
  • Seven Days in May, 1964 (starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, based on the novel by Fletcher Kneber and Charles W. Bailey II)
  • The Train, 1964 (starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofiled, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, screenplay by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, Walter Bernstein)
  • Seconds, 1966 (starring Rock Hudson, John Randolp, Will Geer, photography James Wong Howe, based on a book by David Ely)
  • Grand Prix, 1966 (starring James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune)
  • The Fixer, 1968 (starring Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Georgia Brown, screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud)
  • The Extraordinary Seaman, 1969 (starring David Niven, Faye Dunaway)
  • The Gypsy Moths, 1969 (starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Gene Hackman, novel by James Drought)
  • I Walk the Line, 1970 (starring Gregory Peck, Tuesday Weld, based on the novel An Exile by Madison Jones)
  • The Horsemen, 1971 (starring Omar Sharif, Jack Palance, Leigh Taylor-Young, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel)
  • The Impossible Object / Story of a Love Story, 1973 (starring Alan Bates, Dominique Sanda, Michel Auclair, based on the novel Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley)
  • The Iceman Cometh, 1973 (starring Lee Marvin, Fredric March, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, based on the play by Eugene O'Neill)
  • 99 and 44/100% Dead, 1974 (starring Richard Harris, Chuck Connors, Edmond O'Brien, Ann Turkel)
  • French Connection II, 1975 (starring Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson)
  • Black Sunday, 1977 (starring Robert Shaw, Marthe Keller, Bruce Dern, based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
  • Prophecy, 1979 (starring Talis Shire, Robert Foxworth, Armand Assante)
  • The Challenge, 1982 (starring Scott Glenn, Toshiro Mifune, Donna Kei Benz, Atsuo Nakamura)
  • The Rainmakes, 1982 (TV film, starring Lonny Chapman, James Cromwell and Tommy Lee Jones, based on a play by N. Richard Nash)
  • The Holcroft Covenant, 1985 (starring Michael Caine, Anthony Andrews, Victoria Tennant, Lilli Palmer, based on Robert Ludlum's novel)
  • 52 Pick-Up, 1986 (starring Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, Vanity, based on Elmore Leonard's novel)
  • Riviera, 1987 (as Alan Smithee, starring Patrick Bauchau, Elyssa Davalos and Daniel Emilfork)
  • Dead Bang, 1989 (starring Don Johnson, Penelope Ann Miller, William Forsythe, Bob Balaban)
  • The Fourth War, 1990 (starring Roy Scheider, Jürgen Prochnow, Tim Reid, Lara Harris, based on the novel by Stephen Peters)
  • Year of the Gun, 1991 (starring Adrew McCarthy, Valeria Golino, Sharon Stone, based on the novel by Michael Mewshaw)
  • Against The Wall, 1994 (an HBO special, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Samuel L. Jackson, Clarence Williams III)
  • The Burning Season, 1994 (an HBO special, starring Raul Julia, Edward James Olmos, Sonia Braga)
  • Andersonville, 1996 (TNT, starring Jarrod Emick, Frederic Forrest, Cliff DeYoung)
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996 (starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer, David Thewlis, based on the novel by H.G. Wells)
  • George Wallace, 1997 (TNT, starring Gary Sinise, Mare Winningham, Angelina Jolie, Clarence Williams III)
  • Ronin, 1998 (starring Robert de Niro, Jean Réno, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, Staffan Skarsgard, written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet as Richard Weisz)
  • Reindeer Games, 2000 (starring Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, Charlize Theron, Dennis Farina)
  • Path to War, 2002 (HBO, starring Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland)

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