How many of you remember television and film director John Frankenheimer? I’m not counting many hands, but I didn’t think I would. Frankenheimer started directing television in its early days, later moved to film where he enjoyed great early success, and then moved mostly back to television when his film career cooled off. For a brief period of time, Frankenheimer was the best director working. I will recommend a few of his films that stand the test of any period of time.
The brief period of time I mentioned was 1962-1966. His films are scary good. He usually focused on strong, character-driven material, thrillers or just taught dramas, sometimes punctuated with great action sequences. He was a storyteller who worked best inside the minds of his characters. He also worked best using black and white film.
He is one of a group of directors who started in the 1950s, when many programs were performed live, when weekly television had to be fed with programs, when writers, directors and actors from the war years broke new ground in drama.
John Frankenheimer worked until his health faded. In the second half of this career, his choice of material or the material offered him, was usually beneath his talent, but he wanted to keep working. It is a shame his immense filmmaking skill was often wasted on inferior material. We make sacrifices to keep doing what drives us, and we accept it to keep chasing the rainbow.
Birdman of Alcatraz – A great character study. Not a faithful adaptation of the book but it plays well on the screen. How to tell a two-hour film with minimal change of scenery and mostly dialogue? Give it to a television guy who has directed many, many hours of studio bound stories.
The Manchurian Candidate – Now considered a classic, but at the time it didn’t make money and was released around the Kennedy assassination, so it was shelved for years. A psychological thriller, the film contains many eerie performances including Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, who was also the producer. A Cold War tale of brainwashing and assassination, the original is much better than the remake.
Seven Days in May – Written by Rod Serling, another political thriller about a military takeover of the American government. Another Cold War delight, with an all-star cast including Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. JFK read the book and said he believed this could really happen. Interestingly, the basis of the takeover is a treaty with the Soviet Union that angered top military leaders who believe the Soviets cannot be trusted.
The Train – My favorite Frankenheimer film, it is beautiful in black & white. If you liked The Monument Men, this film tells the story from the French viewpoint. Burt Lancaster is superb as are the entire cast. It is a gritty and realistic film of conflicting egos and purpose. There were some fabulous WWII films made in the 1960s and this is one of them.
Seconds – Rock Hudson near the end of his film career and not in a comedy. This thriller/science fiction/horror film will freak you out. Little chance of a box office hit, although it has gained in notoriety though the years. Frankenheimer knows how to make a statement while taking you on a scary thrill ride.
Honorable Mention: Ronin, Black Sunday
Dead Bang – A potboiler for star Don Johnson who was hot at the moment. I cannot imagine what attracted Frankenheimer to the job, maybe just a chance to work. The plot is ordinary and a waste of Frankenheimer and production designer Ken Adam (early James Bond films).
The Year of the Gun – Not awful, but insignificant. Political thrillers that take place in foreign countries are hard for American audiences to connect with. Films that are overly complex push audiences away. Not worthy of Frankenheimer’s talent.
99 and 44/100 % Dead – A stylish, action mystery with Richard Harris sounds like an intriguing idea. That’s all it was. Harris was hot and Frankenheimer was not. Weird titles do not help sell tickets either. It was the mid 1970s and ideas that read well on the page often turned into bad films.
Reindeer Games – This film had some decent story elements, some star power, but it was just a predictable and uninteresting film. This was filmmaking by the numbers, no real creative effort involved. I suspect it was a paycheck and hope for better projects.
The Island of Dr Moreau – Another version of the H.G. Wells novel. Frankenheimer was hired after production began, which is always a very bad sign. Perhaps it was the chance to work with Marlon Brando that attracted Frankenheimer to the job. The film was panned and was a box office bomb.
Honorable Mention: The Prophecy, The Extraordinary Seaman
With minor exception, after the 1970s, Frankenheimer’s film career was in decline. He was offered many films that were action/thrillers in name only, projects with stars attached, but that lacked any of the elements he was good at translating to the screen. The 1980s and early 1990s was a time he worked to work. In his later years, Frankenheimer returned to television where the projects had dramatic depth. In his youth, he cut his teeth in directing live television so he knew how to work with a tight budget and schedule, provided he had quality material.
In the 1990s, he won four consecutive Emmys for directing some superior television movies. Television was a medium he understood well. Preparation is important and characters drive the story. His early films were massive critical hits although not huge box office hits. Films offered the tools and actors, to go deep into characters psyches and build tension through editing and complex story structure. John Frankenheimer did not deliver huge box office hits, but his early films usually made money, and they made people talk, and think.