Along with Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer was the major director to emerge from and be influenced by the aesthetics of live television drama, which flourished briefly in the US before it became commercially and technologically obsolete around 1960. Frankenheimer’s later fame, and his oft-repeated nostalgia for live television, have designated him as the quintessential exponent of the form.
This is a crucial misconception. The aesthetics of live television were defined by their temporal and spatial limitations: all that could be shown was what could be physically created within an hour or half-hour and photographed within the confines of a small space. The work of the young generation of television writers – Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose – emphasised cramped blue-collar settings (“kitchen drama”) because these were the most easily staged for live broadcast.
Whereas Sidney Lumet or Delbert Mann, who rehearsed and blocked their TV productions much as one would for the theatre, seemed perfectly suited to this world of emotional intimacy and physical claustrophobia, Frankenheimer reacted instinctively against it. He sought material and visual strategies that expanded the boundaries of what could be done in live television. Frankenheimer shot one show outside the studio during an unexpected snowfall, and staged the first half-hour of another without a single cut. Atypically, Frankenheimer welcomed videotape when it replaced live telecasts, because tape permitted retakes and limited editing. As the live TV director who took the medium in an explicitly cinematic direction, Frankenheimer was actually the least typical.
Frankenheimer’s first film grew literally out of television; it was an expansion of one of his Climax shows, an autobiographical father-son drama by Robert Dozier (the son of producer William Dozier). Though Frankenheimer too felt overshadowed by a strong father, the film has less in common with his later work than with the wave of movies adapted from live TV dramas in the wake of Marty‘s unexpected Academy Award. Most of these films were fatally diluted by the fusion of movie studio polish with gritty subjects and production design, and The Young Stranger (1957) was no exception.
Frankenheimer, generally at odds with his grizzled RKO crew, felt he had been unable to realise his ideas in The Young Stranger and returned to television for four years before making his second film. The Young Savages (1961) was a social problem picture about juvenile gangs – West Side Story without the songs – and Frankenheimer’s direction suggests a lack of conviction toward the material, especially the preposterous courtroom finale. Frankenheimer concentrated most of his energy on The Young Savages into the opening title sequence, a dazzling few minutes of dutch angles, fisheye lenses, handheld camera and actual Manhattan locations that culminates in a murder shown reflected in the blind victim’s sunglasses.
All of those devices presaged the signature visual style that Frankenheimer would refine over his next few films. Frankenheimer tended to cite William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens and Carol Reed (a particular favourite) as influences. But his own style was flashier than theirs. His primary mode of long takes and deep-focus lenses owed more to Orson Welles or Max Ophuls. The signature Frankenheimer composition, repeated obsessively, was of one performer in extreme close-up and another far in the background, both in focus. This style of long lens photography required copious lighting and careful choreography, which meant that Frankenheimer’s early output became a cinema of exactitude rather than spontaneity.
Frankenheimer’s filmography between 1961 and 1970 is so bountiful, and so rife with thematic and stylistic interconnections, that one is hard-pressed to sort through it. There is his celebrated paranoia trilogy: The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds. There is a hard action trilogy (The Train, Grand Prix, The Horsemen) of films that centre around physical conflicts between men in a context of combat or sport. There is what might be termed a rural trilogy (All Fall Down, The Gypsy Moths, I Walk the Line), which privilege the atmosphere of their middle American settings over plot or suspense.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962), sequentially Frankenheimer’s fifth film, is an achievement so elephantine that it tends to dwarf the others in critical assessments of its director’s work. It occupies a place in the popular memory as an eerie prediction of the Kennedy assassination a year later, and an honoured pedestal among cineastes as a cult film rich in murky subtexts and surreal images. The most famous of those is the brainwashing sequence in which Frankenheimer moves seamlessly between an objective perspective (captured soldiers in a communist seminar) and a subjective one (the soldiers attending an innocuous meeting of the Ladies’ Garden Society). This tour de force was a pure distillation of Frankenheimer’s television technique, opening with a self-conscious 360-degree pan that utilised the “wild” sets which allowed TV cameras to move into seemingly impossible positions.
Frankenheimer’s influences also extended to cinema vérité. The climactic political convention, with its harsh lighting and waving placards, recalls the look of Robert Drew’s Primary (1960). The senate hearings, in which James Gregory’s oafish senator decries varying numbers of Red infiltrators a la McCarthy, copies the look of the Army-McCarthy hearings as televised live to American audiences. (Emile de Antonio’s Point of Order , assembled from kinescopes of those broadcasts, is an instructive double bill.)
Amidst this documentary-styled mise en scène Frankenheimer plants a series of Buñuelian images and draws so little attention to them that the effect is, literally, hallucinatory. The ingenue turns up dressed as a gigantic playing card. One character is shot through a milk carton so that he “bleeds” white. And then there’s the rifle toting assassin with the Medal of Honor pinned directly beneath his priest’s collar. Frankenheimer places each of these moments in an utterly realistic context, never winking at the spectator to acknowledge their out-of-context absurdity. The tone that dominates by a fifth or a sixth viewing may be black comedy. Those who sniff that the film’s “set pieces” originate with the Richard Condon novel of the same title (1), or George Axelrod’s adaptation thereof, miss the point: the rich satire, the frenetic bizarreness that are the trademarks of both writers comes to life because Frankenheimer films them with a straight face. One has only to watch the self-satisfied farces that Axelrod later directed, in which each joke is all but announced with a rimshot, to understand the nature of Frankenheimer’s contribution.
With Seven Days in May (1964), Frankenheimer risked repeating himself: here was another political conspiracy, another contest of wills between men in uniform. But where Manchurian alternates between surrealism and vérité, Frankenheimer eschews all flashiness for Seven Days. Never has an alleged thriller been so filled with verbiage. Seven Days unfolds as a series of conversations, most of them staged against backdrops that lend an intangible sense of menace to the proceedings: bunker-like Pentagon conference rooms, cavernous White House chambers that dwarf the actors, a strangely empty desert cafe.
Seven Days in May, which collapses into paroxysms of pedantic Rod Serling-scripted speeches at the climax, is not quite a major work, but in it Frankenheimer casually perfects the formula of the paranoid thriller. Frankenheimer establishes a pattern of prolonged buildup with only the briefest of catharses. A fatal plane crash, an abduction in the desert and another in an airport all occur outside the frame. The only chase sequence is abruptly elided before its resolution is clear. The film sticks scrupulously to the points of view of the informer Jiggs Casey and his compatriots, so that Burt Lancaster’s sinister General Scott remains a cipher throughout. By refusing to gratify the audience’s desire to comprehend the scope of the conspiracy at work, Frankenheimer places the burden on the spectator’s imagination, just as Val Lewton did when he offered only fleeting glimpses of the supernatural in his RKO horror cycle. As in life, the more we are told that nothing is wrong, the more we suspect the worst.
The trivial clues Frankenheimer lays out to tantalise the audience – a rumour of a betting pool among generals, a crumpled piece of paper, a white lie from Casey’s boss – mean little to Casey until he sees a televised speech by Scott that recontextualises all he has learned. Television screens, glimpsed throughout The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, are one of the most recognisable Frankenheimer trademarks. At the end of a period where the Hollywood moguls often ignored television (their competition) on purpose, Frankenheimer became the first filmmaker to acknowledge television’s roles in modern society as an intrusion upon privacy and as a tool by which the powerful manipulate others. In Manchurian Angela Lansbury mouths the words of a speech that her senator husband is giving simultaneously on television; only the audience sees who is the true source of power. The movements of the Pentagon personnel in Seven Days are constantly observed via closed-circuit camera. Frankenheimer, who takes a cameo in Black Sunday (1977) as the director of a sports broadcast, may have encouraged the idea that his omnipresent television screens were a nostalgic in-joke. In fact, they represent a tangible critique of media mendacity, Network finely chopped and sprinkled throughout a dozen or more films in which television impinges insistently on the margins of everyday life. Frankenheimer’s video screens almost always illustrate a schism between the truth as told to the spectator and the facts as spun for the benefit of the characters within the film, and surely one need not overemphasise the prescience of Frankenheimer’s interest in that theme.
In his videodisc commentaries, Frankenheimer could lapse into fugues of pointing out which lens he used for each shot. Toward the end of his life, he still recalled the names of his favourite live television cameramen. Grand Prix (1966), his three-hour chronicle of an auto racing season, seemed to derive from this technician side of Frankenheimer.
Grand Prix‘s roster of technical achievements is formidable: the multiple images within the film’s Super Panavision frame sparked a fad for split-screen imagery in the late ’60s, and his use of car-mounted cameras later became standard in television coverage of the sport. Frankenheimer was himself an amateur race driver, and his visual and aural strategies captured the drivers’ sense of high-speed motion and sensory deprivation with a verisimilitude that had never before been applied to the filming of a sporting event. The racing scenes in which music or voiceover replace the sounds of the engines and the crowd have a strange, poetic beauty. In a sequence as joyously irrelevant as Hatari‘s elephant parade, Maurice Jarre’s candy-coated score orchestrates an abstract montage of cars, track and spectators. Having cannily defused any element of suspense by assuring us that Yves Montand’s character will win this race, Frankenheimer examines auto racing as a purely aesthetic spectacle.
But Grand Prix juxtaposes formal innovation with desperately unoriginal content. Offhandedly conceived as a variation on Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), Grand Prix is stocked with cardboard characters sighing through tedious romantic cliches and spouting aphoristic dialogue that tries to explain the allure of auto racing. The indifference of the all-not-quite-star-cast toward the material is matched by Frankenheimer’s indifference toward them, as if the director didn’t want the Ferraris upstaged by any showy acting.
Seconds (1966), arty and opaque where Grand Prix was vapid and commercial, is a kid’s toy-box of a film, a self-conscious appropriation of European New Wave themes and techniques in the same vein as Arthur Penn’s contemporaneous Mickey One. Collaborating with the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, Frankenheimer adds all manner of New Wave devices to his visual palette: real locations, handheld cameras, extreme close-ups, first-person point of view shots, fisheye lenses, jump cuts, forced perspective sets. Nearly every shot is dazzling.
But Seconds‘ story of an unhappy middle-aged banker transformed into a bohemian Rock Hudson attempts very clumsily to literalise the inchoate alienation which pervades Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, or the dreamy, symbolic imagery of political and body horror in Bergman’s The Silence (to cite the two films that appear to have exerted the most direct influence). Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another, made in Japan around the same time as Seconds, tells a similar story of a man given a new physical form through science. Teshigahara expounds brilliantly on the metaphysical implications of this fantastical loss of identity, but Seconds stops, teetering, just on the brink of metaphor.
Seconds extends the assumption of homicidal political conspiracies in The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May to the private sector. In this context, the sensory overload of Frankenheimer’s imagery becomes almost unbearably unsettling and claustrophobic, a kind of cinematic grammar of paranoia. But this strand of the film never quite coheres with the personal story of Tony Wilson (nee Arthur Hamilton). To follow the sinister (and implausible) activities of the shady corporation that offers the “seconds” their new identities, Frankenheimer abandoned writer Lewis John Carlino’s original ending, which reunited Hamilton/Wilson with his discarded family. One suspects that Frankenheimer, still very much displaying on his sets the short fuse that earned him a reputation as television’s enfant terrible, may not have been ready to confront in his art the consequences of male vanity. That would change in the next and most fruitful phase of his career.
Frankenheimer’s reputation rests mainly on a skill for action and an obsession with masculinity, with the two aspects of his work often discussed interchangeably. Frankenheimer himself summed up his métier as “character-based action movies”. The terrifically entertaining The Train (1965) best represents this synthesis. The cat-and-mouse conflict between an earthy French resistance fighter (Burt Lancaster) and a culturally sophisticated Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) over a trainload of stolen paintings provides the philosophical underpinnings for the film. Frankenheimer’s thesis – that human life has more value than art – may seem simplistic, but it adds an essential moral component to what would otherwise be just an expensive live-action version of an electric train set.
Before The Gypsy Moths, most of Frankenheimer’s movies had been about men. The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train were all masculine contests of wills; Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Grand Prix and The Fixer (1968) were all set in worlds of exclusively male endeavour, with female characters present only as afterthoughts. Yet we find in Frankenheimer none of the anguished treatises on courage and bravado, or the repellent streaks of misogyny, that there are in Sam Peckinpah, and certainly not the bellicose endorsement of brawling and bullies that was John Ford’s Achilles’ heel. Often it seemed that Frankenheimer was simply drawn to settings that recalled the comfortable memories of his live TV apprenticeship: sweaty, fast-moving, all-male bullpens of ego and power politics.
That changed with Frankenheimer’s back-to-back masterpieces of 1969–70, The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line. These underappreciated films introduced many new stylistic and thematic ideas into Frankenheimer’s oeuvre as the director veered away from the terminal formalism of Seconds and Grand Prix. In them he began to probe beneath the iron-man exteriors of his trademark male action heroes, and to introduce for the first time female characters of substance and depth.
These films saw Frankenheimer immerse his signature style in the naturalism of real locations far from Hollywood. The Gypsy Moths chronicled a limpid, leisurely holiday weekend from the point of view of three barnstormers who pull into a small Kansas town to perform a parachute jumping act for a holiday crowd. I Walk the Line was a country-fried variation of The Blue Angel in which a backwoods Tennessee lawman throws away his life and principles in pursuit of a sultry moonshiner’s daughter. Both films built upon ideas found in All Fall Down (1962), an early tour through William Inge territory, earnest but somewhat studio-bound and Method-drenched, which is often erroneously though of as an anomaly in Frankenheimer’s filmography. Frankenheimer was distressed by the clash between All Fall Down‘s flavorful Florida exteriors and its studio-shot interiors, but in Gypsy and Line the director was able to explore fully his interest in the stillness of summery small towns, the passions buried in the hearts of taciturn middle Americans who – unlike the gabby politicians of The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May – required Frankenheimer’s camera to take on the task of expressing their inner lives.
Frankenheimer’s zealotry for location shooting began with The Train, but in The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line the settings provide more than verisimilitude. The characters’ residences inform the viewer of what they do not articulate: the serene but stuffy middle-class home of the Brandons in Gypsy Moths, the dilapidated shack, accessible only by a rickety bridge, of the moonshiner clan in I Walk the Line. Multiple helicopter shots and long scenic montages under the titles of both films establish at the outset the context in which these characters exist.
Frankenheimer looked to the paintings of Andrew Wyeth for inspiration, and the hard edges and muscular camerawork of his earlier films gave way to tableaus of unadorned Americana. The lighting is sometimes lovely, but the settings are spare, even grubby, like the women’s club hall full of folding chairs and the half-heartedly psychedelic strip joint in The Gypsy Moths. I Walk the Line reverses the visual palette of the sun-dappled Gypsy Moths, with its blue-sky parachute jumps into golden wheatfields. For Line, the more pessimistic work, Frankenheimer deliberately avoided warm colours and timed all his outdoor scenes for overcast days, so that the entire film is hued in muted blues and grays. In I Walk the Line Frankenheimer’s camera pauses to take portraits of the Tennessee town’s real-life citizens, a mute chorus of un-Hollywood faces. The Gypsy Moths‘ title is explained in a silent long shot in which Rettig (Burt Lancaster), the self-destructive parachutist, pauses to examine moths immolating themselves on a lamp on the Brandons’ front lawn. The image is poignant enough to trump the obviousness of the symbolism.
The most sympathetic characters in both films are women, like the loyal, bewildered wife (Estelle Parsons) who tries in I Walk the Line to hold on to both her husband and her dignity. In The Gypsy Moths, Deborah Kerr’s repressed college-town housewife is sexually bold but finally admits that, when offered a way out of her drab marriage, “the thought terrified me.” Sheree North’s easygoing topless dancer has a one-night stand with Gene Hackman’s boorish character, then casually reveals (to the audience) that she has no regrets even though Lancaster’s Rettig was the one she wanted.
The male protagonists of the films are typical objects of idol worship: an adventurer-iconoclast-daredevil figure in The Gypsy Moths and a soft-spoken lawman in I Walk the Line. Frankenheimer peers beyond the outward image of both. Burt Lancaster’s Mike Rettig is a terminal sensation junkie, a man disconnected by choice from humankind and thus only enlivened by the act of defying death. The character sounds like a cliche, but Lancaster’s (and Frankenheimer’s) restraint keeps his emotions mysterious and internal. As others in the film do, the spectator catches only fleeting glimmers of what goes on inside the man. Here, not in Seconds, is where Frankenheimer connects with Antonioni’s free-floating malaise.
If The Gypsy Moths examines the courage or cowardice people exhibit at a moment of decision, the bleaker I Walk the Line suggests that obsession trumps choice altogether. It is a nightmare portrait of midlife crisis, spared from absurdity by its complete lack of condescension. Frankenheimer spoofed the cliche of middle-aged discontent in Seconds (think of Tony Wilson methodically constructing the life of a Malibu Colony artist, stubbornly staring at a canvas as if to will creativity into existence) but here he has no contempt for Henry Tawes, no matter how ridiculous his obsession for his barefoot inamorata becomes.
Frankenheimer’s complex treatment of the pathetic yet poignant Henry Tawes succeeds because the director subverts his star’s persona in a manner identical to that undertaken by Ford in The Searchers or Hitchcock in Vertigo. Just as those films turn on the tension created between the destructive, neurotic behaviour of the characters played by John Wayne or James Stewart and the audience’s desire to identify with their customarily likeable images, I Walk the Line decimates the To Kill a Mockingbird-era image of Gregory Peck. The man we take to be another wise, taciturn Southern authority figure is gradually revealed as a repressed, ineffectual object of ridicule, whose inarticulateness conceals only stupidity and lack of character. Peck’s innate dignity permits us to be shocked by the extent of Henry’s degradation and yet, perversely, redeems the character even at his most abject. Less precisely, Seconds had interrogated assumptions about Rock Hudson’s physical beauty; and The Gypsy Moths‘ reteaming of the middle-aged Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, groping in the dark on a living room sofa, can be taken as a bittersweet riposte to their iconic romp in the surf in From Here to Eternity.
Most accounts have emphasised the personal factors in Frankenheimer’s precipitous decline: the death of Robert Kennedy, a friend who was a guest at the director’s Malibu home at the time of his assassination; a period of severe alcoholism stretching between Black Sunday and The Challenge (1982); and a willingness to accept inferior assignments in order to live and work in Europe. But together The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line form as much of a coherent personal statement that a filmmaker can produce, and surely the collective critical and popular disinterest in both movies left Frankenheimer wondering what more he could do to achieve recognition within his field. Had either film achieved the proper notice, Frankenheimer might have spent the next decade making mature, sensitive films in the manner of Robert Altman or Peckinpah. With that possibility closed to him, Frankenheimer’s remaining output became creatively erratic and too often purely commercial.
After the largely unreleased Impossible Object (1973), all of Frankenheimer’s theatrical releases can be classified as action movies. And though individual sequences often display a technical mastery, there are no late Frankenheimers that have the brisk, unpretentious efficiency of a genre outing by Don Siegel or Andre de Toth. Soured on the “action director” label he had always resisted, Frankenheimer made sour movies. His work in the late ’70s and ’80s is not so much impersonal as it is vulgar and amoral, as if the images had been composed to accompany Ennio Morricone’s and Gary Chang’s chilly synthesizer scores, rather than the reverse. The impressions one recalls from these films are all brutish and sordid: the pistol in-the-mouth interrogation in Black Sunday, the ugly gay and racial stereotypes in 52 Pick-Up (1986), the unerotic love scenes of Year of the Gun (1991). Infamously, in Dead Bang (1989), the hung-over detective hero (Don Johnson) vomits all over a thug he’s just arrested. Frankenheimer, one imagines, was trying to push the limits of pulp sensationalism in some of these films, but often the spectator feels like the target of his bile.
Those hoping for a comeback had some cause for optimism in the ’90s when Frankenheimer found a niche directing made-for-cable movies. The scripts and casts were better than he had been given in years, and the material – mostly recent historical pieces, including biopics of George Wallace and Lyndon Johnson – recalled the political subject matter of Frankenheimer’s heyday. Ronin (1998) struck some as a return to form for Frankenheimer. David Mamet’s murky screenplay added little to Frankenheimer’s earlier studies of masculine posturing, but the director did stage a long, thrilling car chase that was perhaps the cinema’s valediction for the non-digital action sequence. If action was to be his epitaph, at least Frankenheimer retained his skill for it until the end.
To compare Frankenheimer to Jean-Luc Godard might seem fatuous, but consider the following: both men were born in the same year, and they shared an admiration for many of the same studio-era Hollywood directors. Each became the most formally innovative and politically astute filmmaker in his native country during the early ’60s. Both directors managed to fall completely out of fashion around the same time, as Frankenheimer veered toward the mainstream and Godard toward obscurantism.
Is there a huge imaginative gap between the revolution of the French New Wave and the worn-out classical mode in which Frankenheimer began his career? Of course, and that may explain why contemporary critics consistently underrated Frankenheimer’s achievements. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, writing around Frankenheimer’s peak, both dismissed him as an overreaching minor talent, Sarris lamenting his “synthetic technique”, Kael his tendency toward “sanctimoniousness”. Manny Farber thought The Gypsy Moths “singularly square”. (2)
A reappraisal is in order. Frankenheimer’s reverence for the work of Wyler and Welles links him to the classicism of the late studio era, and yet in retrospect The Gypsy Moths and I Walk the Line anticipate the style and the concerns of the American New Wave. In his ’60s films one finds the through-line between the terse professionalism of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher in the ’50s and the messy violence of Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin in the ’70s, and the bridge between the implosive emotionalism of Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray and the raw humanism of Altman and John Cassavetes. Frankenheimer’s rightful place in cinema history is as the key transitional figure between the two eras.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, p. 311.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968, rev. ed., Da Capo Press, New York, 1996, p. 193; Pauline Kael, Deeper Into Movies, Warner Books, New York, 1973, p. 252; Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, rev ed., Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. 219.
The Young Stranger (1957)
The Young Savages (1961)
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
All Fall Down (1962)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Seven Days in May (1964)
The Train (1965)
Grand Prix (1966)
The Extraordinary Seaman (1967; released 1969)
The Fixer (1968)
The Gypsy Moths (1969)
I Walk the Line (1970)
The Horsemen (1971)
The Iceman Cometh (1973)
Impossible Object aka Story of a Love Affair (1973)
99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)
The French Connection II (1975)
Black Sunday (1977)
The Challenge (1982)
The Holcroft Covenant (1985)
52 Pick-Up (1986)
Dead Bang (1989)
The Fourth War (1990)
Year of the Gun (1991)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Reindeer Games (2000)
Charles Champlin (ed.), John Frankenheimer: A Conversation with Charles Champlin, Riverwood, Burbank, 1995.
Gerald Pratley, The Films of Frankenheimer, Cygnus Art/Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem, PA, 1998.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
A Key Unturned: Seconds by Peter Wilshire
Archive of American Television Interview with John Frankenheimer Parts 1-13
Frankenheimer’s six-hour oral history can be viewed for free, in thirty-minute segments.
John Frankenheimer Survives Hollywood
Interview by Tim Rhys and Ian Bage in Issue 18 (April 1996) of Moviemaker.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television overview of Frankenheimer’s television work.
John Frankenheimer Memorial Gallery
The Directors Guild of America’s Frankenheimer Memorial Photo Gallery.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here
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