John Frankenheimer

Director John Frankenheimer

No matter how bad the circumstancesare,
you can win; you can triumph over it. I believe that about life,
too.” This quote from John Frankenheimer, who died on July 6th,
comes from an interview conducted by MM‘s Tim Rhys
and Ian Bage in 1996 when the director was 66 years old.


It may sound sentimental to some, but Frankenheimer
proved the statement’s worth, not only on film, but also in life.
Recently, I watched The Shawshank Redemption, a film Frankenheimer
had both nothing and everything to do with. Frank Darabont and Stephen
King, both film buffs, might never have conceived of it had there
not been the Frankenheimer-directed Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
or the other three prison films he helmed—all of which similarly
espoused what Rhys had referred to in the MM interview as “the dignity
of the human spirit in the face of desolation.” So if you only know
Frankenheimer’s bold last name—but not his films—be aware that it’s
likely that your favorite moviemaker has aped one or two things
from him.


Frankenheimer’s career is a fascinating one. Starting
in 1956, he was Emmy-nominated five years in a row as Best Director—and
lost every time. But by then he was barely 30 years old, with plenty
more to come, not to mention the segue that he had just made from
live television drama to feature films. Bringing to film what he
learned in television—intense work on story, maximizing the performances
of every actor and crew member, utilizing deep, sharp focus from
background to foreground, a God-given sense of camera placement
and pure velocity—he created a handful of the most memorable films
in American cinema. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966) are perhaps his most profoundly original works; films unlike
any other made in this country in their given years and, in retrospect, since their given years. As is usual with art that is ahead
of its time, neither film was successful in its initial release.
But I defy any among you to watch them tonight and suggest they
are anything less than daring visionary fever dreams.


During this period (Frankenheimer’s early to mid-30s)
he also triumphed with Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days
in May
and The Train, all three of which starred the
impossibly charismatic Burt Lancaster. Although the movie star had
grudgingly worked with the “TV director” on Frankenheimer’s feature
debut, The Young Savages (1961), the latter three films blossomed
into the collaboration of two strong-willed men who, by all accounts,
genuinely respected one another.


This was among his gifts as a director: he commanded
authority, but was no tyrant. At 6’3″, with piercing eyes, a gruff
voice and movie star looks, Frankenheimer was an imposing guy, but
treated everyone on his sets with respect in order to bring out
their best.


If you failed him (as he feels Val Kilmer did on the
set of The Island of Dr. Moreau) he had no use for you. This
tendency often created stories of how taxing he was to work with.
But, by and large, Frankenheimer films came to be known as tough
but rewarding experiences that forced everyone from PA to prima
donna to rise to the occasion. Sink or swim. Survive or don’t.


But what of Frankenheimer’s living testament to survival?
By the time he was 36, all of the above conquests in television
and film had been achieved. For the next 27 years, he worked on
and off, but there were only two box office hits: French Connection
II
(1975) and Black Sunday (1977), and one genuine critical
success, his 1973 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman
Cometh
. By his own admission, he descended into a deep depression,
exacerbated by alcohol, and thought his career was over. But he
turned it around. He recuperated by ditching the booze, sweating
it out on the tennis court and learning to cook in Paris.


He punched a hole through the cathode ray flooring
by moving from film back to television, where he proved that a giant
talent could be refueled on the small screen. This time around,
in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998, he won each directing Emmy for which
he was nominated (for Against the Wall, The Burning Season, Andersonville and George Wallace, respectively), all
while well into his 60s.


The newfound TV success bred new interest on the big
screen, but the sum total of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), Ronin (1998) and Reindeer Games (2000) delivered spotty
reviews, save for Marlon Brando’s blessedly kooky turn as Moreau.
“Brando’s the only genius I’ve ever worked with,” Frankenheimer
told MovieMaker.


And so his filmography remains frustratingly inconsistent,
debated by critics and historians who scratch their heads, pondering
the gulf between his great artistic zeniths and his confounding
nadirs. But like Frankenheimer himself, his films continue to be
reevaluated, largely because he made them from his gut, with passion
and conviction, so often it’s hard to see the trees for the forest.
Of himself, Frankenheimer said he’d like to be remembered “As a
very honest director. As a very honest person who did what I did
with conviction and with honesty. That’s very important to me, as
you probably gather.” We did indeed.

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