Samuel L. Jackson’s praise was in reference to the director’s Emmy winning work on the 1994 HBO Telefilm AGAINST THE WALL. Starring Jackson, Kyle Maclachlan, Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, Anne Heche and Clarence Williams III, the film was a nightmarish near documentary-like dramatization of events leading up to and including the infamous 1971 Attica prison riot. Told from the perspective of a budding respect relationship story between a novice prison guard held captive (MacLachlan) and a Black Muslim leader inmate (Jackson), the film was arguably the most important and influential in the second wave re-launch of Frankenheimer’s illustrious career.
Renowned for trenchant socio-political classics like BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and the original THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (both 1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975) and BLACK SUNDAY (1977), John Frankenheimer’s cinema career began in the early days of live television before segueing into features during the 1960s, many of those features which would star eventual friend Burt Lancaster.
After the heartbreaking assassination of another good friend, Senator Robert Kennedy, and a subsequent descent into alcoholism, the director’s critical cache would take a sharp nosedive. But amazingly even the technical proficiency of some of the lesser films he helmed during that period (among them the gangster spoof 99 AND 44/100% DEAD - 1974, the eco thriller PROPHECY - 1979, and Robert Ludlum based THE HOLCROFT COVENANT - 1985) would continue to be top notch, commanding the respect of film contemporaries as well as students around the world. This was after all the director of whom the legendary John Ford once claimed “… places the camera better than anyone I know”, and the elder cinematic statesman from whom years later Steven Spielberg would admit that he’d “stolen” his editing style.
an unusual director, a very talented director. Of course he had a lot
of good background doing television shows in the early days when you had
to do them live. So John had an unusual talent for handling the
camera”. - Kirk Douglas (SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, 1964)
Early career - directing live television at CBS (1953 - 1960)
Born in New York and raised in Queens, the lanky young Frankenheimer
originally dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player. His
stronger interest in film won out however and set his life’s course at
an early age. In a 1999 episode of the AFI (American Film Institute)
produced documentary series THE DIRECTORS, Frankenheimer candidly
recalled his entre’ into cinema via WW2 then live television.
audio clip: Frankenheimer
In 1953, with war service camera experience under his belt, the 23 yr. old wanna-be filmmaker boldly sauntered into CBS’ studios in New York and convinced the network to hire him as an Assistant Director. He’d work under many (including future 12 ANGRY MEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON director Sidney Lumet and legendary TV producer Martin Manulis) until taking the directing reigns one day after a fateful on set experience:
audio clip: Frankenheimer & Manulis
Walter Cronkite hosted CBS's historical anthology series YOU ARE THERE (1953 - '57),
Many of it's most acclaimed episodes directed by a young Frankenheimer still honing his craft.
Directing Ingrid Bergman in the live TV
version of THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1959)
“He’s tough. If he gets an idea he won’t let the powers that be change him very much, which is tough in television … and this was live television. He was used to working with actors. And you had to have (good) actors in live TV in case anything goes wrong. It wasn’t the dialog or the lines you worried about, it was (in those technical on set problems) where the actor knew the situation and could say something to get you out of it”.
(A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST, '58)
Emmitt Till - Christmas, 1954
During this time Frankenheimer would become one of the stand out young directors on popular live series such as CBS' YOU ARE THERE (where real-life stories from history were recreated dramatically every week), CLIMAX, DANGER and PLAYHOUSE 90. In fact it was on an episode of PLAYHOUSE where one the early creative heartbreaks of his career occurred. As recounted in part 1 of our “The Inherent Power of Genre” articles, Frankenheimer and future TWILIGHT ZONE writer / creator Rod Serling had originally wanted to do a play about the murder of Emmitt Till.
Till was a 14 year old African-American from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi, supposedly whistled at a white woman, and was then beaten, had an eye gouged out, was shot through the head then dumped in a river by two white men … who were both eventually acquitted of the crime! The incident sparked national outrage and is cited as being one of the galvanizing catalysts which launched the Civil Rights Movement in earnest.
PLAYHOUSE 90: "A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST" (orig air date - 6/19/58)
Frankenheimer had garnered a reputation as a fighter who wouldn’t back down from something he believed in. And at a time when networks were fearful of losing sponsors in the deep South over racially charged subject matter, CBS ordered massive changes in A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST before they’d film it.
William Shatner - "A Town Has Turned To Dust" ('58)
Frankenheimer and Serling thought they could "tweak" the story while maintaining it’s power and obvious analogy. But in time the network wanted the location changed from the present day South to a Tex/Mex bordertown circa the late 1800s; the African-American youth to become a young adult Mexican; and phrases such “men in hoods” to be altered to “men in homemade masks”.
The final version which aired June 19, 1958 (with Rod Steiger, William Shatner and James Gregory) still packed a whallop, but the final opinion of Frankenheimer was that the entire fiasco had been “ … a compromise, a terrible compromise”. While A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST was a technical masterpiece and garnered great reviews, Frankenheimer himself would remain ashamed of it the rest of his life. It was an experience which would cause him to insist on creative control over every future project.
THE YOUNG STRANGER (1957)
His first theatrical film was THE YOUNG STRANGER (1956), a feature remake of one his live TV plays, this time starring James McArther and Kim Hunter. At the time being accustomed to televisions’ more rapid pace, he hated doing the film version with it’s single camera and the incessant waiting between takes, so he’d return to TV to direct 152 more live dramas between 1954 - 1960 (receiving 6 Emmys) before, at the age of 30, dipping his toe into features once again by signing on to helm BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS, which at the time was to star Marilyn Monroe.
When the producers decided to go with Audrey Hepburn instead, the actress and her then husband Mel Ferrer, having never heard of the upstart Frankenheimer, insisted he be paid off and let go. Frankenheimer was out and Blake Edwards was in.
Around the same time however producer Harold Hecht was producing THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961) at United Artists and asked Frankenheimer “can you film it in 35 days?”. A drama about a crusading Lawyer (Lancaster) involved in the racially charged case of two Italian gang members charged in the killing of a blind Puerto Rican boy, Frankenheimer saw in SAVAGES much of what he’d intended for A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST.
He took the assignment and, though clashing frequently with Lancaster over creative issues, brought the film in on time and on budget. Upon viewing the final version of THE YOUNG SAVAGES Lancaster realized Frankenheimer’s creative instincts were spot on the money over his own, so he patched things up with the director, and they’d re-join on four more films throughout the decade including BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962), the “coup of the U.S. government” thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), the WW2 actioner THE TRAIN (1965), and the skydiving adventure THE GYPSY MOTHS (1969) also starring Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, William Windom and Scott Wilson.
In between the director would dazzle audiences with the racing epic GRAND PRIX (1966), the existential TWILIGHT ZONE-ish thriller SECONDS (1968), the anti-Semitism indictment THE FIXER (1968 - one of his personal favorite films), the southern drama I WALK THE LINE (1970,) and the Afghanistan set buzkashi epic THE HORSEMEN (1971) with Omar Sharif.
Burt Lancaster and Karl Malden - BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) explodes into pop culture consciousness
filming THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964)
Frankenheimer had become friends with JFK's Press Secretary Pierre
Salinger, who had allowed the filmmakers access to the White House to
study it’s architecture and inner workings. In 1960 the (at the time
still) television director was asked to film material for Kennedy’s
Presidential campaign but he’d refused, considering himself apolitical
at the time.
After JFK’s assassination in November 1963, Frankenheimer felt a sense
of social irresponsibility, so when later asked to assist in Senator
Robert Kennedy’s Presidential run, he jumped at the opportunity. The
two became good friends over the next 102 days with the popular Senator
and his family even staying at the Malibu home of Frankenheimer and his
wife Evans. The night of the Senator’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel,
Kennedy had asked Frankenheimer to stand next to him on the podium,
but Frankenheimer didn’t think it would look good for the likely future
President to stand shoulder to shoulder with a Hollywood director, so
instead he was in charge of retrieving the car when Kennedy said to the
crowd the words “Let’s win it in Chicago”; this so the Senator could
make a hasty and safe exit back to the relative calm of Frankenheimer’s
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964)
They were the last words Frankenheimer would hear his friend
speak, as when he’d gone for the car the Presidential candidate was
murdered by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. The fact that the man next to
Kennedy at the time was also shot (the man who would have been
Frankenheimer had he accepted the Senator’s invite to join him on stage)
weighed heavily on Frankenheimer years afterwards. Having quit smoking
two months prior, Frankenheimer bought two packs of cigarettes on his
way home from the Ambassador that night. His drinking would also
increase over the next few years to the detriment of his career.
"(Burt) Lancaster, gymnastic as ever, seems tough and strong enough to stand up to the Nazis, and smart enough to outwit them. Casting (Paul) Scofield was a brilliant thought. It is hard to find a major actor for the films who has not been around. Scofield somehow manages that combination of sinister and sympathy we should feel for this paradoxical personality."
- The Hollywood Reporter's review of THE TRAIN (2/26/65)
With Lancaster once again - aboard THE TRAIN ('65)
“John Frankenheimer likes and believes in actors and he’s very perceptive. If I’m cast, I always feel I can bring something of my own to a part. Not every director agrees or sees it this way but Frankenheimer is not rigid, not iron-bound by his own ideas of a scene"
I WALK THE LINE, THE HORSEMEN and THE IMPOSSIBLE OBJECT (1973) were not financial successes. Frankenheimer would bounce back in a big way however, seeking help for his alcoholism, then helming the critically acclaimed trifecta of THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973), FRENCH CONNECTION II (1974) and BLACK SUNDAY (1977). ICEMAN, an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neil play was produced by Ely Landau as part of his American Film Theater series of films in the early 1970s.
- Gene Hackman (THE GYPSY MOTHS,
1969 / FRENCH CONNECTION II, 1975)
Starring Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Frederic March, Bradford Dillman, Moses Gunn and Clifton James, Frankenheimer felt at the time it was the best cast with whom he’d ever worked. After living in France for years he and his wife Evans wanted to return to America, and the gangster black comedy 99 AND 44/100 % DEAD (1974) paid the bill to do so, through the film wouldn’t register as memorable with either critics or fans.
THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973)
FRENCH CONNECTION II however, released the same year, with Gene Hackman reprising his Oscar winning role as New York cop “Poppy” Doyle, registered with international audiences and critics in a big way. In the fictitious follow-up to the fact based first film, Hackman’s Doyle invades Marseilles, France in search of drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), but is captured, made a drug addict, and has to kick in secret before his superiors in America discover his condition and take his badge.
FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)
"John Frankenheimer's film of BLACK SUNDAY is an intelligent and meticulous depiction of an act of outlandish terrorism. Strong Scripting and performances elevate Robert Evans' handsome production far above the crass exploitation level."
- Daily Variety's review of BLACK SUNDAY (3/25/77)
BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
With the possible exception of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, BLACK SUNDAY is critically perhaps the biggest success of Frankenheimer’s career. In fact to date it's one of the rare few films enjoying an unheard of "100 % Fresh" Critics Rating on RottonTomatoes.com ... which means every critic who has commented on it thus far have given it their highest possible positive score. Based on the novel by a pre-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Thomas Harris, it follows the intercontinental DAY OF THE JACKAL-like hunt of an Israeli agent (Robert Shaw) as he attempts to find and stop a female member of the Black September terrorist group (Marthe Keller) as she plots a post Munich Olympic massacre at another public sporting event, this time the American Super Bowl.
Israeli Mossad agent Kabakov (Robert Shaw) and Egyptian Col. Riatt (Walter Gotell) forge an
unholy alliance to prevent an act of mass destruction on American soil in BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
Using the Goodyear blimp and it’s Vietnam vet pilot (Bruce Dern) she intends to maneuver a massive homemade "shredder bomb" mid field within Miami's Orange Bowl stadium - killing it's 80,000 occupants, among them the President of the United States, in an attempt to draw world attention to the plight of displaced Palestinian refugees. The final 40 minutes is in essence an elongated visual montage set to music (in this case John Williams' pulsatingly phobic and obsessive score) and features some of the most suspensefully edited chase and aerial footage ever captured on film. If one watches the desert chase sequence in RAIDERS OF THE LOST back to back with BLACK SUNDAY’s climactic third act, you fully understand what Spielberg meant when he said he ripped Frankenheimer’s editing style.
BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
Commandeering the airship
The breathtaking pacing and rhythm of BLACK SUNDAY's epic climax is still copied by action / suspense film editors and directors today. Quentin Tarantino confessed to even taking the pacing and structure of the film's trailer as a template for a set piece in his martial arts homage KILL BILL: VOL. 1 (2003)
BLACK SUNDAY in some respects was the directors’s big budget studio swan song. It opened in March 1977, then two months later George Lucas’ STAR WARS hit world screens and forever changed the popular tastes and expectations of the film going populace. As a result the 1980s and 90s would for the most part see the death of the more personal studio backed film in favor of the “summer event franchise epic wanna-be”. Those more personal works by respected filmmakers would now find outlets in independent film as well as in the surprising rise of a new era of intelligently daring TV movies and long form mini-series.