Though American director John Frankenheimer (born 1930) is best known for his challenging films of the early 1960s, he got his start directing live television dramas in the 1950s and revived his career in that medium in the 1990s.
Frankenheimer was born on February 19, 1930, in Melba, New York. His father was a German Jewish stockbroker, while his mother was Irish Catholic. Frankenheimer was raised in the Catholic faith and received his education at LaSalle Military Academy, a Catholic military school. After graduating from LaSalle in 1947, Frankenheimer entered Williams College. By this time, he had developed an interest in acting and studied drama. Frankenheimer earned his B.A. degree from Williams in 1951.
Became Involved in Production
When Frankenheimer completed his education at Williams, the Korean War was underway. He served in the U.S. Air Force between 1951 and 1953. It was during this time that Frankenheimer became interested in the production of film and television and lost his interest in acting. He became attached to the film squadron that was based in California where he learned about production. Frankenheimer loved working with cameras, often taking some home on the weekend to learn more about them. Deciding to become a filmmaker, Frankenheimer produced some documentary shorts.
While still in the Air Force, Frankenheimer had his first experiences as a director. He had been writing for a local series in Los Angeles called either Harvey Howard's Ranch Roundup or The Harry Howard Ranch Hour (sources vary) that aired on KCOP. When the show's director was unable, he was forced to make his debut as director. The show featured cows and the rancher Howard. Despite his inexperience, Frankenheimer was kept on as director for three more months, until the show was taken off the air by the Federal Communications Commission.
Early Work in Television
When Frankenheimer's tour of duty in the military was completed, he decided to pursue his goal of directing. Returning to the East Coast, Frankenheimer was hired as an assistant director for CBS-TV in New York City. This was the era of live television and television plays. Between 1953 and 1954, Frankenheimer was the assistant director on shows such as Person to Person, The Garry Moore Show, and You Are There. Frankenheimer did the work of a cinematographer as well, by setting up shots in the control room for the director.
When Sidney Lumet, the director of You Are There, left the show to begin a film directing career in 1954, Frankenheimer was promoted to director. While Lumet went on to have a solid film career, Frankenheimer also made the most of his opportunity. He built a significant career directing live television plays that received much praise from critics and audiences alike.
While directing over 150 television plays for series like Climax, Ford Startime, Buick Electra Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and other anthology series, Frankenheimer worked with a number of accomplished actors, as well as future stars. They included Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, and Paul Newman. Some of the more famous episodes that Frankenheimer directed were "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Journey to the Day."
For Frankenheimer, live television was challenging. It allowed him the freedom to try out new things, including deep focus photography, distinctive angles, and other interesting camera work. Frankenheimer told Jay Carr of the Boston Globe that "I did an awful lot of television, and out of that I developed a very fluid camera style. I learned through doing it how to stage very complicated scenes and how to photograph them. So it gave me a great freedom when I got into movies—that I wasn't scared of it, that I didn't worry what I'd do with the camera, that I'd find a way to photograph the scene."
Directed First Film
Frankenheimer made his first foray into film directing in 1956. He turned an episode of the Climax series into a movie entitled The Young Stranger. As a film director, he tried to bring the same creativity that he employed in live television, but found his crew to be unresponsive and the medium too restrictive. Though critics generally were impressed, Frankenheimer returned to television and did not make another film for five years.
In the early 1960s, Frankenheimer left television and worked primarily in film for the next 30 years. This period proved to be his most fruitful as a filmmaker. He earned a reputation as an innovative, technically skilled filmmaker. Frankenheimer was not afraid to use fast film stocks and new light cameras. Many of these early successes featured themes of social and political intrigue.
After 1961's The Young Savages, a courtroom drama that dealt with social problems of the day, Frankenheimer made arguably the three most significant films of his career in 1962. The first All Fall Down was often overshadowed by the other two. This striking film about brothers was well-received by critics. A more popular film with audiences was Birdman of Alcatraz, a biopic of Robert Stroud that starred Burt Lancaster. Frankenheimer took over the production from Charles Crichton; he would perform such a task a number of times over his career.
The most important film by Frankenheimer in 1962 was The Manchurian Candidate. This political suspense thriller starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Landsbury. Both a commercial and critical success, it has retained an enduring following. Riding the success of these films, he formed his own production company, John Frankenheimer Productions, in 1963.
Frankenheimer made several more important films in the mid-1960s. Seven Days in May (1964) was, like The Manchurian Candidate, another Cold War suspense thriller. This film portrays a military coup attempt against the U.S. government. Frankenheimer took over the production of The Train (1964) after its first director, Arthur Penn, was fired. Set in Europe during World War II, the story focused on a train bound for Nazi Germany loaded with French art and the intrigue that surrounded it.
Decline in Reputation
By the late 1960s, the quality of Frankenheimer's work was seen as being in decline. His films were not as technically fresh and lacked the strong stories of his previous works. Critics believed that he made a misstep with his two 1966 releases, Grand Prix and Seconds. The former was about auto racing. Business demands forced Frankenheimer to cut the film in a way he believed was detrimental. The latter was about a man who changes his appearance.
On a more personal level, Frankenheimer suffered a great loss in the late 1960s. A close of friend of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Frankenheimer had been hosting the presidential candidate at his home in Malibu in 1968 when Kennedy was assassinated. Frankenheimer was devastated by the loss. Soon after Kennedy's death, he moved to Europe with his second wife, actress Evans Evans. Though he continued to make films there, few were commercial successes. During his time in Europe, Frankenheimer also went took cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu, emerging as a trained chef.
Returned to the United States
When Frankenheimer came back to the United States in the early 1970s, he enjoyed some successes as a filmmaker, though the quality of his work did not match his early films. After the relative failure of The Iceman Cometh (1973), Frankenheimer revived his career with The French Connection II (1975). He saw big box office success with Black Sunday (1977). The plot concerned a terrorist who planned to crash a blimp into the Superbowl.
After these high points, Frankenheimer had only a few releases scattered over the next decade. To many critics, his choice of projects was somewhat questionable. Many were made for the money. Among the undistinguished releases were Prophecy in 1979 and The Challenge in 1982. By the early 1980s, Frankenheimer had reached a low point in his career, stemming in part from a long-term problem with alcohol. After receiving treatment and dealing with many related issues, he stopped drinking in 1981 and was able to get his life back on track.
While Frankenheimer put his demons to rest, his professional life remained undistinguished. He was able to find work, but most of his projects were mediocre. In 1986, Frankenheimer directed 52 Pick-Up, which was reasonably successful. Three years later, he took on Dead Bang (1989), which proved to be a commercial failure. The Fourth War (1990) was a political thriller in the same vein as The Manchurian Candidate, but without enjoying the same prestige.
Won Four Emmys
After the relative failure of Year of the Gun (1991), about a conspiracy that forms around an innocent American journalist in Rome, Frankenheimer did not make a film for five years. Instead, he focused on projects for television. These works were successful both with audiences and critics. His first movie was Against the Wall (1994) for the cable network, HBO. This was a personal story about the Attica prison riots that Frankenheimer shot in newsreel style. That same year, he took on another movie for HBO, The Burning Season, about Chico Mendes, the Brazilian activist who fought against the exploitation of workers in the Amazon rain forest. Both projects won Emmy Awards.
Frankenheimer then shot two movies for the TNT cable television network. Andersonville (1996) focused on the horrific Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in which thousands of Union soldiers died. The following year, TNT aired Frankenheimer's biopic George Wallace, about the former governor of Alabama who went from strict segregationist to support of the anti-segregation movement. Frankenheimer again won Emmys for both works. Though Frankenheimer had enjoyed much success as a film director, he told Nina J. Easton of the Los Angeles Times, "If they had live television today, I'd still be doing it. You had total control as a director. It was live, so we had final cut. And you had no such thing as a difficult actor."
Returned to Film
Frankenheimer's successes on television led to more film offers, though some of the projects were problematic. He took over the faltering production of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), after the film company, New Line Cinema, was forced to fire its first director. Frankenheimer agreed to take on the nightmarish production because he needed the money. Though the film was panned by critics, Frankenheimer delivered what New Line wanted: a completed film with a coherent, ordered story, that was reasonably successful at the box office.
His accomplishments with Dr. Moreau led to better film projects. In 1998, he directed Ronin, an action thriller that starred Robert De Niro and performed reasonably well at the box office. Frankenheimer's 30th film was another suspense thriller, this time focused on crime, called Reindeer Games (2000). While it received mixed reviews from critics, the film had some success connecting with audiences.
Still directing after the age of 70, Frankenheimer hoped to match, if not exceed, his early successes. He told Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer, "You can't be burdened by your legacy. … People say, 'You'll never do a movie as good as Manchurian Candidate.' I say, 'I probably won't, but you know what? I'm just gonna keep on trudging along.' But the answer in my own heart is, I think I will."
Barson, Michael, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors Volume 1: The Sound Era, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, Harper Resource, 2001.
Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, St. James Press, 2000.
Adweek, June 5, 1989.
Boston Globe, October 27, 1991.
Dallas Observer, February 24, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1989; March 20, 1994; February 25, 2000.
Newsweek, March 4, 1996.
New York Times, March 24, 1994; January 18, 1996; September 13, 1998.
Washington Post, February 20, 2000.
Washington Times, February 18, 2000. □
"John Frankenheimer." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-frankenheimer
"John Frankenheimer." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-frankenheimer
Nationality: American. Born: Malba, New York, 19 February 1930. Education: La Salle Military Academy, graduated 1947; Williams College, B.A., 1951. Military Service: Served in newly formed Film Squadron, U.S. Air Force, 1951–53. Family: Married Carolyn Miller, 1954 (divorced, 1961), two daughters; remarried, 1964. Career: Worked as assistant director on such TV series as You Are There, Person to Person, and The Garry Moore Show, 1953–54; directed over 150 live TV shows, 1954–60; directed his first feature, The
Young Stranger, 1957; formed John Frankenheimer Productions, 1963. Awards: Christopher Award, 1954; Bodil Film Festival Best American Film, for Seven Days in May, 1963; Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or a Special, for The Burning Season, 1994; Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing for a Miniseries or a Special, for Andersonville, 1996; Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or a Movie, for George Wallace, 1997; Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival Robert Wise Director of Distinction, 1998; San Diego World Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; Casting Society of America Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; National Board of Review Billy Wilder Award, 1999. Address: c/o John Frankenheimer Productions, 2800 Olympic Blvd., Suite 201, Santa Monica, CA 90404, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
The Young Stranger
The Young Savages
The Manchurian Candidate (+ co-pr, uncredited sc); All Fall Down; Birdman of Alcatraz
Seven Days in May (+ co-pr)
Grand Prix; Seconds
The Extraordinary Seaman; The Fixer
The Gypsy Moths
I Walk the Line; The Horsemen
L'Impossible Objet (Impossible Object); The Iceman Cometh
99 44/100 Dead (retitled Call Harry Crown for general release in U.K.)
French Connection II
Black Sunday (+ bit ro as TV controller)
The Holcroft Covenant
Across the River and into the Trees
Dead Bang; The Fourth War
Year of the Gun
Against the Wall (for TV); The Burning Season (for TV) (+ co-pr)
Andersonville (for TV) (+ co-exec pr); The Island of Dr. Moreau
George Wallace (for TV) (+ co-pr)
Reflections on Citizen Kane (short) (doc) (ro as himself)
The General's Daughter (West) (ro as General Sonnenberg)
Listen with Your Eyes (Benedikt) (doc) (ro as himself)
By FRANKENHEIMER: book—
Andersonville: The Complete Original Screenplay, by David W. Rintels and James M. McPherson, Baton Rouge, 1996.
By FRANKENHEIMER: articles—
"Seven Ways with Seven Days in May," in Films and Filming (London), June 1964.
Interview, in The Celluloid Muse, edited by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, London, 1969.
Interview with Russell Au Werter, in Action (Los Angeles), May/ June 1970.
Interview with J. O'Brien, in Inter/View (New York), August 1971.
"Filming The Iceman Cometh," in Action (Los Angeles), January/ February 1974.
"John Frankenheimer: An American Film Institute Seminar on His Work," 1977.
Interview with L. Gross and R. Avrech, in Millimeter (New York), July/August 1975.
Interviews with R. Appelbaum, in Films and Filming (London), October and November 1979.
Interview with P. Broeske, in Films in Review (New York), February 1983.
Interview in Films and Filming (London), February 1985.
"Frankly Speaking," an interview with K. Ferguson, in PhotoplayMovies & Video (London), October 1985.
"Dialogue on Film: John Frankenheimer," in American Film (New York), March 1989.
"Drive, He Said," an interview with S. Modderno, in Movieline (Los Angeles), September 1989.
Hoberman, J., "When Dr. No Met Dr. Strangelove," in Sight andSound (London), December 1993.
"The Burning Season of John Frankenheimer," an interview with Mary Hardesty, in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), August-September 1994.
Pratley, G., "'Andersonville' Revisited," in Kinema (Waterloo), Spring 1996.
Lally, K., "Frankenheimer Meets 'Dr. Moreau,"' in Film Journal (New York), August 1996.
"Down under in Jungleland," an interview with Jean Oppenheimer, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1996.
"The Island of Dr. Moreau," an interview with Michael Helms, in Cinema Papers (Fitzroy), October 1996.
On FRANKENHEIMER: books—
Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of John Frankenheimer, New York, 1969.
Champlin, Charles, John Frankenheimer: A Conversation, Burbank, California, 1994.
Pratley, Gerald, The Films of John Frankenheimer: Forty Years inFilm, Lehigh, Pennsylvania, 1998.
On FRANKENHEIMER: articles—
Mayersberg, Paul, "John Frankenheimer," in Movie (London), December 1962.
Thomas, John, "John Frankenheimer, the Smile on the Face of the Tiger," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1965/66.
Casty, Alan, "Realism and Beyond: The Films of John Frankenheimer," in Film Heritage (New York), Winter 1966/67.
Higham, Charles, "Frankenheimer," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1968.
Filmer, Paul, "Three Frankenheimer Films: A Sociological Approach," in Screen (London), July/October 1969.
Madsen, Axel, "99 and 44/100 Dead," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1973/74.
Drew, B., "John Frankenheimer: His Fall and Rise," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), March 1977.
Combs, Richard, "A Matter of Conviction," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 4, 1979.
Cook, B., "The War between the Writers and the Directors: Part II: The Directors," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1979.
"Directors of the Decade: John Frankenheimer," in Films andFilming (London), February 1984.
Article by Frederic Rosen in Video (New York), December 1984.
Scheinfeld, Michael, "The Manchurian Candidate," in Films inReview (New York), vol. 39, no. 11, 1988.
Levy, Shawn, "Year of the Gun: John Frankenheimer's Sinister Formula," American Film, November/December 1991.
Career overview in Film (London), February 1992.
Weinraub, Bernard, "A Director Trying to Reshoot His Career," in New York Times, 24 March 1994.
Zoller Seitz, Matt, "Those High-tech Shoot-em-ups Got the Formula from 'The Train,"' in New York Times, 30 April 1995.
Mather, Philippe, "Le futur dans le rétroviseur," in Ciné-Bulles (Montreal), Autumn 1996.
Askari, Brent, "Adapting Elmore Leondard: The Good, the Bad, and the Freaky-deaky," in Creative Screenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1997.
LoBrutto, Vincent, "The Surreal Images of Seconds," in AmericanCinematographer (Hollywood), November 1997.
* * *
The seven feature films John Frankenheimer directed between 1961 and 1964 stand as a career foundation unique in American cinema. In a single talent, film had found a perfect bridge between television and Hollywood drama, between the old and new visual technologies, between the cinema of personality and that of the corporation and the computer.
Frankenheimer's delight in monochrome photography, his instinct for new light cameras, fast stocks, and lens systems like Panavision informed The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds with a flashing technological intelligence. No less skillful with the interior drama he had mastered as a director of live television, he turned All Fall Down and The Young Savages into striking personal explorations of familial disquiet and social violence. He seemed unerring. Even Birdman of Alcatraz and The Train, troubled projects taken over at the last minute from Charles Crichton and Arthur Penn, respectively, emerged with the stamp of his forceful technique.
Frankenheimer's career began to sour with Seconds, a film that was arguably too self-conscious with its fish-eye sequences and rampant paranoia. Grand Prix, an impressive technical feat in Super Panavision, showed less virtuosity in the performances. His choices thereafter were erratic: heavy-handed comedy, rural melodrama, a further unsuccessful attempt at spectacle in The Horsemen, which was shot in Afghanistan. Frankenheimer relocated to Europe, no doubt mortified that Penn, Lumet, and Delbert Mann, lesser lights of live TV drama, had succeeded where he failed.
Despite a career revival with the 1975 French Connection II, a sequel that equaled its model in force and skill, Frankenheimer has not hit his stride since—at lease with regard to his big-screen projects. The director's choices remain variable in intelligence, though by staying within the area of violent melodrama he has at least ceased to dissipate his talent in the pursuit of production values. Black Sunday is a superior terrorist thriller, Prophecy a failed but worthy horror film with environmental overtones, and The Challenge a stylish Japanese romp in the style of The Yakuza. Unfortunately, new directors who grew up with the Frankenheimer work as benchmarks do such material better.
Frankenheimer's late 1980s and early 1990s features—Dead Bang, The Fourth War, and Year of the Gun—did nothing to resuscitate his career, and were quickly forgotten as they made their way to video store oblivion. Only the 1987 theatrical re-release of The Manchurian Candidate, after decades of unavailability, earned Frankenheimer high critical praise. In fact, the film was atop many critics' lists as among the best to come to movie houses that year. Additionally, the emergence of the high-tech thriller genre, so popular in the 1990s, has been critically traced back to The Train. From the mid-1990s, you might say that Frankenheimer returned to his professional roots, re-crossing that bridge between theatrical films and television. He did not completely abandon big-screen features, directing one generic espionage yarn (Ronin), one pedestrian crime tale (Reindeer Games), and an undistinguished adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau. The last is of note only for the presence of Marlon Brando, hamming it up outrageously. By far Frankenheimer's best films of the period—and most acclaimed work in years—are a quartet of fact-based, social issue-oriented TV movies. Against the Wall is a solid prison drama that retraces the events surrounding the 1971 Attica prison riots. The Burning Season is even better: an outstanding, politically savvy account of the life of Chico Mendes, the political activist/union leader who battled against the exploitation of those who toil in the Amazon rain forests of Brazil and paid for his valor with his life. The final two may be linked as chronicles of one aspect of the mid-nineteenth century and mid-twentieth century American South. Andersonville offers a vivid portrait of the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, where almost 13,000 Union soldiers died; George Wallace is a solid biopic about the controversial anti-segregationist Alabama governor. All were above average, quality-wise. Three of them even netted Frankenheimer Best Direction Emmy Awards.
—John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman
"Frankenheimer, John." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/frankenheimer-john
"Frankenheimer, John." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/frankenheimer-john