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Frankenheimer, John Michael

FRANKENHEIMER, John Michael

(b. 19 February 1930 in Malba, New York; d. 6 July 2002 in Los Angeles, California), film director who brought techniques learned in live television to Hollywood, revolutionizing American filmmaking in the process.

Frankenheimer's parents were Walter Martin, a stockbroker, and Helen Mary (Sheedy) Frankenheimer, a homemaker. He grew up in New York and was educated at La Salle Military Academy, graduating in 1947. He went on to Williams College and obtained a B.A. in 1951, before serving for two years in the U.S. Air Force, where he attained the rank of first lieutenant in the USAF Film Squadron. Upon leaving the military Frankenheimer found work as an assistant director at the television division of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). He was soon winning awards and nominations, including the Grand Prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1955, an Emmy Award nomination for best direction in a live series in 1955, for his work on the Climax series, and critics' awards for best direction in 1956 and 1959. He married Carolyn Diane Miller on 22 September 1954, and they had two daughters before divorcing in 1961. He married for the second time to Evans Evans in 1964.

Frankenheimer spent most of the 1950s working in television, directing twelve episodes of the Playhouse 90 series and working on the CBS series Climax. These feature-length dramas were broadcast live and were a good proving ground for moviemaking. He made his first movie, The Young Stranger, in 1957, cashing in on the success of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the fashion for films about troubled teenagers and their violent behavior. The experience was not a happy one. Frankenheimer himself said that he didn't understand films and didn't like working with only one camera. He returned to making live television shows for the next three years.

Yet in 1961 Frankenheimer became one of the first directors to make a successful move from television to the big screen, and he did so to huge critical acclaim. Starring Burt Lancaster, The Young Savages (1961) is a courtroom drama about the prosecution of three teenage delinquents and the judge's misgivings about punishing them. Frankenheimer's clever direction of closeups creates huge tension in courtroom scenes and makes a forceful point about the problem of juvenile delinquency and its causes. But while The Young Savages convinced him that his future was in feature films, it was The Manchurian Candidate (1962) that established Frankenheimer as one of the most innovative, flamboyant, and exciting directors in Hollywood.

Perhaps because of his training in the rapidly changing world of television, Frankenheimer was quick to embrace new technologies such as Panavision and to use new cameras, fast film stocks, and technologically advanced editing techniques. The Manchurian Candidate tells the story of a Korean War veteran who has been brainwashed and returns home programmed to assassinate a presidential candidate. Thanks to Frankenheimer's direction, The ManchurianCandidate was one of the hardest-hitting thrillers of the 1960s. He was widely praised for the daring camera work and choice of shots, in particular an out-of-focus shot of Frank Sinatra, who played one of the lead roles. But according to Frankenheimer, the shot was simply the best of a lot of bad takes. Sinatra had the film withdrawn after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. When it reappeared in 1987 many critics listed it among the best releases of the year.

After The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer found his brand of solid, socially aware filmmaking much in demand. Returning to the interior-based drama of The Young Savages, and again drawing on his experience in television, Frankenheimer made All Fall Down (1962), a family drama that helped launch the career of the actor Warren Beatty. The film again makes excellent use of close camera work. He was also hired to take over from the director Charles Crichton on The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), a true story about an inmate of the famous prison who becomes an acknowledged expert on birds but cannot win release. Filmed, like The Young Savages, The Manchurian Candidate, and All Fall Down in Frankenheimer's trademark black and white, The Birdman of Alcatraz is also his second feature starring Lancaster, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Lancaster seemed to benefit from Frankenheimer's approach and starred in two more films for him: Seven Days in May (1963) and The Gypsy Moths (1969). Seven Days in May allowed Frankenheimer even more freedom to indulge his passion for new technology. The appearance of advanced surveillance technology in the film, including hidden cameras and bugging devices, opened up new possibilities for thrillers of the type and pointed the way toward the paranoia of such films as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Seven Days in May also marks the end of Frankenheimer's most successful period as a director. By 1964 he had made at least two of the most influential thrillers of the decade, but his interest in technological trickery was beginning to outweigh attention to genuine dramatic impact. Perhaps the best example of this flaw is Grand Prix (1966). Filmed in color in Cinerama-SuperPanavision, the film employs split screens and other technical tricks, and does so with great skill. But although it is one of the few films ever to capture the noise, grime, and extreme speed of motor racing, it lacks real human drama.

From the late 1960s, with a few exceptions such as The Gypsy Moths (1969) and French Connection II (1975), Frankenheimer made poor decisions in choosing projects. In the 1990s he returned to television with some success, winning Emmy awards for the miniseries Against the Wall in 1994, for The Burning Season and Andersonville in 1996, and for George Wallace in 1998. Frankenheimer's talent for tense, thought-provoking thrillers peaked in the early 1960s, and by the 1990s he was recognized as a major influence on the look of the Hollywood thriller. He challenged accepted visual styles and in doing so helped redefine the thriller genre for a new age of paranoia and technological threat. Frankenheimer's dedication to using new technology was un-dimmed even at the age of seventy-one, when he won an award for Best Internet Video Premiere for Ambush (2001).

Frankenheimer died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from complications arising from spinal surgery.

The most comprehensive book on Frankenheimer and his work in the 1960s is Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of John Frankenheimer (1969). Frankenheimer has been the subject of many articles. Among the best are John Thomas, "John Frankenheimer, The Smile on the Face of the Tiger," Film Quarterly (winter 1965–1966), Alan Casty, "Realism and Beyond: The Films of John Frankenheimer," Film Heritage (winter 1966–1967), and Michael Scheinfeld's review of the re-released The Manchurian Candidate, in Films in Review 39, no. 11 (1988). A short article demonstrating Frankenheimer's influence on moviemaking is Matt Zoller Seitz, "Those High-tech Shoot-em-ups Got the Formula from The Train," New York Times (30 Apr. 1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (8 July 2002).

Chris Routledge

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