- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

The late John Frankenheimer was one of the few famous directors I've talked to with some frequency over the past decade or so. A friendly encounter in 1991, when he visited Washington to promote the sinister political thriller "Year of the Gun," which evoked the climate of fear imposed by the Red Brigade terrorists in Italy two decades earlier, led to annual or semiannual updates, sometimes in person but more often over the phone.
I also regarded John as one of the most vigorous men of his generation I'd ever met, so it came as a considerable shock when he died two weeks ago, at the age of 72, evidently blindsided by a massive stroke while recuperating from back surgery the day before at Cedars of Lebanon-Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, Calif. An earlier operation in June had compelled him to withdraw from a project that might have brought him back to the Washington area for professional reasons: a so-called "prequel" to William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist," still unrivaled as the pre-eminent Georgetown supernatural shocker.
Like many of the movie projects that came John's way in what proved the closing stage of his film directing career, the new "Exorcist" caper loomed as a pulp exploitation venture that would require all his resourcefulness and sophistication to escape stale booby traps. The wire service obituaries, for example, showed an ill-informed contempt for "Year of the Gun." An actual viewing would invalidate this low opinion. The movie was scarcely foolproof, and when talking about it, John recalled a piece of advice he acquired from Hollywood director Henry Hathaway at the start of his own career.
"Hathaway asked me how many days I had for the shoot," John said. "I told him 25. He said, 'Just be aware that if you compromise once a day about something that matters to a scene, you'll have at least 25 compromises staring you in the face later on.' There are some in this movie. I hope they don't hurt us."
I don't think they had anything to do with the fact that "Year of the Gun" never caught on with a mass audience. I was a little surprised it was never opportunistically rediscovered after Sharon Stone became a star, because she contributed a discreetly sexy performance to "Gun" while cast as an unwary photojournalist.
The movie is also historically noted for its interest in the havoc caused by the Red Brigades. Only one American film, Paul Schrader's "Patty Hearst," took a similarly hard-nosed look at our home-grown counterparts, the Symbionese Liberation Army. It never caught on either, but it was a one-of-a-kind pip. Far from being the "dud" mentioned in passing by the obits, "Year of the Gun" was an intriguing outcast of a movie that benefited in tangible ways from the director's experience filming such ominous classics of the early 1960s as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Seven Days in May" and "The Train."
Sooner or later John's admirers and colleagues in such places as the Directors Guild of America and the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences will need to collaborate on an expansive DVD that recalls his career in both TV and movies. John was a fascinating and commanding raconteur, and he must have left a prodigious body of interview material around the world. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that an invaluable trove of recollections is deposited in French TV archives, since he lived in France from about 1968 to 1975. The frequently witty and distinctively wised-up tenor of his conversation can be gauged by a remark John made in passing while discussing the budget of "Year of the Gun": "It was about $11.5 million, or roughly the amount 'Hudson Hawk' went over budget."
The DVD era does make it possible to sample the conversational confidences of John Frankenheimer in a one-sided but now priceless way: he recorded audio commentaries for impeccable new transfers of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Train," originally released in 1962 and 1965, respectively. I hope he had the time to do even more, but these tutorials will certainly suffice. Moreover, the movies preserve John's flair for brooding and gripping thrillers at an optimum point. If there were an Academy Award for versatility, he might have won hands down in 1962 for the trio of "Birdman of Alcatraz," "All Fall Down" and "The Manchurian Candidate," all completed in a surge of youthful dynamism and growing confidence that followed his resignation to the demise of live television drama, which he had loved and helped immeasurably to stylize in the middle and late 1950s.
Often celebrated as a "boy wonder" while directing installments of "Climax!" and "Playhouse 90" every three or four weeks between 1955 and 1960, John still kind of qualified in 1962, when he was all of 32. "The Train," which pitted Burt Lancaster as a tenacious railway supervisor allied with the French Resistance against Paul Scofield as a monstrous aesthete, an art-loving and art-stealing German colonel, shifted the Frankenheimer career to action spectacle and European subject matter. In the digital era of spectacle it's also remarkable as one of the last of the full-scale thrillers: the director had a lot of genuine rolling stock to manipulate and sometimes wreck. He also had the trust and dedication of the greatest of all one-man combos of leading man and stunt man. Trick-shot derring-do would have been an insult to Burt Lancaster in his prime.
The Frankenheimer commentaries are not at all intrusive. I've spoken to a couple of famous directors in recent months, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, who insist that they will never do audio commentaries. They might be tempted to think again after listening to how effective a sparing and evocative approach can be when practiced by a colleague as astute as John Frankenheimer.
Personally, I think duos are better, but then the first thing of this kind I experienced was the utterly delightful audio commentary to "Charade" recorded by director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. Their teamwork could create false expectations about the practice in general. However, a knowing and perhaps puckishly inquisitive sidekick might have been useful to John Frankenheimer, jogging his memory in ways that a solitary recording session would tend to preclude.
Nevertheless, it's an amusing privilege to discover that the director and intimates got in the habit of using lines from "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Train" as ironic everyday catchphrases. John remarks that he frequently resorted to the brainwashed tribute to Laurence Harvey's character in "Manchurian," the unwitting assassin Raymond Shaw. This whopper is reiterated by former platoon members from his fateful hitch in Korea: "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I've ever met in my life." Who can deny that it comes in handy when alluding to anyone who gets on your nerves?
A fellow German officer calls attention to the failure of Paul Scofield's character to avoid the sabotage efforts of Mr. Lancaster by remarking, "This is a hell of a mess you've got here, colonel." According to the director, he and his wife, the former actress Evans Evans, enjoyed resorting to that one whenever things got frenetic or overbooked in their domestic and social lives. Confirmed movie nuts cherish the medium for providing nifties of this kind to last a lifetime.
The pivotal dream sequences of "The Manchurian Candidate" are bound to be enhanced for both devotees and newcomers by the Frankenheimer description of shooting them with the alternate sets and casts, so that an abundance of substitutions would be possible in the editing room. For example, the imaginary ladies of a garden society meeting are recalled as white in Frank Sinatra's recurring dream and black in James Edwards' witty variation.
The defensible side of plagiarism is illustrated when John remarks that screenwriter George Axelrod needed to supply the chairwoman of the garden society with enough monologue to cover a slow 360 degree pan of the setting as the sequence begins. "The subject was hydrangeas," John recalls, "so George just consulted a seed catalogue and copied the entire description."
There's a gratuitous sight gag during the black switchover that I'd never noticed: a hotel bellhop in the background becomes the only white person in camera range. On a sober note, John is well within his rights to point out that Joe Adams, cast as the military psychologist who consults with Frank Sinatra's Maj. Ben Marko about Raymond Shaw's abused mind, may have been one of the earliest examples of blind racial casting in Hollywood features. The role wasn't written for a black actor but lent itself to candidates who looked persuasively cerebral and self-confident.
I was also grateful for a scene-setting evocation I had overlooked all these years. When Laurence Harvey enters his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, the director establishes a mid-afternoon sensation with the exterior shot and then contrasts it with the darkness of a corridor and then the foyer of the apartment, where Mr. Harvey turns on a light as soon as he enters. "I've always been struck by that time of day in New York apartments," the director reveals, "that juxtaposition of daylight and artificial light. I love that effect."
John Frankenheimer ended up making five movies with Burt Lancaster. "The Train" is certainly the most satisfying as a showcase for the late actor's sheer physical eloquence and daring. The director is vigilant about anticipating every scene in which Lancaster's physicality is impressively showcased, starting with a swift descent from a rail yard tower. This eye-opener is topped when the same take concludes with the star leaping onto a train going at a considerable clip.
Moreover, Lancaster didn't necessarily need to move a lot to make a visceral impact. The commentary points out the advantages of having a performer who can simulate such tasks as repairing a bearing and placing plastic explosive on a railroad track.
"He was a real, real, real star," the director reflects. "One of the things stars do for you is handle props in a way that looks so real you never have to worry about cutting to another pair of hands if you need to show something being done. Burt did a lot of homework, and he looks like somebody who knows how to rig a bomb."
Coincidentally, "Charade" and "The Train," shot in France at about the same time, have a few cast members in common. Stanley Donen mentions the names of the actors who dubbed anyone who couldn't speak English for "Charade." John Frankenheimer overlooks this sort of information, although in the case of the legendary French actor Michel Simon, who appears in early scenes of "The Train," the English voice on the soundtrack is such a bad fit that some discussion of the dubbing seems obligatory. At these junctures a probing question or two would enhance the commentary.


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