Master of the Political Thriller
In his prime, acclaimed director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) was rightfully acknowledged as the “Master of the Political Thriller”. Such a title was completely justified on the grounds that most of his films have strong ideological subtexts that explore the ambiguity of the perceived political identity of the protagonists. In addition, Frankenheimer’s movies present an incisive criticism to a variety of social and political issues.
The rather complex ideological issues and unique sense of aesthetics that Frankenheimer infused in his films can be fully appreciated in the four movies that make The John Frankenheimer Collection. Courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment, this outstanding DVD set offers pristine presentations of what arguably would be Frankenheimer’s best flicks: The Young Savages (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Train (1964), and Ronin (1998).
Quite disappointing for the Frankenheimer fan is the fact that the last three films have just been repacked from their previous DVD incarnations without any extra content. To top it off, The Young Savages is only available on this set. Following what appears to be a nefarious DVD industry practice nowadays, the serious collector is forced to buy the entire set just to get one flick. And then, even though The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, and Ronin present truly insightful audio commentaries by Frankenheimer himself and other interesting extra features, The Young Savages has been released in a bare bones edition, where not even the theatrical trailer is to be found.
This is a real shame, as even though The Young Savages may not be as popular as other Frankenheimer’s films, it remains an outstanding piece of filmmaking. Just consider, as The Young Savages begins, a gang of four Italian American teenagers commandingly walk the streets of an impoverished section of upper Manhattan. And then, without any apparent motivation, they viciously stab and murder a blind Puerto Rican kid. New York prosecutor Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) is assigned to the case. Undergoing strong pressure from his boss, the governor, and public opinion, Hank is expected to obtain a death sentence for the four young murderers.
In spite of The Young Savages being Frankenheimer’s second film, it already shows the distinctive visual and narrative structure that characterized most of his subsequent movies. Most of the visual style of this film, for instance, takes from the years of experience that Frankenheimer had working on TV. That is, The Young Savages has a documentary look that enhances the realism and bleakness of this brutal story of street violence and poverty. To this end, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon constantly used deep focus shots taken on location in upper Manhattan.
Further enhancing the realism and documentary feel of The Young Savages is its literary source. Indeed, this film is based on Evan Hunter’s novel from 1959, A Matter of Conviction, which allegedly was inspired by actual events. The decision to change the title of the movie probably was driven by economics. Certainly The Young Savages brings to mind the many teenager exploitation flicks that were highly popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Manipulative and sensationalistic, these lurid and sexy films often reflected adolescent fantasies and quickly became a symbol for the youth culture of the era. In particular, The Young Savages feels rather close to Paul Stanley’s Cry Tough (1959), which depicts a grim story of gang rivalry in Spanish Harlem.
The Young Savages
However, in spite of its title and obvious iconography, The Young Savages is really far from being an exploitative teenager flick. As a matter of fact, this film firmly reflects the title of its source novel. That is, the central point of The Young Savages is not so much the life of the teenagers implicated in the murder, but about how Hank has to thoroughly question the foundations of his moral beliefs. In doing so, Hank has to confront the law institution that he represents, a well as public opinion.
Such an act of introspection is brought forward as Hank investigates the murder. He quickly finds that the accused, the policemen, and the witnesses blatantly lie or hide vital information in order to selfishly serve their own aspirations, desires, wishes, and political agendas. One way or another, all the characters are ultimately in conflict with the rules and conventions of society. Making a good fit to the original title of its source novel, Frankenheimer shows in The Young Savages how beliefs and principles are completely relative, even though society imposes absolute and unambiguous moral values and civil codes.
Furthermore, in what would become a palatable trademark of Frankenheimer’s films, The Young Savages makes evident the ambiguity of appearances and the blatant superficiality of a person’s looks. For example, Hank eventually finds out that the murdered blind Puerto Rican kid was a brutal warlord and a pimp for his younger sister. And furthermore, one of the accused teenagers did not even use his knife in the attack, but he just wanted to maintain the facade of a tough gang member.
However, in The Young Savages Frankenheimer did not want to merely arouse the viewer to feel compassion for the victims and the killer. Instead, this film shows how the complex social and economic problems that haunted America in those years—racism, gang violence, ethnic antagonisms, delinquency, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and a deep class segregation—had a costly toll across all segments of society.
The Manchurian Candidate
The theme of a killer as a victim was further explored by Frankenheimer in The Manchurian Candidate, which may well be his most popular flick. A faithful adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate delves into the pernicious paranoia and xenophobia that engulfed the US during the Cold War years. In particular, this narrative examines in detail what would have happen if Senator Joseph McCarthy’s suspicion of nefarious communist spies deeply infiltrated in the American government had been a reality.
The Manchurian Candidate begins in 1952, right in the middle of the Korean War. Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) are leading a group of American soldiers to the battlefront when they are captured by the enemy and transported to an undisclosed location. Upon their return to the US, Major Marco nominates Sergeant Shaw for the Congressional Medal of Honor because of his bravery in combat, killing the enemy and saving most of his comrades. At the same time, Sergeant Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), use his status as war hero to further their political agenda to expose the communists hidden inside the US government.
It is eventually revealed, however, that the group of American soldiers was actually captured by the Chinese and the Russians, and was subject to brainwashing. Such a revelation takes place in a recurrent nightmare suffered by Major Marco. In what may well be the most intriguing showcase of a dream in a motion picture, Major Marco sees himself and his war buddies at the podium of the Garden Club Ladies, surrounded by old ladies talking about seeds and flowers. But as the camera rotates around the room, it is revealed that the US soldiers are in fact surrounded by Chinese and Russian officers and scientists.
In this nightmarish vision of Cold War America, the communists are able to infiltrate an obedient and ruthless killer, in the form of Sergeant Shaw, into the highest levels of the US government. Clearly, Senator Iselin’s illogical accusations are a blatant allegory for the witch-hunt that Senator McCarthy imposed on the country during the late 1940s and 1950s. However, in The Manchurian Candidate a sort of punch line emerges, when it is discovered that Senator Iselin is actually working for the communists.
The Manchurian Candidate proved to be a critical success upon its original theatrical release in 1962, but unfortunately it was a huge failure at the box office. Interestingly enough, this movie was not really popular until very recently, and as a matter of fact, for a long period of time it was a rather obscure film. It appears that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 motivated Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and the other stakeholders of the film to withdraw the movie from circulation. As a consequence, this movie was nearly forgotten until 1987, when it was presented at a special screening at the New York Film Festival. With the renewed interest shown by the public, United Artists organized a second theatrical release in 1988, which went on to be a huge success.
With such a torrid background, it is perhaps ironic that today The Manchurian Candidate has become an intrinsic part of the myths, urban legends, and conspiracy theories that surround the Cold War years. Arguably, this film brought to the popular attention the possibility of brainwashing and mind control techniques which could be used to overthrow the US government. And even during the Clinton years some conspiracy theorists suggested that Monica Lewinsky was a brainwashed agent working for the Chinese with the goal of bringing shame to the US Presidency.
The complex psychological subtexts and political allegories found in The Manchurian Candidate were enhanced by Frankenheimer’s exceptional aesthetic sense. For instance, Frankenheimer frequently uses deep focus cinematography, chiaroscuro tonalities, and subjective shots, which he cleverly uses to reveal the tortuous psychological state of the protagonists. Thus, in terms of narrative and visual style, The Manchurian Candidate appears like an amalgamation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
In addition, with its incisive criticism and spoofing of McCarthyism and other Cold War anxieties, The Manchurian Candidate anticipated Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Furthermore, The Manchurian Candidate features what may well be the fist karate fight shown in a major American motion picture (between Major Marco and Chunjin, a nefarious Chinese agent played with lots of gusto by Henry Silva).
Just as he did with The Young Savages, Frankenheimer portrays in The Manchurian Candidate the ambiguity and superficiality of external appearances. In this case, Sergeant Shaw is perceived by the public as a highly decorated American hero. Frankenheimer enhances this misconceived perception by constantly framing Sergeant Shaw around nationalistic and patriotic icons such as eagles, flags, and even a bust of President Abraham Lincoln. However, Sergeant Shaw also happens to be a deadly murderer working for a foreign government. In this regard, The Manchurian Candidate uses the brainwashing process to suggest how moral values and political ideas are so artificial, that they can be altered through chemical ways.
For a movie dealing with mind control issues, it should not be totally unexpected that Frankenheimer also gives The Manchurian Candidate a strong psychological subtext. Indeed, just consider how Frankenheimer presents the Freudian nightmare of the dominant, cannibalistic, and castrating parent in the form of Sergeant Shaw’s mother, who is indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter in law.
By any means, The Manchurian Candidate established the name and reputation of Frankenheimer as a competent and visionary director. And in 1963, Burt Lancaster personally requested Frankenheimer as the director of his next film. The inspiration for this flick was the book Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945 (The Art Front: Defense of the French Collections, 1939-1945), which was written in 1961 by Rose Vallard. Based on her personal experiences as the curator of the Musee du Jeu de Peume, a refined Paris gallery, Vallard narrates how she and the French Resistance protected the valuable paintings throughout the German occupation of France during World War II. The gallery collection included paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, but most of these masterpieces were considered as “decadent art” by Hitler and the Nazis.
Vallard’s book describes how, as the allied forces approached Paris in August of 1944, German officers placed the precious contents of the gallery on a train towards Germany. The Nazis had the intention of selling these paintings to wealthy collectors, and use the money to support the war effort. It is ironic, however, that this train and its valuable cargo was not stopped by risky sabotage actions performed by the French Resistance or by daring military operations on the part of the US Army. Instead, the departure schedule of the train was continuously delayed by the endless Nazi bureaucracy, and it only managed to go a few stations outside of Paris.
The film version of Vallard’s book, titled The Train, was originally scheduled to be directed by Arthur Penn in 1963 (this was a few years before he became famous for his celebrated Bonnie and Clyde ). Penn had envisioned a historically correct, intimate character drama. Allegedly, the original script was so slow, that the train of the title did not appear until the very last act of the script.
However, Lancaster and the studio producers wanted a high octane action flick, and as a consequence, Penn was replaced by Frankenheimer. As the story goes, Lancaster wanted to avoid a classy film at any costs, as his previous effort in Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963) proved to be an acclaimed critical success, but a dismal failure at the box office.
Therefore, Frankenheimer’s The Train is indeed more fiction than fact. However, it is a truly outstanding action flick featuring exciting scenes involving colliding and derailed trains, as well as a complex and delightful scheme to deceive the Nazis. During shooting, Frankenheimer worked on authentic locations, infused a documentary feel to the narrative, and refused to use miniatures or other visual effects.
Thus, all the scenes of destruction in The Train were played with real people and real trains. If you think about it, this is quite a contrast to today’s standards of overwhelming computer generated magic. To face this production challenge, Frankenheimer used multiple cameras to properly capture the action of the very complicated and dangerous stunts that were performed. And at one time, a derailed train smashed three out the five cameras that were under his command.
In this movie, Lancaster plays Lebiche, a railroad manager in Paris who is also a member of the French Resistance. When he first is told that German officer von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) had plans to steal the priceless paintings, his conscience will not let him send men to sabotage the railroads. But later on, when his friend sacrifices himself in a futile attempt to delay the train, he feels compelled to intervene.
In The Train, Frankenheimer forces the viewer to question the relative worth of art and human lives. On one hand, the paintings not only are priceless, but they also embody nationalistic pride and other cultural values. On the other hand, human lives are equally irreplaceable and their loss is judged by strict moral and social codes. In any case, both French and Germans are willing to kill or be killed for the sake of a fancy piece of cloth.
In this regard, it is quite perplexing that Lebiche never expresses openly his political, ideological, moral, or nationalistic beliefs. Once more, Frankenheimer plays with the issue of deceiving perceptions and appearances. That is, in spite of Lebiche’s daredevil actions and heroism to stop the train, he does not appear to have firm political or ideological convictions, and it is never clear what his ultimate motivation is.
Indeed, as The Train begins, Lebiche cannot comprehend the value of art as a national symbol and he does not really care about the paintings. And then, as the story progresses, the confrontation between French and Germans actually boils down to a harrowing duel between Lebiche and von Waldheim. Furthermore, the rather ambiguous ending suggest that just as Lebiche might be fighting to defend a cherished national treasure, he could just be seeking revenge for the death of his friends at the hands of the Nazis.
Some of these themes are revisited by Frankenheimer in Ronin. Written for the screen by David Mamet (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) and J. D. Zeik, Ronin brings to modern times the ancient Japanese legend of the Ronin: the elite warrior class of samurai who became freelance soldiers after their masters were killed. The re-envisioning of the Ronin are former intelligence agents, who have become mercenaries after the conclusion of the Cold War brought to an end the political influence of their retainers.
Ronin aptly combines the exceptional dialogue and situations particular to Mamet’s work, with the unique visual and narrative structure that characterizes Frankenheimer’s films. This movie takes place in the south of France and tells the story of a group of mercenaries led by Sam (Robert de Niro), who is a former CIA agent. These modern-day Ronin have been hired by a pair of extremist Irish nationalists to steal a mysterious briefcase from the Russians.
Even thought it is never revealed what is inside the briefcase, we suspect is something that could become a serious threat to the world order. In this regard, Ronin criticizes the terrible accountability for armaments and personnel after the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Thus, Ronin deeply resonates with current concerns of rogue countries or extremist groups acquiring sophisticated weapons of mass destruction or the knowledge to mass produce them. Typical of Frankenheimer, he always appeared to be very familiar with the ideological and political ramifications of his films.
Featuring the histrionic talents of Jean Reno and Sean Bean, Ronin feels like a high octane roller coaster with plenty of shootings, explosions, and high-speed driving. Furthermore, this film offers what may well be the most thrilling car chase in the history of cinema. Matching and surpassing the excitement of the car chases seen in William Friendkin’s The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in LA (1985), this sequence in Ronin is impossible to describe and has to be seen to be appreciated for the masterwork that it is.
Similar to the way he made The Train, for Ronin Frankenheimer demanded the use of real cars and drivers, and he totally refused the idea of computer graphics and blue screens to increase the excitement of the car chases. As all the driving stunts are performed on camera, Ronin provides an unmatched visceral feeling to the action. In addition, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Robert Fraisse used a variety of techniques involving handheld cameras, steadicams, and car-mounted cameras to give a powerful visual structure to the film.
In this regard, it is worth commenting on some of the visual and narrative inspirations of Ronin. For instance, the film noir look of the European locations brings to mind Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The mysterious briefcase, in which the contents are never revealed, is reminiscent of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The re-envisioning of the fearsome ancient Japanese warriors into modern day France is alike to Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samourai (1967). The unapologetic portrayal of hard boiled characters and stylized violence reminds us of John Woo’s The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). And finally, the treacherous double crosses seen in Ronin appear to have been influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).
However, in spite of its many obvious external influences, Ronin feels refreshingly original and carries Frankenheimer’s unique signature. That is, the political identity of Sam is as ambiguous and misleading as the characters from The Young Savages, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Train. Therefore, The John Frankenheimer Collection offers the opportunity to revisit four of the highlights of such an acclaimed director, and helps us appreciate why he was considered the “Master of the Political Thriller”.