John Frankenheimer boxed set shows top director at work

[29 January 2008]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, movie director John Frankenheimer doesn’t get much respect.

Film historian David Thomson, in his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” dismisses Frankenheimer’s unusual camera angles and intriguing shots as “busy interest in visual hysteria,” while Andrew Sarris, in “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968,” criticizes Frankenheimer for “pumping synthetic technique into penultimate scenes as if he had to grab the audience before the commercial break,” a reference to the director’s early career in television.

THE JOHN FRANKENHEIMER COLLECTION “The Young Savages” 2 ½ stars CAST: Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, Shelly Winters and Telly Savalas WRITERS: Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller (based on a novel by Evan Hunter) Not rated “The Manchurian Candidate” 4 stars CAST: Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh and James Gregory WRITER-PRODUCER: George Axelrod (based on a novel by Richard Condon) Rated PG-13 “The Train” 3 ½ stars CAST: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon WRITERS: Franklin Coen and Frank Davis Not rated “Ronin” 4 stars CAST: Robert De Niro, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Jean Reno, Michael Lonsdale and Stellan Skarsgard WRITERS: J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (as Richard Weisz) Rated R

This is a strange state of affairs, considering that (at least in this critic’s estimation) Frankenheimer directed the greatest political thriller in American movie history (the original “The Manchurian Candidate”), the best movie sequel besides “The Godfather Part II” (“French Connection 2”), a bunch of first-rate action-thrillers (“The Train,” “Black Sunday” and “Ronin,” among them), several compelling intimate dramas (“Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seconds,” among others), and an additional strong political thriller (“Seven Days in May”).

And this rundown doesn’t even include Frankenheimer’s television work, both early in his career when he brought rare visual artistry to such shows as “You Are There,” “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One” and “The DuPont Show of the Month,” and toward the end, when he won four Emmy Awards for directing the movies and miniseries “George Wallace,” “Andersonville,” “The Burning Season” and “Against the Wall.”

The release this week of “The John Frankenheimer Collection” (four discs, MGM Home Entertainment, $39.98, various ratings), gives viewers an economical opportunity to assess some of the most notable films by the director, who died in 2002 at the age of 72. The selections don’t make complete sense, as the boxed set combines three films from the early-to-mid 1960s with a movie from 1998, though that probably has more to do with who owns the rights to the films—United Artists—rather than curatorial inconsistency.

One element, however, is consistently excellent—Frankenheimer’s skill and ease as a commentator about his own movies. In the three films included here in which he provides an audio commentary—“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train” and “Ronin”—Frankenheimer is both a delightfully entertaining host and a genuine film teacher. He pays attention to what is going on onscreen, often pointing out how a particular scene was constructed and the choices he had to make in determining various shots. He’s generous and insightful, but not fawning, when discussing his actors and crew, and never loses sight of how his films are put together.

Here is a look at the four films included in “The John Frankenheimer Collection.”

“The Young Savages” (1961): This urban drama starring Burt Lancaster as a New York City assistant D.A. prosecuting three Italian teenage gang members for the murder of a Puerto Rican teen was Frankenheimer’s second movie feature. His camera vividly captures the teeming streets and crowded tenement apartments of East Harlem, where Italian and Puerto Rican gangs are engaged in battles over turf. But the story, based on an Evan Hunter novel, isn’t as good.

While the film was released during the same year as “West Side Story,” a much more sumptuous—and critically awarded—musical about a similar subject, it’s a mistake to say, as writer Kate Burford does in her usually reliable “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” that “West Side Story” “swamped the well-intentioned, black-and-white picture.” The musical wasn’t released until more than seven months after “The Young Savages.”

“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962): A wicked political satire based on Richard Condon’s novel, this extraordinary thriller explores brainwashing, McCarthyism, presidential politics, political conspiracies and communism, anti-communism and anti-anti-communism. It stars Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey as Korean War vets Maj. Bennett Marco and Sgt. Raymond Shaw, respectively, Janet Leigh as Marco’s romantic interest and Angela Lansbury—in one of the great personifications of evil in movie history—as the powerful wife of a Joseph McCarthy-like U.S. senator (James Gregory) and the mother of Raymond Shaw.

The story, which operates on multiple political and psychological levels, is about a U.S. soldier who had been captured in battle by North Korean and Chinese Communist forces and turned into a programmed assassin. But the plot has myriad twists and turns, reflecting the point of view of many who opposed the tactics of Sen. McCarthy and viewed his attacks on civil liberties as potentially as harmful to America as communism.

In addition to Frankenheimer’s commentary, the DVD includes a joint interview with the director, Sinatra and producer-screenwriter George Axelrod, an interview with Lansbury about her role and an appreciation of the film by director William Friedkin.

“The Train” (1964): The fact that this World War II thriller flopped at the box office has hurt “The Train’s” reputation. But the story of a French railroad worker, played with quiet realism by Lancaster, who attempts in August 1944 (just before the Allies chase the German army out of Paris) to prevent a German colonel (Paul Scofield) from shipping great works of French art back to Germany succeeds admirably as a suspenseful, action-filled movie.

Frankenheimer points out in his commentary that the movie is “the last big action picture ever made in black-and-white,” and it looks great. The director, who was a last-minute replacement for Arthur Penn, had to deal with bad weather closing down the film for months, an injury to the star and the necessity to re-write the script to add dramatic action scenes – all of which contributed to “The Train” costing twice as much ($6.7 million, according to Lancaster biographer Buford) as it was originally budgeted.

But from this vantage point, the extra money was worth it, as the train crashes are truly spectacular and the performances by Lancaster, Scofield, Jeanne Moreau and some terrific French actors are uniformly excellent.

“Ronin” (1998): In Frankenheimer’s expert hands, this post-Cold War thriller about former spies being hired as mercenaries by a subterranean Irish organization to steal a valuable but mysterious package from a group of Russians becomes an intelligent primer on urban espionage. Robert De Niro is completely believable as a former CIA agent now working freelance, and his performance is matched by a fine cast of European actors, including Britain’s Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce and Sean Bean, France’s Jean Reno and Michael Lonsdale and Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgard.

Frankenheimer’s audio commentary is up to his usual high standards, particularly when he explains how he and his crew pulled off some of the movie’s spectacular car chases. The DVD also includes an alternative ending, which is good but also serves to confirm that Frankenheimer made the right choice in keeping the existing conclusion.

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