It was during the July 4th weekend five years ago when word came in that John Frankenheimer had died. I remember an announcement being made during the Harry Palmer triple bill at the Egyptian that day and I got several calls about it as well. The reason people felt it necessary to call me was that two months before that day I had been privileged to spend ninety minutes with the man in his living room for an interview. Getting to speak with him was an inspiration. I only wish I could have done it again.
Prior to that day I'd received the warnings about how tough a personality he was, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, all that stuff. I was fairly terrified. But he could not have been more gracious to me the entire time we were together and I felt at ease almost immediately. The occasion for my interview with the 72 year-old director was the airing of PATH TO WAR, which he had just made for HBO about LBJ’s downfall caused by the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. It’s an excellent film and the bulk of the interview was meant to focus on it and continuing theme of politics that had run throughout his career. It’s well known that he was involved with the presidential campaigns for both Kennedys as well as being the one who drove Bobby to the Ambassador Hotel the night of the California primary. We all know how that night turned out.
The man got his start working on live TV in the 50s before moving onto features. The many titles on his resume range from the brilliant (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) to the not-so-brilliant (PROPHECY) to the near-unknown (THE GYPSY MOTHS—give it a try sometime) to sequels (FRENCH CONNECTION II) and action movies for Cannon Films (52 PICK UP). The 90s saw him moving back into television where he directed several projects for cable including GEORGE WALLACE, but the success of 1998’s awesome action film RONIN led to him spending the last years of his directorial career moving between features, television and even to directing the short AMBUSH for the continuing BMW web series THE HIRE which starred Clive Owen.
His 1966 cult classic SECONDS, fittingly described by Danny Peary in the Guide for the Film Fanatic as “one of the most depressing movies ever made” remains one of my favorites, for some very personal reasons. John Randolph plays a banker who, in the midst of middle-age malaise, is recruited by a shadowy organization to start his life anew, undergo plastic surgery and become a completely new person, a “Second” after which he is played by Rock Hudson. At the beginning of the film the Randolph character lives out in the suburbs—Scarsdale, to be precise, and around the corner from the house where I grew up. Across the street from his house in some shots you can see the driveway leading to the house where my best friend in kindergarten lived. I don’t think I was successful in conveying to Frankenheimer how much this film means to me—how much I identified with a movie where somebody lives in Scarsdale then buries his identity so he can go live out in California, but I still feel that whenever I watch the film.
Moments stick out in his films for me. Sinatra forcing Laurence Harvey to play solitaire in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, the races in GRAND PRIX, the Super Bowl in BLACK SUNDAY, the against-traffic chases in RONIN, the very end of FRENCH CONNECTION II which has one of the great abrupt “The movie’s over, now get out” endings of the 70s. Even something like PROPHECY, not at all one of his best, has sequences that jump out at you in how striking they are. 1982’s THE CHALLENGE, which probably didn’t get much theatrical play beyond 42nd Street, has some action scenes that are pretty terrific. At one point during the interview I asked him about attempting such logistically complicated sequences in his films. He started to give a general answer along the lines of, “I could say that about a lot of directors…” but then I mentioned a specific shot in BLACK SUNDAY. We start on a shot of Marthe Keller’s car, then crane up and over into the Orange Bowl where the Super Bowl is being played and move in on Robert Shaw standing on the sidelines. As I was describing it to him, without missing a beat he blurted out, “Yeah, well that was hard! What we had to do was…” and he began to tell me how they pulled the shot off. Then I moved onto another sequence at the Super Bowl where Robert Shaw learns about the possible terrorist attack and has to race across the length of the stadium during the game. It’s all covered with multiple cameras clearly taking the action as it all happens as the game is going on. I was then able to get him to talk specifically about how they pulled off filming some of the races in GRAND PRIX. As he spoke, I was just sitting there trying to conceal my excitement. This was one of those moments in life where you feel like you’ve just nailed what you’re trying to do.
In Frankenheimer I saw a man who had lived a good life. There had been troubles, bad films, a period after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination where he left the county for a while and an admitted battle with alcohol. But he was proud of what he had accomplished and looking forward to doing more. The day of the interview he was still scheduled to direct the EXORCIST prequel which was at that point to star Liam Neeson. I asked him about this and if it was at all strange, since he had made FRENCH CONNECTION II, that he was going to direct what was more or less a second sequel to a William Friedkin film. In his clipped style, he replied, “Yeah, I didn’t want to read the script. But my agent convinced me to read it, I thought it was brilliant, so I said I’d do it.” Several weeks later he had pulled out of the project due to his needed spinal surgery. Soon after that came the fatal stroke.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
So said John Kennedy, a man John Frankenheimer knew and no doubt took a great deal of inspiration from throughout his life and career. At their very best, the films he left behind display the work of someone who loved the craft of filmmaking and true inspiration can be found in how he looked forward to continuing to do that. He made his films the way he did because it was hard and that was how he thrived.