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The Essentials: The 5 Best John Frankenheimer Films

The Essentials: The 5 Best John Frankenheimer Films

Few filmmakers these days name John Frankenheimer as an influence. He was never particularly trendy, never embraced by the auteurists or overtly paid homage by those who came after. In part, it’s because of some of his later projects; the commercial failure of thriller “Black Sunday” in 1977 drove him to alcoholism that lasted for several years (it was only when he was reduced to drinking on the set of martial arts actioner “The Challenge” in 1981 that he checked himself into rehab), and some of his later projects, including his final film, “Reindeer Games,” and the famous disaster “The Island Of Doctor Moreau” (on which the helmer replaced Richard Stanley several weeks into production) meant his critical reputation took a hit.

But Frankenheimer was also a master of the American thriller, with an extraordinary run in the 1960s, and many underrated subsequent highlights, from “French Connection II,” multiple HBO and TNT movies, and 1998’s gripping “Ronin,” which includes one of the great screen car chases. He was never a showy filmmaker, but one with a clean, clear, unfussy style, and a serious attention to detail, that helped him produce his fair share of classics. A decade ago today, on July 6th, 2002, only a month after dropping out of the director’s chair on the ultimately ill-fated “Exorcist: The Beginning” for health reasons, Frankenheimer passed away from a stroke, at the age of 72. To mark the anniversary, we’ve picked out our five favorites from the Frankenheimer filmography, and you can find them below. Did we neglect your favorite in our selections? Weigh in in the comments section below.   

“Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962)
For an all-too brief four-year period, Burt Lancaster and John Frankenheimer collaborations were looking as if they were going to be continuous and fruitful ala Robert De Niro & Martin Scorsese. After their inaugural team-up on 1961’s morality crime drama “The Young Savages,”  the duo hit certifiable pay dirt on their second time out with the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Nominated for four Oscar baubles, including Best Actor for Lancaster (he would lose to Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but had already won in 1960 for “Elmer Gantry“), ‘Birdman’  centers on the true-life story of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate known for his affection with birds on the inside. A convicted murderer and intractably rebellious young inmate, Lancaster butts heads with the overbearing warden (Karl Malden) and then kills a guard in anger when his mother is denied a visit.  Eventually sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of his life ‘Birdman’ then chronicles Lancaster’s redemptive transformation from recalcitrant prisoner to withdrawn internee who becomes an ornithologist inside, all the while hounded by the autocratic warden who eventually transfers him to Alcatraz; a prison that will not permit him to keep his beloved birds. Co-starring Telly Savalas and Thelma Ritter, who both were nominated for their supporting turns as fellow prisoner and mother respectively, Frankenheimer’s simple yet effective and empathetic craftsmanship creates a quietly moving story that placed the film on The AFI’s “100 Years…100 Cheers” list. All the more impressive as Frankenheimer was forced to take over the film from filmmaker Charles Crichton and compelled to shoot (by Lancaster, also the producer), the long version of the screenplay that resulted in an initial four-and-a-half-hour movie when it was first cut. Two-time Oscar winner Burnett Guffey was also nominated for Best Cinematography, making it five nominations in total.

The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
What better way to tap into the nation’s Cold War anxiety than with a political thriller about communists brainwashing American soldiers? Frankenheimer’s 1962 film follows Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, a man plagued by constant nightmares involving men of his platoon being killed by their Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). After pursuing an investigation, it’s revealed that the troops were brainwashed by communists, with Shaw poised to follow any orders so long as he is shown a Queen of Diamonds. The forever-old Angela Lansbury plays his mother (despite being only three years older than Harvey), a secret commie who hopes to execute a plan allowing her to influence the U.S. President with her ideology. It’s a solid puzzle of a story chugging along with powerful forward momentum; incredibly absorbing even if both Soviet-paranoia and Sinatra-lead films usually find modern audiences uninterested. The 2004 Jonathan Demme-helmed update with Denzel Washington wasn’t badly received, but the original stands head and shoulders above, thanks to its weirder passages: Marco and love interest Eugenie (Janet Leigh) have such an odd conversation about states, railroad lines and old Chinese men that many concocted a “brainwashing theory” over the scene. There’s also the nightmare sequence, in which the soldiers are drugged to think that a presentation by Communists showing off new assassin Shaw is actually an informational meeting about hydrangeas, attended only by older housewives. The reality and dream images are cut together disturbingly, going back and forth in a dissonant, maniacal fashion. It’s pretty ingenious, expertly handled stuff, and you can’t really remake that.
Seven Days In May” (1964)
They just don’t make ’em like they used to. Save for the occasional, unlikely adult drama like “The Ides Of March” or “The Social Network,” Hollywood doesn’t make pictures like Frankenheimer’s simmering political drama, “Seven Days In May,” anymore. If you want to see an example of a riveting drama wherein people only talk, argue or debate, this is it. Starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam and an Oscar-nominated Edmond O’Brien, this simmering pot-boiler focuses on hubris-filled American General Scott (Lancaster), sick to death of the bureaucracy and politicking of Washington. After the President (March) ratifies a disarmament treaty with Russia, the militant and aggressive Scott reaches his breaking point with what he perceives to be the spineless figures in D.C. His aide, Colonel Casey (Douglas), accidentally comes across a strange, secret plan he eventually believes is a military coup to overthrow the government. Torn by his loyalty to his General and his duty to his country, the Colonel makes the heavy decision to inform the President and his aides. Risking his name and career on what could be perceived as a wild claim, Casey then becomes part of a time-ticking group of White House loyalists who try and uncover the treasonous subterfuge. Simple, straightforward, but searingly effective in its depiction of the point when patriotism curdles into fascism, Frankenheimer constructs an urgent, suspenseful time bomb of a picture that is classic filmmaking to a tee.

The Train” (1964)
One of five movies made by Burt Lancaster and John Frankenheimer, had things gone differently, Arthur Penn’s name would’ve have been the one credited to “The Train.” But with Lancaster reeling professionally after the failure of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” (which is now a bonafide classic), the actor fired Penn (who was going for a smaller, character-driven film) and brought in Frankenheimer. The result? A train movie, a chase flick, an espionage tale and contemplative look at the cost of life versus sustaining culture in a WWII movie that delivers all of the above in one rousing thriller. The premise is simple: Lancaster plays (suspension of disbelief alert) Paul Labiche, a French railway inspector, who coordinates his remaining team of resistance fighters to do everything they can to prevent Nazi Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) from making his way to Germany with a bounty of classic French art from all the greats. Where Penn might have gone small, Frankenheimer goes big. Very big. Shot in black in white, the setpieces in the film — a spectacular rail yard explosion and a multiple train pileup among them — might as well be in Technicolor. These are big action sequences that are still breathlessly exciting today, not only because these were real trains and locations being destroyed, but also by Lancaster doing his own stunts (you practically flinch watching him jump on train that’s whipping by). And learning how Labiche and his team outsmart the Nazis, doing everything they can to keep the train from leaving France, is both constantly surprising and rewarding. But what elevates the film from just another wartime action movie to something more, are the thematic questions that arise, which Frankenheimer wisely knows never to give a clear answer to. Labiche and his team risk — and lose — lives to protect these artworks, the cultural history of France, but as the film winds to its close, and lingers in its chilling final moments over the men and women who died for it, the sacrifice lost versus what is ultimately gained comes into question. It’s a powerfully uneasy note to close off the film, but a brave one too.

Seconds” (1966)
Utilizing a Saul Bass title sequence, a score by Jerry Goldsmith, elements of neo noir, drama, horror and even freaky psychedelia, Frankenheimer’s 1966 riff on identity (and lack thereof) and corporate paranoia is one of his most unnerving, claustrophobic and entertaining efforts that is often called a science-fiction thriller (and one that evidently messed with the head of a LSD-soaked Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson). Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a disillusioned and spiritless Manhattan businessman who’s lost in his purpose in life. The convenient reemergence of a old friend thought dead, leads Hamilton to come in contact with The Company, a high-tech, science-fiction-like service that helps unhappy wealthy people disappear and create new lives. However, this new-found utopia quickly turns into a proto-“Total Recall”-like nightmare. Hamilton is essentially blackmailed, going through with a procedure that includes faking his death and extensive plastic surgery. Out the other end comes Hamilton transformed into a “Second,” Tony Wilson (now played by Rock Hudson). Reconstituted as a successful painter in California, and bent on enjoying his new life, Wilson hosts a dinner celebration, only to discover later in the evening that all his neighbors are reborn “Seconds” like himself. Struck by this revelation, Hamilton/Wilson struggles to get out and make contact with his former wife, but escaping the clutches of The Company proves to be its own hallucinatory ordeal. One also cannot mention the disquieting creepiness of “Seconds” without discussing the amazing chiaroscuro-filled, deep-focus cinematography of the great James Wong Howe. Nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning twice), “Seconds” was Howe’s penultimate nomination, and the film’s sense of dread, paranoia and insanity is arguably half the film it is without Howe, though Frankeheimer, as usual, makes the transitions from the phantasmic to the (seemingly) ordinary feel completely effortless.

– Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton

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Grand Prix. The best of the racing film genre… hands down


The Train is woefully under-seen and under-appreciated. Thanks for including.


I was going to be very upset if Seconds wasn't on this list. I watched that recently and was completely knocked sideways. A great film, and my current favorite Rock Hudson performance.


An Underrated director he is a fucking master.

Stevo the Magnificent

You should have included 'French Connection II' as an honorary mention, it was (unfortunate jazzy score notwithstanding) one of the best cop thrillers of the 1970's, had it been a stand-alone 'fish-out-of-water' story and not a sequel, it would be regarded as a classic now, Gene Hackman absolutely should have gotten a Best Actor nomination for it…

One more thing, Frankenheimer's final film, the 2002 television movie 'Path to War' was just extraordinary; the study of an idealistic President – LBJ – increasingly crushed by circumstances and bad decisions in wartime, Michael Gambon's performance of a defeated and demoralized LBJ was simply magnetic, not to mention heartbreaking (and I'm a conservative), with Frankenheimer's direction pitch-perfect throughout, showing the young turks why he was such a master of his craft…


Thanks for this list. Always wondered why John Frankenheimer doesn't get much of a mention when talking about film history. He directed some great films. And I'm always happy to see Burt Lancaster get some recognition-another great actor that tends to be rather underrated.


Dang! I was hoping to see BLACK SUNDAY on the list. It's one of my top 5 favorite films ever – the kind of studio film that could only have been made in the 70s. It's both a gripping thriller with the most thrilling third act in cinema history, and the most intelligent, nuanced look at global terrorism ever made. Not many films would dare to make the Israeli Mossad agent, the Palestinian Black September member, and the deranged Vietnam vet she teams up with ALL into the protagonists. The film treats nobody as stock villains, but looks on dispassionately as the terrorists pursue their horrifying goal. The female terrorist in particular is fascinating and multi-layered – Thomas Harris has said she was the model for Clarice Starling in his later books. And Bruce Dern's frenzied monologue about WHY he wants to attack the Super Bowl is one of the screen's great mad scenes, so brilliantly written that it takes you inside his thought process. By the end of it, you half root FOR him. It also has a glorious John Williams score written within months of his breakthrough STAR WARS score. And never again will it be possible to get permission to film an ACTUAL Goodyear blimp attacking an ACTUAL Super Bowl – no CGI garbage, it's all real. All in all an unrecognized masterpiece to my mind.

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