Frankenheimer in '66
John Frankenheimer’s career is one of those endlessly frustrating conundrums in film history; not so much because of what he wasn’t allowed to do but because of what he repeatedly failed to do. He was a young genius in the first half of the 60s, seemingly on top of the world, but with this charmed life came a certain arrogance and complacency that left him utterly groundless when the industry shifted. He was poised to become something like an American Godard, someone whose revolutionary attitude towards cinema would force a general re-evaluation of basic definitions and practices. Due to Frankenheimer’s inability to win over either critics or audiences from the late 60s on, he gradually receded into making fairly routine thrillers that in one way or another reminded people of his most renowned film, The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Frankenheimer was a member of what I consider the “lost generation” of American auteurs; the group that was younger than the ‘old masters’ of Hawks’ and Hitchcock’s age group but older than the ‘movie brats’ who came to prominence in the 70s – (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, etc.). This group was grounded in journalism, photography and early television, and brought all this experience to cinema starting in the late 50s, to such an extent that they should’ve been regarded as equally valid as the Nouvelle Vague, instead of just presumably influenced by it; an American ‘New Wave.’ This generation of mavericks also included Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, Russ Meyer and Andy Warhol, among others, plus the ‘Direct Cinema’ documentarians D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and Frederick Wiseman. Not easily categorized by lazy film scholars, these men were typically pegged as anomalies or else unceremoniously folded into the ‘movie brat’ generation as taggers-on who profited from their younger brothers’ success. This group was distinct, though, in the experience it derived from living through the Depression, World War II, the commencement of the Cold War, and perhaps most importantly, the birth of the television age with its uneasy vacillation between crass advertising and explicit advocacy of social justice.
The focus on sober, progressive dramas in the world of 50s TV inevitably made its way into the early feature work of Frankenheimer and others of his school, which was highly conscious not only of the immediacy of the TV medium but the style of its counterpart to the dramas; news reportage. Possibly more than anyone, Frankenheimer deliberately set out to fuse fiction and non-fiction styles to relieve film from what was then seen as the bloated, stage-bound and bland Hollywood way. It was his idea to shoot scripted scenes as if they were news events, and as far as I can tell, he may have been the first to do so. Like many of his American comrades – (Friedkin, Penn, et al.) – Frankenheimer was gracious in his acknowledgement of the French New Wave’s influence, but the truth was that he developed his own style either before or concurrent with it. Just as Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) could be seen as the earliest New Wave films, Frankenheimer crystallized his aggressive hybrid style in the revolutionary Manchurian Candidate, which was more extreme and visceral than anything done by Godard, Truffaut or even Rivette up to that point. It was released the same year as Godard’s My Life to Live (1962) and a year before his Contempt (1963), although the raw Breathless (1959) had certainly made a splash earlier.
Film development in the 20th century was characterized by a series of increasingly frequent quantum leaps in which all the received wisdom about what defined cinema had to be revised because of the arrival of some new powerful work. Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) and Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) coming so close together was one such moment, as was the Nouvelle Vague’s spreading influence throughout the 60s. But there were also developments that were just as unprecedented and yet failed to ignite whole new schools of theory as they ideally should or could have. By stripping down the affects of cinema to the mere basics, Warhol’s films force us reconsider what makes films compelling versus what makes them professional, but his style was ultimately so extreme that it really suited no one other than himself. This may also seem to be the case with Frankenheimer except for the fact that so many directors, (including Spielberg and Scorsese), have cited him as a major influence. Mainstream critics never explicate the connection, of course, because it isn’t as obvious as that to Lean or Kubrick, but it is nevertheless there; to such a degree that Scorsese, Oliver Stone and several others were often given credit for inventing techniques that actually belonged to Frankenheimer.
Another would-be paradigm shift occurred in 1966 with the release of two films back-to-back by Frankenheimer; Seconds and Grand Prix. Coming off the critical and popular success of a string of hard-hitting dramas – Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May (1964) and The Train (1964) – Frankenheimer’s juices were flowing, the batteries were charged, and he was primed to at last bridge the gap between the commercial/socially piquant work he was known for and the more experimental/intuitive drives that he had been obliged to contain thus far. Specifically he was resolved to only make films that personally moved him; a reaction to having spent a year in Europe making The Train, a good film but a subject that did not especially interest him. Frankenheimer was fortunate in being able to choose and initiate his own projects at this point, thanks to his ongoing fruitful partnership with producer Edward Lewis. While intensely liberating, this move also planted the seeds of the director's downfall since his two new films would noticeably break from the high-minded liberal respectability and A-list star turns that characterized his previous films. Instead, the first would veer dangerously close to science-fiction while the second would bear the hallmarks of a frivolous exploitation sports film.
Frankenheimer’s two films of ’66 – Seconds and Grand Prix – were misunderstood and failed to bring him the recognition he felt he deserved; the former because it earned neither box-office nor good reviews, and the latter because it was seen as strictly a calculated and hollow crowd-pleaser, however popular. The real disappointment is that Frankenheimer himself didn’t persist in this dangerous, uncharted course regardless of the consequences. In the long run, it wouldn’t have done him any more harm than what he really did, which was spend decades trying to atone for his error with essentially safe and unoriginal action films. These later works, like Black Sunday (1977) and 52 Pick-Up (1986), at best showcase Frankenheimer’s dark humor, social conscience and knack for hard-edged action. At worst, they only remind us of what could have been.
As bleakly prescient and chilling as anything in Kubrick or Cronenberg, Seconds, (by being so ahead of its time), was despised during its very brief initial release. For years it was a semi-forgotten cult favorite. Now it is matter-of-factly accepted as one of Frankenheimer’s greatest films. It went from being a failure to a masterpiece without ever being a success, which of course did him no good at the time. Seconds is based on a novel by David Ely and adapted into an uncompromising screenplay by Lewis John Carlino. It was funded by Frankenheimer and Lewis’ production company, and the director personally contributed many props and locations, including his Malibu beach house. Since his investment was so high, the failure of the film was all the more damaging to him.
Seconds addresses not only the superficiality of cosmetic surgery, as well as corporate heartlessness, but the wider phenomenon of man’s search for a fountain of youth and a clean slate. A middle-aged banker named Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is dissatisfied with his entire life. Like so many people, he longingly daydreams about what he could have accomplished if he’d been wiser when he was younger. One day in a train station, a stranger stuffs a piece of paper into his pocket; written on it is an address, nothing more. Later that night, Hamilton gets a call from a man claiming to be a long dead friend. After much convincing, he finally accepts that his friend didn’t die after all, but somehow faked his death in order to run off and start a new life. Intrigued, Hamilton agrees to show up at the address he was given.
After being put through an intimidating series of security measures, he arrives at the offices of a business known only as “the company.” Just as he loses his nerve and tries to leave, however, the administrator, Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) arrives. The company will arrange for Hamilton’s “death,” (complete with matching cadaver), surgically alter his appearance, and set him up with a new life in a new city. The price is high, but the cost for declining is even worse, as Ruby amiably describes how Hamilton has already been drugged and filmed molesting a young woman. His old life will be ruined if he doesn’t accept his new one. Here, the company’s fatherly founder (Will Geer) appears and reassures Hamilton, “Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?” No one asks why this man has willingly grown old rather than take advantage of his own company’s services.
So the procedures begin, with Hamilton undergoing major reconstructive surgeries and hypnotherapy to discover his innermost desires. He also receives a new name - ‘Tony Wilson,’ emerging from a pile of bandages a new man; literally, as he is now played by Rock Hudson. The casting of Hudson, of all people, is a stroke of genius. Known mostly for light romantic comedies, his career was on a downturn at the time. The irony is that while Hudson himself may have craved a renewal of his own persona right then, thousands of American men would gladly have gone under the knife if they thought they could come out looking like Rock Hudson. (Hudson also happens to give a fine performance, probably the best of his career.) Wilson is moved into a beach house in southern California and begins to practice his dream career as a painter.
Wilson’s assimilation is slow, however, as he is probably too analytical to completely give himself over to the fantasy. He wants to know the secret of “the company” and if there are others like him. Both his butler and a free-spirited woman he falls in love with turn out to be representatives from the company. At a party one night, he gets drunk and lets slip his real name, and thereafter realizes in horror that almost everyone at the party are also “reborns” or “seconds.” Enraged, Wilson returns to the company and demands a third chance; now that he knows how things work, he’ll be able to play along this time. But he wants to be free of the company’s influence, which of course is not possible. In the film’s agonizing finale, Wilson is strapped to a gurney and wheeled screaming back into surgery, not towards a new life, but to serve as a cadaver for the next customer. As the doctor’s drill approaches his skull, Wilson lapses into a fantasy in which he sees a man and child strolling along a rocky beach; a memory, or an unfulfilled wish, we don’t know.
From beginning to end, Seconds adopts a completely unprecedented style that is more radical than anything ever done in American or European narrative films to that point. Frankenheimer uses distortion effects in Seconds that mirror the state-of-mind of the Hamilton/Wilson character and the gray, ominous world in which he lives. Shot in black-and-white by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film periodically employs hand-held cameras, fish-eye lenses and a liquid, stretching effect. In other moments the camera seems to be attached to the actors, and elsewhere skims along the floor, darting in and out of a herd of moving people. The score by Jerry Goldsmith and the brilliant main titles by designer Saul Bass all focus the audience towards the central theme of the film; the quandary of man never being content with reality. With its muted elements of horror and surrealism, Seconds is still also a poignant and thought-provoking examination of the human struggle to outrun time and nature, even though we all know there are no second chances.
Sent to the Cannes Film Festival in early 1966, the film was met with such a disastrous and downright hostile reaction that Frankenheimer refused to attend to represent the film. This was all the more cowardly of him because he was so close at hand at the moment; merely in Monte Carlo shooting Grand Prix. Rock Hudson weakly tried to answer the irate press corps’ questions in Frankenheimer’s absence. Paramount lost any faith in promoting Seconds, and thanks to the director’s apparent lack of interest in it, it quickly dropped off the radar.
Frankenheimer’s experience with Seconds seems to have been irreparably traumatizing, and he thereafter stuck to a more traditional style as a director. The immediate, and unfortunate, result was his resolution to make the forthcoming Grand Prix as epic and crowd-pleasing as possible to guarantee success, even though this was entirely at odds with the reflective, instinctive style already in place, one which had much more in common with Seconds than with any Hollywood blockbusters of the mid-60s. In one sense, we can at least be grateful that Grand Prix was as finished as it was by the time of Seconds’ release, because it seems likely that Frankenheimer would have watered down its radical style even more if he’d had time.
A racing enthusiast and recreational driver, John Frankenheimer planned Grand Prix as the first Formula 1 epic ever to hit the screens. Racing movies were not unheard of by any means – (Roger Corman had made a decent one with The Young Racers in 1963); but Frankenheimer, reeling from the failure of Seconds, wanted a larger-than-life, road show presentation using the gigantic format of 70mm Cinerama. It would also be his first in color, taking him away from the starkness and intimacy he’d honed in black-and-white films. He wanted the movie to be the Ten Commandments of sports movies. Whether he succeeded or not is still debated, as the film was certainly a hit, but by being so broad, the eccentric and visceral style that Frankenheimer was pushing towards was softened rather than sharpened.
Frankenheimer hired filmmaker and graphic designer Saul Bass, who had recently created the striking title sequence for Seconds, to craft not only the credits once again, but the layout and storyboards for most of the racing scenes. It is telling that Frankenheimer took this step; suggesting that he knew he would need the help of an outsider, a fellow artist, in bringing to life a totally new style. It’s as if he knew he would get little help from the professionals and craftsmen who surrounded him and who were no doubt adept at doing everything precisely the way it was done in every other film. Since the racing sequences are the strongest and most indelible aspects of the film, Bass’ contribution cannot be understated. The collaboration between Frankenheimer and Bass ultimately made Grand Prix into something of a ground-breaking anomaly in film history.
The style of the racing scenes is perplexing in terms of its bearing on film theory. There had always been montage, of course, and the split-screen effect was nothing new. In Grand Prix, however, the screen is sometimes broken up into so many shifting panels that it expands montage into collage. And it’s done in a way that never loses sight of an emotional purpose behind each image. There appears to be a philosophical reason thought out and prepared for each shot, its timing, its duration, and the amount of actual space it takes up on the screen. Other panels contract and expand depending on what moment of the race is currently in focus.
In addition to these arresting visuals, Frankenheimer adopts a curious use of soundtrack that seems to be just as radical, (and was utilized in many films over the next decade, primarily documentaries). As we watch a close-up of a driver's face in the heat of competition, the deafening sound of roaring engines may fade out and be replaced by the sound of the same character’s voice. But this isn’t the traditional ‘inner monologue’ technique; it turns out to be audio from an interview conducted elsewhere.
The aspects of the film that are hardest to defend are the dramatic factor and the plot. The story is essentially a soap opera not unlike Grand Hotel or Airport, in which dozens of mostly stereotypical characters (all played by big stars) converge in a limited locale to deal with their ethical and romantic problems. Romance was never Frankenheimer’s forte, and its forced inclusion here along with all the awkward dramatic stuff can be somewhat tedious. (In 1971, Lee Katzin directed Le Mans as something of a remedy to this problem; it is practically all racing and hardly any dialogue at all, and is all the better for it.)
A major weak spot in the film, a problem from which it never recovers, is the casting of the wooden James Garner as the central lead (Pete Aron). It is a part that aches for a younger and more thoughtful actor. Steve McQueen was and remains the painfully obvious choice, and it was indeed offered to him, but McQueen and producer Edward Lewis had a disastrous interview, provoking McQueen to commence his own rival racing movie that had to shut down when Grand Prix out-paced it. (McQueen later consoled himself by starring in Le Mans instead). But besides McQueen, there were dozens of young actors around at the time who would have been excellent in the film and could have helped remedy its overall casting/dramatic problems rather than exacerbating them as Garner does. Just a few who come to mind are Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Brandon de Wilde, Martin Sheen, Clint Eastwood; even Robert Redford would have been more appropriate! In any case, the other actors all do well enough – (especially Yves Montand as veteran French racer Jean-Pierre Sarti, Toshiro Mifune as a team owner, and Antonio Sabato as the cocky Italian driver Nino Barlini), but they are forever in the back seat since the real star of the show is the racing itself.
Released a mere two months after Seconds, Grand Prix became one of the biggest hits of 1966, eventually earning Oscars for its bold editing and sound design. And yet there was also an inferred flip-side to all this praise; a general feeling that the film’s overpowering sensory impact may merely be hiding a lack of originality in other departments. By all accounts, watching Grand Prix in its original release on a massive, wrap-around Cinerama screen was an event not easily forgotten. Even on smaller screens today, the pictorial excitement combined with the aggressive and innovative soundtrack make it a film that is endlessly satisfying.
It’s the kind of film that inflames the mind with the potential of cinema, specifically editing as a means of re-designing the meaning and impact of scenes apart from what may have been originally planned. Perhaps exhausted by the boundless possibilities hinted at by the style of Grand Prix, Frankenheimer consciously retreated to a more minimal approach in his subsequent films, notably The Fixer (1968), but there always remained in him a desire to make the image unique and justifiable from a dramatic/emotional point-of-view, and he mostly succeeded in this even when his films didn’t.
On the basis of Seconds and Grand Prix combined – two films that employed very different though equally revolutionary styles, the Frankenheimer of 1966 should have been elevated to possibly the most cutting-edge filmmaker in the world, but the aesthetic and political climate of the time could not accept such a possibility, especially from a former TV director who was still so young; (35 when making both films).
However rewarding, the popularity of Grand Prix also seems to have pained Frankenheimer to a certain extent because it was not accompanied by an equivalent critical acceptance. This implied that he had made a blockbuster that likely would have done just as well with George Roy Hill or Sidney Lumet in the director’s chair. Nor did Grand Prix’s success lead anyone to reevaluate Seconds, his most personal film, in any attempt to unify them as belonging to an important auteur’s filmography. The themes that unite them are below the surface but still clear; relating to restlessness and moral ambivalence. The heroes in both films are essentially good but also entirely self-centered; ready to risk life-altering (even appearance-altering) danger just for the surge of adrenaline that comes with youthful irresponsibility and liberation from the constraints of mainstream society. Both films drip with loathing and horror towards corporate ideology, the mass media, and their joint efforts to keep the individual man in line through a system of bribes, lies and threats; rarely threats of death and violence, but threats of public humiliation, failure and marginalization.
This dark view of culture was already on display in The Manchurian Candidate, which daringly suggested that the far Right was merely a tool of the extreme Left. Frankenheimer was also highly distraught by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whose presidential campaign he supported and with whom he was close friends. (It was Frankenheimer who actually drove Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night he was murdered.) In a 1969 interview, Frankenheimer had this to say: “I think that our society is brainwashed by television commercials, by advertising, by politicians, by a censored press with its biased reporting. More and more I think that our society is becoming manipulated and controlled.”
This cynicism appears to have taken a toll both on Frankenheimer’s films and on his ability to do business in the film industry. His last masterpiece was 1968’s The Fixer, from Bernard Malamud’s novel, which further chronicled the punishment dished out by society towards independent thought. The frenetic style of Seconds or Grand Prix is nowhere to be found here, though, as Frankenheimer resumed the more sedate approach of his early television and film work that focused much more on the actors than the editing.
Even though Frankenheimer was partial to conspiracy thrillers, he made a concerted effort to direct pictures in a variety of genres in the late 60s and early 70s; a truly mixed bag of oddball titles like The Gypsy Moths (1969), The Extraordinary Seamen (1969), I Walk the Line (1970), The Horsemen (1971), and even a return to his roots with a new TV adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). Action thrillers beckoned, though, as did the only real asset he retained with which to sell himself to producers; the fact that he was the guy who’d made The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and The Train. This served him well with things like the offbeat 99 & 44/100% Dead (1974), as well as French Connection II (1975), Black Sunday, and Dead-Bang (1989). For the most part, though, the kind of success and acclaim Frankenheimer had enjoyed in the early 60s always eluded him, as did opportunities to indulge his more aggressively experimental side on display in Seconds and Grand Prix.
There doesn't appear to be a single explanation for Frankenheimer’s lack of passion in the last three decades of his life and career. In numerous interviews over the years, he appeared engaging and optimistic, often commenting that his highest goal was to make a film that would be mentioned in his obituary ahead of The Manchurian Candidate. Sadly, his death in 2002 was followed by precisely what he had long feared. His 1962 tour-de-force was not only his best-known and most beloved film, but it was even more famous than the name of its director.
Pratley, Gerald. THE CINEMA OF JOHN FRANKENHEIMER. 1969.
Champlin, Charles. JOHN FRANKENHEIMER: A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES CHAMPLIN. 1995.