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A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    A Little Solitaire
    Book Description:

    Think about some commercially successful film masterpieces--The Manchurian Candidate.Seven Days in May. Seconds. Then consider some lesser known, yet equally compelling cinematic achievements--The Fixer. The Gypsy Moths. Path to War. These triumphs are the work of the best known and most highly regarded Hollywood director to emerge from live TV drama in the 1950s--five-time Emmy-award-winner John Frankenheimer.

    Although Frankenheimer was a pioneer in the genre of political thrillers who embraced the antimodernist critique of contemporary society, some of his later films did not receive the attention they deserved. Many claimed that at a midpoint in his career he had lost his touch. World-renowned film scholars put this myth to rest inA Little Solitaire, which offers the only multidisciplinary critical account of Frankenheimer's oeuvre. Especially emphasized is his deep and passionate engagement with national politics and the irrepressible need of human beings to assert their rights and individuality in the face of organizations that would reduce them to silence and anonymity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5098-5
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Why Donʹt You Pass the Time by Playing a Little Solitaire?
    (pp. 1-10)

    Arguably postwar Hollywood’s most politically engaged and astute writer/director, John Frankenheimer (1930–2002) was also a powerful visual stylist, a man who learned the craft of image making both from his early years as a photographer and from demanding work in live television drama in the 1950s. In the latter he managed writing, rehearsals, storyboarding, and, as the shows unfolded, the instant editing made possible by multiple camera set-ups. It was an apprenticeship (like the celebrated years D. W. Griffith spent at Biograph) that provided Frankenheimer with the kind of concentrated hands-on training with actors and the camera that few...

  5. Thrills

    • Murdered Souls, Conspiratorial Cabals: Frankenheimerʹs Paranoia Films
      (pp. 13-28)

      John Frankenheimer moved from live television to Hollywood features in 1961, and within the next five years he directed most of the pictures for which he is best remembered. The three that have come to be called his paranoia trilogy—The Manchurian Candidate(1962),Seven Days in May(1964), andSeconds(1966)—are cited by some critics as a point of origin for the cynical, alienated worldview found in much post-noir cinema of the 1960s and beyond. Film scholar R. Barton Palmer holds that these movies “undoubtedly inaugurated the paranoid thriller” (107). Stephen Bowie writes thatSeven Days in May...

    • The Manchurian Candidate: Compromised Agency and Uncertain Causality
      (pp. 29-47)

      Nearly fifty years after its release, and more than two decades since it resurfaced after lingering in obscurity, John Frankenheimer’sThe Manchurian Candidate(1962) is now generally regarded as a classic American film of the late studio era. The tale it tells, about communist agents infiltrating the highest levels of the American government, comes right out of cold war paranoia—but with a twist. The Sino-Soviet plot to seize control of the U.S. presidency is coordinated not by the liberal left, but by communist agents masquerading as the ultraconservative right.

      Critics have analyzed the film from various perspectives in essays...

    • Stealth, Sexuality, and Cult Status in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds
      (pp. 48-61)

      John Frankenheimer’sThe Manchurian Candidate(1962) andSeconds(1966) feature mind manipulation, torture, and kinky sex, topics with a visceral punch for 1960s viewers and an eerie resonance for post-Abu Ghraib audiences. Richard Condon’s novel ofThe Manchurian Candidate(1959) describes clearly how a domineering mother uses and seduces her own son, and Frankenheimer’s film adaptation depicts this unhealthy sexual relationship as explicitly as possible, given the censorship restrictions of the era. In an interesting shell game, the domineering mother becomes the face of the Communist Party and her assassin son becomes a suicidal hero, a transference that is paralleled...

    • The Train: John Frankenheimerʹs “Rape of Europa”
      (pp. 62-77)

      While most critics hailed John Frankenheimer’sThe Train(1964) as a superlative action film upon its initial release, it earned only $9 million ($6 million abroad, $3 million in the United States) off its $6.7 million budget (Balio 279). Moreover, the film had its detractors. Some singled out the way in which Burt Lancaster’s distinctive, patented acting mannerisms and star image disrupted an otherwise thoroughly realistic mise-en-scène—that, in short, it was impossible to accept the casting of Lancaster as the hardy, ingenious French yard master Paul Labiche who is also a Résistance fighter during the German occupation. Others found...

    • Action and Abstraction in Ronin
      (pp. 78-88)

      In 1997, John Frankenheimer explained the difference between an amateur and a professional filmmaker. The former works only on projects that he or she likes while the professional may be compelled to do work not of his or her choosing (Pratley,Filmsix). In making this distinction, Frankenheimer seemed to be alluding to the doldrums that had afflicted his career following that extraordinary run of pictures in the sixties—Birdman of Alcatraz(1962),All Fall Down(1962),The Manchurian Candidate(1962),Seven Days in May(1964),The Train(1964),Seconds(1966), andGrand Prix(1966). In the decades that followed,...

  6. Politics

    • Late Frankenheimer/Political Frankenheimer
      (pp. 91-102)

      Robert Kennedy spent the final day of his life at the Malibu home of John Frankenheimer, awaiting the results of the 1968 California presidential primary. When it became clear that he had defeated Eugene McCarthy, a weary and reluctant Kennedy agreed to appear before his supporters on national television at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. Frankenheimer drove the senator to the hotel and accompanied him to an upstairs suite. After Kennedy had come down and uttered the rallying cry, “On to Chicago and let’s win there,” the director went ahead to bring his car to the side entrance of...

    • John Frankenheimerʹs “War on Terror”
      (pp. 103-116)

      The violent, unanticipated division of contemporary American history into pre- and post-9/11 has depicted the latter as a era of incomplete mourning and inadequate memorialization, with the advantage of hindsight offering small comfort for the lack of foresight that, had it been available and exercised, may have prevented or at least better prepared Americans for the traumatic assaults that became the watershed event of our time (see Simpson; Butler; Engle). However, our admission that we “didn’t see it coming” has been consistently challenged by the common claim, made immediately following the attacks and persistently thereafter, that the massive destruction on...

    • The Burning Season: Environmentalism versus Progress?
      (pp. 117-128)

      According to a 1969 interview with Gerald Pratley, many of the films of John Frankenheimer “concern the individual trying to find himself in society and trying to maintain his individuality in a mechanized world” (qtd. in Ecksel). In the interview Frankenheimer explains, “I do feel that society wants everybody to be exactly the same. It’s so much easier. I think the theme of the indomitability of the human spirit is very much there, and the fight against regimentation” (qtd. in Ecksel). That indomitability of human spirit certainly underpins the narrative ofThe Burning Season(1994), a biopic of Chico Mendes...

    • Pictures and Prizes: Le Grand Prix de Rome and Grand Prix
      (pp. 129-142)

      By the second half of the twentieth century, American film had not only usurped the spectacle and popularity of the traditional fine arts, it had also adopted manybeaux artspractices and institutions, prime among which was the Grand Prix de Rome. While this was a competition historically associated with the international renown of the French fine arts, by the time of John Frankenheimer’sGrand Prix(1966) it was instead Hollywood, with its studio system, its Academy, and its annual awards, that could claim international and artistic prestige.Grand Prixwas conceived, produced, and celebrated within the logic of this...

  7. Families

    • Crashing In: Birdman of Alcatraz
      (pp. 145-156)

      “The First Epistle of the Green Lover” [La Première Epistre de l’amant vert], composed and written in Burgundy in 1505 and first printed in 1512, is a fitting epigraph to a study of John Frankenheimer’sBirdman of Alcatraz(1962).¹ In that famous poem, Jean Lemaire de Belges, historian and poet at the court of Margaret of Austria, sought to alleviate the melancholy of his patron princess, Margaret of Austria, by “personifying” himself as the parrot that the queen had lost in the summer of 1504 when her attendants inadvertently left the caged bird in a room in the company of...

    • Walking the Line with the Fille Fatale
      (pp. 157-169)

      Made some years after Frankenheimer’s early golden period of 1962–1966, the underrated 1970 filmI Walk the Linedoes not announce itself as a work of great significance. Based onAn Exile, Madison Jones’s 1967 southern gothic novel,I Walk the Lineis at first glance a desultory story of the Tennessee backwoods focused on the midlife crisis of Sheriff Henry Tawes (Gregory Peck). Yet underneath the slight narrative, its subject matter is quietly scandalous, a sex-crime yarn laced with noirish suggestions of taboo pleasures, playing out some of the issues and anxieties that John Boorman’s far more successful...

    • Live TV, Filmed Theater, and the New Hollywood: John Frankenheimerʹs The Iceman Cometh
      (pp. 170-183)

      In 1973, John Frankenheimer made a film version of Eugene O’Neill’sThe Iceman Cometh. This play about the denizens of a seedy tavern on New York’s Lower East Side in 1912 transpires over two days during which the regulars receive a visit from the mysterious yet folksy and charismatic Hickey, a salesman who visits once a year to carouse with the habitués and relate colorful tales of his travels. On this visit, though, Hickey discloses that he has come to offer salvation to the patrons—to free them from their “pipe dreams,” as he puts it—a revelation that triggers...

    • Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down
      (pp. 184-196)

      To begin with the most salient feature of John Frankenheimer’s third film,All Fall Down(1962), this James Leo Herlihy story of a dysfunctional family in contemporary middle America, written for the screen by William Inge, centers largely on a slick young man who goes by the improbable name of Berry-berry. As played out by Warren Beatty—who was twenty-four years old when he shot this picture (and already a compadre of the screenwriter, from their work onSplendor in the Grass[1961])—Berry-berry’s attitude (and this film was made at a time when in the eyes of grown-up America...

  8. Secrets

    • An American in Paris: John Frankenheimerʹs Impossible Object
      (pp. 199-213)

      In 1970 John Frankenheimer and his wife, actress Evans Evans, moved into a flat on the Île St. Louis in Paris while he editedThe Horsemen(1971). The couple had been married in France in 1963 while Frankenheimer shotThe Train(1964), and they spent considerable time there during the production ofGrand Prix(1966). This time, however, they did not plan an immediate return to the United States, deciding instead to rent out their Malibu beach house. The couple began taking French lessons for two hours a day with a coach from the Comédie Française, and Frankenheimer studied cooking...

    • Shot from the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something
      (pp. 214-228)

      One of the problems for historians of most arts is the “transitional figure.” Neither traditionalist nor rebel, neither one who resists a new aesthetic nor one who innovates it, the transitional artist is likely to be overthrown with the old stalwarts when revolution comes. Such is the case of John Frankenheimer, who at the close of the sixties and the dawn of the New Hollywood was not yet forty years old. However, the end of his string, which he ran out swiftly and elaborately, coincided with the demise of if not the studio system then certainly Old Hollywood. Just about...

    • Frankenheimer and the Science Fiction/Horror Film
      (pp. 229-243)

      John Frankenheimer’s death in 2002 prompted a broad reevaluation of this director’s body of work in a flurry of tributes and critical accounts remembering his films and his impact upon the industry (see Combs; Holmes). But rather than reconstructing a coherent picture of his work across the films he directed, these accounts tended to concentrate on the biographical detail of his life. Consequently, discussion of his work was often considered in terms of cycles that corresponded to particular phases in his personal life. Reports focused upon the break with his early film success in the 1960s following the assassination of...

    • The Fixer: A Jew Who Could Be Any Man, Any Time, Anywhere
      (pp. 244-261)

      An adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s popular 1966 novel of the same name,The Fixer(1968) may be understood as part of an important sub-group of Frankenheimer’s projects that also includesBirdman of Alcatraz(1962),Against the Wall(1994), andAndersonville(1996). Or so, at least, suggests Stephen B. Armstrong, who in his frankly auteurist account of the director’s career, argues for an elemental connection these films share because their main characters find themselves prisoners of one kind or another. As Armstrong sees it, the typical Frankenheimer film traces protagonists who are “trapped in situations which cause mental and physical anguish,”...

    • Jonah
      (pp. 262-278)

      One characteristic of directors trained in television is their extraordinary stamina. John Frankenheimer pays tribute to that underrated virtue inThe French Connection II(1975), where Gene Hackman’s pursuit on foot of Fernando Rey making his getaway by boat is far more engaging than William Friedkin’s famedFrench Connectioncar chase (1971). Out of shape after his detox, dodging through Marseille crowds with his eye on the boat that he isn’t even sure contains his quarry, almost too exhausted by the end to clamber over a low barrier when he finally sees an opening onto the water, Hackman squeezes off...

    (pp. 279-286)
    (pp. 287-298)
    (pp. 299-302)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 303-312)