A Little Solitaire
John Frankenheimer and American Film
Publication Year: 2011
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 in A 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.
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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Introduction: Why Don’t You Pass the Time by Playing a Little Solitaire?
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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...
Murdered Souls, Conspiratorial Cabals: Frankenheimer’s Paranoia Films
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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), and Seconds (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...
The Manchurian Candidate: Compromised Agency and Uncertain Causality
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Nearly fifty years after its release, and more than two decades since it resurfaced after lingering in obscurity, John Frankenheimer’s The 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...
Stealth, Sexuality, and Cult Statusin The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds
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John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (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 of The 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...
The Train: John Frankenheimer’s “Rape of Europa"
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While most critics hailed John Frankenheimer’s The 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...
Action and Abstraction in Ronin
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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, Films ix). 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...
Late Frankenheimer/Political Frankenheimer
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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...
John Frankenheimer’s “War on Terror”
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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...
The Burning Season: Environmentalism versus Progress?
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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 fi ght against regimentation” (qtd...
Pictures and Prizes: Le Grand Prix de Rome and Grand Prix
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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 many beaux arts practices 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’s Grand Prix (1966) it was instead Hollywood, with its studio...
Crashing In: Birdman of Alcatraz
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“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’s Birdman 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...
Walking the Linewith the Fille Fatale
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Made some years after Frankenheimer’s early golden period of 1962–1966, the underrated 1970 film I Walk the Line does not announce itself as a work of great significance. Based on An Exile, Madison Jones’s 1967 southern gothic novel, I Walk the Line is 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...
Live TV, Filmed Theater, and the New Hollywood: John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh
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In 1973, John Frankenheimer made a fi lm version of Eugene O’Neill’s The 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 off er salvation to...
Ashes, Ashes: Structuring Emptiness in All Fall Down
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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 on...
An American in Paris: John Frankenheimer’s Impossible Object
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In 1970 John Frankenheimer and his wife, actress Evans Evans, moved into a fl at on the Île St. Louis in Paris while he edited The Horsemen (1971). The couple had been married in France in 1963 while Frankenheimer shot The Train (1964), and they spent considerable time there during the production of Grand 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...
Shot from the Sky: The Gypsy Moths and the End of Something
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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...
Frankenheimer and the Science Fiction/Horror Film
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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...
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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 includes Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Against the Wall (1994), and Andersonville (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...
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One characteristic of directors trained in television is their extraordinary stamina. John Frankenheimer pays tribute to that underrated virtue in The 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 famed French Connection car 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...
John Frankenheimer's Directorial Career: A Chronology
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Works Cited and Consulted
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Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2011