John Frankenheimer, who died last year at 72, belonged to a generation of Hollywood filmmakers who began their careers in the glory days of live television. His early pictures bridged TV and Tinseltown drama, old and new visual technologies. From the get-go, Frankenheimer had a rapport with actors. His second feature, The Young Savages (1961), stars Burt Lancaster as an up-from-the-slums prosecutor. The Frankenheimer protag par excellence, Lancaster also played the regenerated murderer Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), the spookily calm right-wing general plotting a military coup in Seven Days in May (1964), the Resistance fighter railway inspector in The Train (1964), and the disenchanted sky diver of The Gypsy Moths (1969). All five are in Film Forum’s 14-film retro, which covers less than half of this prolific helmer’s oeuvre.
The theme of a lone male up against “the system” recurs in Frankenheimer’s best work. It’s at the heart of Birdman, the story of Robert Stroud, an unlettered man who spent 53 years in the clink for two murders and became an authority on rare avian diseases. Lancaster gives a superbly natural, poignant performance, although the character’s a tad adulterated—the real life Birdman was gay, but you’d never guess it from the movie. Frankenheimer hoped the film would aid Stroud’s release, and Lancaster lectured on behalf of his parole, but Stroud died in jail, without ever having seen the film.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) confirmed Frankenheimer’s strong visual sense. His adaptation of Richard Condon’s uneasily prophetic novel was the first film he instigated and over which he had complete control. It has become part of the country’s folklore. Rock Hudson gave his most interesting performance in Seconds (1966), an eerie variation on the Faust legend in which he plays a middle-aged businessman who pays a mysterious outfit to let him start out in another life by faking his death and making surgical alterations.
The rarely revived I Walk the Line (1970) is a haunting study of sexual obsession set in the Tennessee hills, starring Gregory Peck as a married small-town sheriff with a middle-age itch for a moonshiner’s teenage daughter. It’s the theme of Seconds again—Peck thinks, wrongly, that he can be reborn, that he can change his whole life. He’s a sensitive man, destroyed in the end by a primitive society. Frankenheimer captures the backwoods countryside beautifully; the look of the film was apparently inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. And Tuesday Weld, at the time pushing 30, is irresistible and absolutely convincing as the innocently amoral teenager.
William Friedkin’s huge hit The French Connection (1971) starred Gene Hackman as low-life New York narcotics cop Popeye Doyle; in Frankenheimer’s French Connection II (1975), crude Francophobe Doyle has been sent to Marseilles in search of drug czar Fernando Rey. Duly kidnapped by the bad eggs, Doyle is shot full of heroin, then returned, near death, to the French police. In a performance full of pain and anger, Hackman brings a tragic depth to his ugly American. Claude Renoir’s raw waterfront lensing is sensational, as is Cathleen Nesbitt’s cameo as a wizened junkie. The punchy dialogue for Hackman’s harrowing “cold turkey” scene was written—uncredited—by Pete Hamill. French Connection II not only surpasses the original—a case could be made for it as Frankenheimer’s most impressive film.