John Frankenheimer on DVD

The director John Frankenheimer died yesterday in Los Angeles following spinal surgery complications. He was 72 years old.

John Frankenheimer was one of my favourite directors. Never quite achieving the critical acclaim and commercial status of such peers as Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, Frankenheimer was nonetheless an astute and intelligent craftsman whose best films rank alongside the finest work to have ever emerged from Hollywood. This brief survey looks at the films he made and the availabilty of them on DVD.

Emerging from TV, his early work such as The Young Savages (1961) is mediocre at best but he showed a great deal of promise with the cynical family melodrama All Fall Down (1961). This promise flowered in splendid fashion in one of the most unusual films ever made in America, a savagely funny and provocative adaptation of Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Now available in a nice MGM disc on Region 1 and 2, the film stands up very well today both as an exciting paranoid thriller and a very funny examination of anti-Communist hysteria which was still raging in 1962 after the Bay Of Pigs debacle. Withdrawn after the Kennedy Assassination, it was re-released in the eighties to massive acclaim and is now generally considered a classic. Frankenheimer's direction is imaginative and often very witty, qualities which are evident in his entertaining if rather conventional political thriller Seven Days In May (1964). Also notable in this exciting conspiracy movie are great performances from Kirk Douglas, the veteran Fredric March and Burt Lancaster, an actor with whom Frankenheimer also collaborated on the rather stodgy biopic Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) and the entertainingly daft WW2 train movie called, er, The Train. Birdman, Seven Days, and The Train are all now available on DVD, the latter two featuring excellent commentaries by the director.

For my money, Frankenheimer's next film was his very best. Seconds (1966) is one of the great SF paranoia movies; cleverly directed, beautifully acted and genuinely horrifying both in its content and its implications. Frankenheimer's handling of actors also reaches a peak here as he takes the wooden Rock Hudson and provokes him into a career-best performance. The R1 DVD from Paramount has a nice transfer of the film - showcasing James Wong Howe's crystal clear photography - and a typically interesting director commentary. If you've seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about when I say that the last ten minutes are among the scariest in film history. If you haven't seen it, you've missed a treat.

After treading water for some years - during which his best films were probably The Gypsy Moths (1969) with Lancaster (due from Warners on the 3rd September with a commentary) and a brilliantly acted but stagey adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1973) - Frankenheimer bounced back with the excellent sequel French Connection 2 (1975), which took the best elements of Friedkin's original classic in a different direction. Gene Hackman's performance is extraordinary in the film, notably during his cold-turkey withdrawal from forced heroin addiction, and Frankenheimer's use of the Marseille streets is inspired, culminating in an exhausting foot chase. The film is available in both R1 and R2 as part of a double pack with the original. Technical quality is very good and there are commentaries from Hackman, the producer and the director.

After following this success with a large-scale and hugely enjoyable action thriller Black Sunday (1977) - sadly unavailable on DVD at present - Frankenheimer's fortunes dipped again with the ludicrous, if enjoyable, eco-horror flick Prophecy (1979) - available on R1 DVD - and some deeply mediocre thrillers. He reached rock bottom with the awesomely terrible The Holcroft Covenant (1985), a film which is essential viewing for bad movie fans and available on R1 DVD from MGM with a somewhat embarrassing commentary.

Luckily, just around the corner were a funny and exciting Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick Up (1986) and an underrated cop movie Dead Bang (1988 - on R1 from Warner), after which Frankenheimer did some very good TV work including a TV special about the Attica uprising Against The Wall - available on R2 in the UK and Germany. After surviving the notorious shoot of The Island Of Dr Moreau - available from EIV in R2 and New Line in R1 - his movie career picked up again in the late nineties with the critical and commercial success of Ronin (1998), which showcased his love of both action and black comedy. The DVD of the film has a revealing commentary and some footage of Frankenheimer directing. His last cinema film, Reindeer Games (1999), was re-cut by Dimension films but is now available on DVD in a director's cut. It's by no means a great film but it has an off-beat edge which is very typical of Frankenheimer's work. This twisty, cynical thriller isn't a bad exit for a director whose reputation should already have been assured 37 years earlier.

More of Frankenheimer's work is available on DVD. His dodgy 1991 thriller with a pre-stardom Sharon Stone, Year of The Gun is out on R1 from Columbia, but only in a panned and scanned version, and his BMW short The Ambush can be bought on a BMW disc called The Hire. It has also been reported that his last TV movie Path To War will probably be coming to DVD soon.

Many thanks to Dave Lawrence and Angelini for additions and corrections.

I think John Frankenheimer was a superb filmmaker who made more than his share of great movies along with a reasonable proportion of turkeys. But even his failures tend to be enjoyably terrible and the technical assurance pacing ensures that they are rarely boring even as your mind is boggling at how stupid they are. As for his best films, all that need be said is that they are as good now as they were at the time, and maybe even better. His private life tended towards the complicated and his personal problems may have made his career more difficult than it should have been. But no excuses are really needed.

Thanks John. I'm going to miss you.

Longer reviews of four of his films will be appearing on DVD Times in the coming week.

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