One of the most astute observers of the social and political scene of the early '60s, director John Frankenheimer built his early reputation on his unique ability to bridge the gap between television and Hollywood drama, old and new visual technologies, and the more personal Hollywood films of yesteryear and the cinema of faceless corporate modernity. Frankenheimer's virtuosity was on great display in his films of the early '60s, particularly The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, when he dazzled critics and audiences with his use of monochrome photography and Panavision technology. Unfortunately, the promise Frankenheimer exhibited in these films failed to pan out over the course of his later career and many of his subsequent films have been deemed unworthy successors to his early efforts.
Born in Malba, NY, on February 19, 1930, Frankenheimer was raised in Queens as the son of a German Jewish stockbroker father and an Irish mother. Originally aspiring to be a professional tennis player, Frankenheimer developed an interest in a filmmaking career while serving in the Air Force's Motion Picture Squadron. During the course of his service he learned fundamental filmmaking techniques and made his television directorial debut with a local Los Angeles show that was sponsored by a cattle ranch and featured, appropriately enough, live cows as its stars.
Following his military discharge, Frankenheimer began working with actors of the two-legged persuasion as an assistant director with CBS TV in New York. He embarked on a very fruitful and respected career as a TV director, directing over 125 TV plays, including numerous episodes of the acclaimed Playhouse 90 series. It was with the 1957 film version of one of these television plays, The Young Stranger, that Frankenheimer made his debut as a feature film director. Although the film earned critical acclaim, the director found the experience of making it to be an unsatisfying one and subsequently returned to directing for television.
Frankenheimer returned to the screen in 1961 with The Young Savages. A crime drama that featured Burt Lancaster as its lead, it was a reasonable critical success, and Frankenheimer decided to give feature film another go. He followed the film with the black and white Warren Beatty/Eva Marie Saint melodrama All Fall Down in 1962 and that same year made what many consider to be one of his greatest masterpieces, Birdman of Alcatraz. A stirring prison drama starring Lancaster as its titular hero, the film garnered a number of international honors, including four Oscar nominations. 1962 was truly one of the best years of Frankenheimer's career, as in addition to the triumph of Birdman, the director made another of his most celebrated works, The Manchurian Candidate. However, the film did not enjoy an exceedingly warm reception upon its original 1962 release; a taut, thoroughly chilling psychological thriller that featured an incomparable performance from Angela Lansbury as the world's worst mother, The Manchurian Candidate would have to wait until its 1987 re-release to earn its deserved recognition as one of the Cold War's most enduring and damning cinematic mementos.
Frankenheimer struck back with two successive Lancaster vehicles, the political thriller Seven Days in May (1964) and the WWII action adventure The Train (1965). Both films showcased Frankenheimer's enviable technological prowess -- made especially evident in the black-and-white photography of Seven Days in May -- and further established him as one of his profession's most promising young talents, particularly in the arena of the political/psychological thriller.
Following Seconds, a 1966 ode to corporate paranoia and the loss of identity, and 1968's The Fixer, a historical drama centering on anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia, Frankenheimer's career took a new and largely disappointing direction. Accused by many a critic of sacrificing substance for style, the director relocated to Europe and endured a creative dry spell that produced few, if any memorable films. He had something of a comeback with his moderately well-received 1973 production of The Iceman Cometh and scored both critical and commercial success with 1975's The French Connection II, one of the few sequels to actually prove a worthy successor to its original source.
Unfortunately, with just a handful of exceptions, such as the 1977 thriller Black Sunday, Frankenheimer's career remained stuck in a creative rut throughout the 1980s and 1990s, arguably hitting its darkest nadir with the fiasco of 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau. Frankenheimer rebounded somewhat with a return to television in 1997, turning out the critically praised biopic George Wallace. He enjoyed further critical success with the following year's Ronin, a political thriller starring Robert De Niro.Following a rare appearance onscreen in the disappointing thriller The General's Daughter (1999), Frankenheimer helmed Reindeer Games. A crime drama starring Ben Affleck as an ex-con trying to make good, it was released to mixed reviews in 2000. Subsequently directing a rousing short film for BMW, the film recalled the breathtaking car chases of Ronin and left fans hungering for more. Returning to television for what would ultimately become his final effort, Frankenheimer once again took on the politics that had defined his early career with the Vietnam era drama Path to War. Nominated for both best lead and supporting actor Emmys, the HBO aired film proved that the veteran director still had a both a dramatic touch and a way with actors. Shortly after announcing plans to helm the fourth chapter in the Exorcist film series, Frankenheimer was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital to undergo spinal surgery. Though he expected to recover in time to begin production on the film, a stroke brought on by complications resulting from the surgery proved fatal, sadly marking the end of the road for one of Hollywood's most loved and prolific filmmakers. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi