Photo: The French Connection II (1975)
No, you might be immediately familiar with the name. But you have probably heard of Grand Prix, French Connection II, Ronin…
What is the measure of a genius? How many masterpieces must a director make so that they may be officially accepted as canon as “one of the greats,” to join the pantheon of major cinematic auteurs?
The career of John Frankenheimer begs that question. Active for almost 50 years, the vast majority of his films are unessential, subpar work; a lot of glorified filmed theater (like his adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh”) and made-for-tv movies that are only celebrated when taken in comparison to its peers at the time. And even in his very worst efforts, Frankenheimer was always a filmmaker of immense, self-evident talent; a craftsman of the highest order.
And it is universally agreed upon he was responsible – in the ‘60s, the heyday of his career – for a few iconic classics and at least one movie that several critics and scholars would argue can be considered as one of the best films ever made (you’ll see it at the number one spot on this list).
With all these said, Frankenheimer may not be ordinarily considered as one of the great American auteurs due to his erratic career, but in his best movies he can stand tall with any of the most celebrated directors adored today. A great artist who should be more valued.
10. 52 Pick-Up (1986)
A Canon picture written by Elmore Leonard and directed by John Frankenheimer; “52 Pick-Up” is a match made in sleaze heaven that delivers in every way that a savvy genre fan could expect out of those names.
Leonard’s plot, which mixes pornography, blackmail and murder, is grimy even by his standards; thankfully, Frankenheimer is intelligent enough not to try to “elevate” the material in any way, which would be a disservice to the proudly nasty heart of the story. Instead, the director fully invests in the grindhouse nature of the narrative, staging sequence after sequence of comically over-the-top sordid behavior, from a porn star party that borders on a orgy to a sequence in which the protagonist is forced to witness a video of his mistress being brutally murdered.
If reading this description makes you suspicious of the movie’s quality and intentions, don’t worry: what could’ve been in bad taste and just unpleasant in the hands of a lesser filmmaker is made by Frankenheimer’s knowingly cheeky tone into a entertaining B crime film that is never ashamed of what it is, but also never revels in the misogyny that can so often be omnipresent in the genre. The platonic ideal of a Canon movie.
9. Grand Prix (1966)
This three-hour racing epic starring Steve McQueen has been largely forgotten, no doubt due to its herculean length and fringe subject matter. It’s still nevertheless a landmark of action cinema, one that continues to influence filmmakers to this day, even if they don’t know they are stealing from it directly.
Frankenheimer, of course, is one of the best and most important action directors of all time, his car chases in “Ronin” being some of the most celebrated in the history of the genre. But, good as they are, his most pioneering efforts regarding the art of filming speeding machines comes in “Grand Prix,” in which his practical and stylistic choices led to a number of technological advancements that set the bar for cinematic depiction of car chases. The level of verisimilitude achieved in the racing scenes in this movie was revolutionary, something never seen before, because those were real cars actually speeding – which may seem like commonplace today, but it was a somewhat unthinkable practice at the time, at least on this scale, with so many moving pieces.
To capture that, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon basically invented a whole new visual language, carefully choosing angles and lenses (and creating new camera rigs) to fully transpose the vehicular mayhem to the screen. “Grand Prix” may not be particularly notable or exceptional in any way outside of its action scenes, but it’s directly responsible for the rise of real, practical stunts and for the visual grammar of car chases. So it is a seminal film, in that sense, one which cinephiles should seek out if only to see the boundaries of cinema being expanded right in front of their eyes, in real time.
8. Dead Bang (1989)
Sometimes you don’t need to subvert genre cliches to make them interesting; there are plenty of occasions in which executing them with gusto and conviction is enough to reinvigorate even the most tired of tropes.
“Dead Bang” is a classic, clear-cut example of a film with next to zero interest in going against the grain of what is expected of a standard lone wolf cop movie (though it does add some interesting emotional texture to the archetype) and instead makes the most polished version of that possible. Frankenheimer, at this point in his career relegated to making gun-for-hire projects largely beneath his talent, gets an opportunity here to demonstrate his skills as an artisan of action and tough guy poetry. The film may be far from being one of his most personal pictures, but it’s a perfect demonstration of what the auteur theory is really about: a director with personality who is able to put their stamp even on second-hand material.
And “Dead Bang” is very much a John Frankenheimer film, unmistakable once you see those crooked, sweaty close-ups or the wild, expertly staged action sequences; there’s an all-timer foot chase in this movie, among many other magnificent set pieces. Among his various qualities as a filmmaker, Frankenheimer is one of the best action directors to ever get behind a camera, and this film is one of his finest efforts in the genre.
7. The French Connection II (1975)
The original “The French Connection” was an odd beast: a modestly ambitious procedural that, by virtue of being so exquisitely crafted and acted, was elevated all the way to Best Picture winning glory. But it was still essentially an action movie, one that, despite whatever awards prestige it encountered, still had the potential to be a franchise.
And so we have “The French Connection II,” a sequel that attempts to bridge the gap between commercially viable, audience-pleasing cop movies and more artful virtues, using the continuing story of Popeye Doyle to explore the war on drugs and the effects of drug addiction. Those two things don’t necessarily always work together; as many critics noted at the time, the sequence in the middle, in which Doyle is detoxing from heroin, is very powerful on its own, but stalls the overall pace of the narrative.
But it is precisely those little idiosyncrasies and contradictions that make this a special film on it’s own: though it is in many ways a natural continuation of the first movie, “The French Connection II” is determined to do its own thing. It doesn’t replicate the breakneck pace or the acidic irony of William Friedkin’s approach, substituting his sardonic, economical style for a more subdued character study, taking time to flesh out Popeye in between the (excellent) action scenes. It’s definitely not as good as the original, but Frankenheimer deserves recognition for having the guts to make the movie his own.
6. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Frankenheimer had one of the best directorial runs in the history of American cinema in the brief but creatively fecund period between 1962 and 1966, during which he released practically all of the movies for which he’s now most remembered and celebrated (and which comprise the top half of this list).
Of those, “Birdman of Alcatraz” is the odd one out: all of the director’s classics from that time are either paranoid political thrillers or high octane action movies, whereas this is a straight drama, an introspective, compassionate portrait of life in prison. The film is nominally a biopic of Robert Stroud, a criminal who became notorious due to the attachment he created with birds throughout his long incarceration period. But the truth is that the filmmaker took that concept and crafted a fictional character/story from it; the liberties taken with Stroud’s life are so numerous that one could make a whole other movie about the real man.
Thankfully, that’s absolutely irrelevant in the face of this film’s artistry, which is anchored by Burt Lancaster’s achingly vulnerable performance (one of the rare actors who could play tough guys and quiet, internal men equally well) and Frankenheimer at his most understated, but is still a visually sophisticated effort from the era.
5. Seven Days in May (1964)
Frankenheimer is perhaps the most important founding father of the political thriller genre. Naturally, he’s not solely responsible for it’s creation, but his stylistic and thematic approach to this type of movie – the way he utilized unusual angles and lenses to visually communicate a sense of paranoia and unease, aligned with his commitment to tackling what were then urgent, hot-off-the-presses issues – created something of a blueprint that other directors are still stealing from to this day.
“Seven Days in May” is not the most widely acclaimed of his forays into the genre (that distinction belongs, of course, to “The Manchurian Candidate”), but, despite having eluded canonical classic status for whatever reason, the film still stands as one of the very best political thrillers ever made; tense, taut and topical in equal measure, a ticking clock narrative that builds with masterful precision, a sign of both an expertly crafted screenplay but also of Frankenheimer’s keen sense of pacing.
Despite having a moral clarity that leaves little room for ambiguity (one of the elements that made “Candidate” so essential), the film is so willing to engage with the many polemics of the political climate of the time – from nuclear panic to institutional breakdown – that it has become a fascinating historical artifact of the collective psyche of America in the 1960s, and historically, it offers some chilling insights into how easily democratic institutions can crumble.
4. Ronin (1998)
As is the case with many American auteurs, John Frankenheimer’s career had a rough late period; his output in the ‘80s and ‘90s is mostly, aside from a few exceptions, a steep decline in quality from his earlier classics. There are many reasons for this phenomenon with older directors, but it’s not entirely due to dwindling talent – more often than not, these filmmakers simply no longer have the influence necessary to develop their own projects, and therefore have to get by on subpar gun-for-hire gigs.
“Ronin” is a phenomenal example of what happens when you give a seasoned, masterful craftsman the right material and provide him with enough money to gather all of the right ingredients: you get one of the very best action movies of the ‘90s. Granted, not everyone will be equally excited by the conflation of titanic genre names happening in this movie and, for them, this may seem like a merely well-executed but fairly generic caper.
However, true genre fiends who know that “Ronin” is Robert De Niro, David Mamet and Frankenheimer doing a modern Jean-Pierre Melville film will understand how special this movie really is. It is a sort of a culmination of 40 years worth of sophisticated crime thrillers; the kind of mid-budget, accessible, intelligent, serious-minded but deeply entertaining and, most importantly, expertly crafted action film that has all but disappeared. “Ronin” is the final word both for Frankenheimer’s career and also for this style of filmmaking – and it’s the best conclusion one could hope for.
3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
By far the most widely celebrated, studied and discussed of all Frankenheimer’s films (if not, at least in the opinion of this writer, necessarily his best), “The Manchurian Candidate” is one of those monolithic classics of cinema that has all but exhausted conversation – everything of meaning there is to be said about this movie has been covered by many critics over the decades, in a much more thorough and insightful way than is possible to convey in the limited blurb space of a list like this.
And there’s reason for such praise: functioning both as a straight thriller and as a satire of Cold War paranoia, the film manages to cobble together Oedipal psychological undertones; an ironic critique of McCarthyism; an earnest doomed love story; and a propulsive mystery plotting into a cohesive whole. In fact, it’s easy to forget nowadays, in light of the movie’s canonically accepted success, how deeply experimental “The Manchurian Candidate” really is, not only narratively, but especially in style, featuring a lot of avant-garde editing (think of the spectacular cross-cutting in the first brainwashing scene) and incredible juggling of tones; there are several scenes in the film that manage to be both funny and terrifying at the same time.
And this is all without mentioning the individual sustained set pieces of the movie, which are masterpieces themselves even when stripped of the larger context to which they belong, most notably the assassination attempt of the climax. The movie does have faults, to be sure (Janet Leigh’s character is a constantly baffling presence that adds nothing), making it less than perfect – but it’s close enough.
2. The Train (1964)
Despite having made some of the finest, most daring and innovative American movies of all time, Frankenheimer wasn’t afforded a blank check throughout his entire career; there was only a brief time in which he had complete creative control – precisely that incredible run in the ‘60s that comprises the high point of his work. And of those movies, there are particularly two in which it’s clear he was able to completely fulfill his vision – not coincidentally, far and away his two best.
The first is “The Train,” a movie with such a troubled production that the original director, Arthur Penn, was fired three days into filming since star Burt Lancaster didn’t care for his approach to the material – which would’ve been much more understated and character-focused, contrary to the wishes of Lancaster, who wanted to make an action picture. The actor chose Frankenheimer as his replacement and the producers, desperate to get back to filming, had no choice but to give in to the director’s demands, basically allotting him free rein.
And, no disrespect to Penn, a very good filmmaker responsible for some paradigm shifting movies, but it’s impossible to imagine him making “The Train,” or rather, it’s painful to even consider his low-key version over Frankenheimer’s visceral, propulsive, muscular, economical, exhilarating masterpiece. It’s the purest that cinema can be: moving images, sound and action communicating everything you need to know; not only concrete, plot related information, but also complex ideas regarding character and theme (Frankenheimer’s stance on the waste of human life in the name of art is very clear, from the way he’s keenly interested in the minutia of labor, the difficulty of it and its value to the mission).
In fact, it could be argued that the only person who rivaled Frankenheimer’s understanding of cinema as a tool for storytelling through pure action was George Miller, 51 years later, with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Masterpieces such as these are few and very far between, but these movies satisfy a hungry action fan for five decades.
1. Seconds (1966)
The failure and elusion of the ‘American Dream’ is high in the running for the most played out theme in American cinema; the ennui of middle-class suburban people has been one of the foremost preoccupations in the minds of average filmmakers for at least 50 years. But even if it hadn’t been done to death for the past five or six decades, there would be no need to explore this topic any further, since in 1966 John Frankenheimer made the absolute greatest rumination on the idea with “Seconds.”
But even a compliment like that is selling short the achievement of the movie, since “Seconds,” despite its very specific intentions toward critiquing uniquely American aspirations, also possesses a universality that makes it even richer: this is one of the most chilling movies about the existential despair of the modern man, regardless of nationality. It’s Lynchian before Lynch; it’s the best Kafka adaptation despite not being a Kafka story; it’s a horrifyingly scary movie in which the horror is not a monster or a supernatural element, but the inescapable fact that you can’t get away from yourself.
And that’s only scratching the surface of the film’s thematic richness, which can be interpreted in any number of equally valid ways, given the cryptic but thoughtful nature of the narrative. And if that wasn’t enough to consider “Seconds” a masterpiece, Frankenheimer and legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe made sure to create one of most visually brilliant, avant-garde and pioneering movies of all time: even if you only see “Seconds” once, the high contrast, fish-eye lens, black-and-white compositions will be permanently ingrained in your mind. And that’s even without mentioning the spectacular production design (which becomes even more memorable due to how Frankenheimer’s and Howe’s camera captures and distorts the environments) or the gobsmacking editing.
Basically, “Seconds” is one the greatest films ever made, a masterpiece in every conceivable way, textured and deep both aesthetically and thematically. One for the history books.