Against the wall

John Frankenheimer could have disappeared, but he refused to go away

Once, a very long time ago, John Frankenheimer was scared of things. He was scared of being fired from his job directing live television dramas during the 1950s; scared of missing a shot, of trying something daring and failing so spectacularly that he would never work again. Once, in the early 1960s, he was scared of driving up Coldwater Canyon in Los Angeles to visit with Frank Sinatra; he was so sure the man would tell him he didn't want to act in his picture. A couple of decades later, Frankenheimer was scared he had grown too old, too forgotten. He would keep that fear nearly all his life, if only so he could always have something to surmount. That might well be his greatest reward: conquering terror and emerging, one more damned time, victorious.

"The fear dissipates when you're really working, when you're doing something that you believe in and that you honestly are artistically convinced that's it -- you believe," Frankenheimer says. "But when you're floundering..." He sits on a sofa, takes a deep breath, then begins talking about one of the most reviled films of the 1990s, one for which he was partly responsible.

"Take something like The Island of Dr. Moreau," he begins. "The fear is really with you all the time. I thought, 'God, if I can only get through this alive.' It was so hard. And it really was the heart of darkness for me, going up the river. I was afraid before I started working with Sinatra on The Manchurian Candidate. I was afraid of his reputation. But I was able to get through it."

John Frankenheimer, the director of Reindeer Games, turned 70 last week.
John Frankenheimer, the director of Reindeer Games, turned 70 last week.

John Frankenheimer turned 70 last Saturday -- 70, for God's sake. And no, sitting in a sprawling suite in Dallas' Adolphus Hotel decked out in a lime-green sweater and khakis, he certainly doesn't look it, especially when one considers how turbulent the last two decades of his life have been. Not long ago, the director who once made a movie called Grand Prix so he could express his love for racecar driving was speeding down what he calls "the road to obscurity." Yes, he made bad pictures, but that's all they offered him. No one cared how good he had been -- no one less so than Frankenheimer. The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, Seconds -- all that was in the rearview mirror, fading fast from sight.

Yet here he is today, on a brutal winter's day in the year 2000, still out on the road to plug his movies. On Friday, he will open his 30th big-screen picture, Reindeer Games, a frothy thriller starring Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron as two people among many in the film who aren't at all who they seem (a theme that recurs throughout the director's best movies). It's a work of which Frankenheimer is especially proud. After all, it recalls some of his finest and best-known films -- recalls, meaning it contains those elements that once made Frankenheimer an indispensable director. It's taut, full of twists, crowded with double meanings and, yes, even the briefest whiff of incest, perhaps to placate those for whom Manchurian remains Frankenheimer's defining work.

That Frankenheimer still works today, nearly five decades after directing the likes of Paul Newman and James Dean and Cliff Robertson and John Gielgud during the heyday of live television, is almost astonishing. So many of his peers have retired, disappeared, died. That he continues to make films -- with bankable stars, with powerbrokers writing the checks (Miramax's Weinstein brothers, in this case), with complete control -- astonishes no one more than him.

"It's kind of like getting off a landing craft and running up a beach," Frankenheimer says of moviemaking, especially at his age. "The dunes are over there, and they're shooting at you, and people are falling to your right and falling to your left. I'm still running. They haven't hit me yet. They got a few glancing blows, but they haven't killed me. But they're still shooting. Don't think they're not."

Frankenheimer was once convinced that in Hollywood, he was nothing but a memory -- a vestige cut loose and thrown away. But that was before filmmakers began ripping him off, before Andrew Davis stole whole scenes from 1964's exhilarating The Train for his own The Fugitive. That was before The Manchurian Candidate was rereleased and hailed by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest 100 films. That was before film schools began screening his works, before students began plucking at the taut wires that held together his best movies. That was before the advent of DVD, before the fetishist could watch Seven Days in May with Frankenheimer as the invisible cohort offering his prescient director's commentary.

Yes, he was a legend in the 1960s, and some of his best work would come in the 1970s: French Connection II, which featured a strung-out Popeye Doyle stumbling through familiar terrain; Black Sunday, in which Bruce Dern exudes enough nuttiness to fill the Orange Bowl; and his epic yet intimate version of The Iceman Cometh. But, save for 52 Pick-Up in 1986, the 1980s found Frankenheimer struggling to stand upright as a filmmaker. Frankenheimer fell prey to the director's worst disease: an inability to overcome shoddy material.

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