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The Essentials: The 5 Best John Frankenheimer Films

by The Playlist Staff
July 6, 2012 1:57 PM
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Seven Days In May

"Seven Days In May" (1964)
They just don't make 'em like they used to. Save for the occasional, unlikely adult drama like "The Ides Of March" or "The Social Network," Hollywood doesn't make pictures like Frankenheimer's simmering political drama, "Seven Days In May," anymore. If you want to see an example of a riveting drama wherein people only talk, argue or debate, this is it. Starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam and an Oscar-nominated Edmond O'Brien, this simmering pot-boiler focuses on hubris-filled American General Scott (Lancaster), sick to death of the bureaucracy and politicking of Washington. After the President (March) ratifies a disarmament treaty with Russia, the militant and aggressive Scott reaches his breaking point with what he perceives to be the spineless figures in D.C. His aide, Colonel Casey (Douglas), accidentally comes across a strange, secret plan he eventually believes is a military coup to overthrow the government. Torn by his loyalty to his General and his duty to his country, the Colonel makes the heavy decision to inform the President and his aides. Risking his name and career on what could be perceived as a wild claim, Casey then becomes part of a time-ticking group of White House loyalists who try and uncover the treasonous subterfuge. Simple, straightforward, but searingly effective in its depiction of the point when patriotism curdles into fascism, Frankenheimer constructs an urgent, suspenseful time bomb of a picture that is classic filmmaking to a tee.

The Train

The Train” (1964)
One of five movies made by Burt Lancaster and John Frankenheimer, had things gone differently, Arthur Penn’s name would’ve have been the one credited to "The Train." But with Lancaster reeling professionally after the failure of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” (which is now a bonafide classic), the actor fired Penn (who was going for a smaller, character-driven film) and brought in Frankenheimer. The result? A train movie, a chase flick, an espionage tale and contemplative look at the cost of life versus sustaining culture in a WWII movie that delivers all of the above in one rousing thriller. The premise is simple: Lancaster plays (suspension of disbelief alert) Paul Labiche, a French railway inspector, who coordinates his remaining team of resistance fighters to do everything they can to prevent Nazi Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) from making his way to Germany with a bounty of classic French art from all the greats. Where Penn might have gone small, Frankenheimer goes big. Very big. Shot in black in white, the setpieces in the film -- a spectacular rail yard explosion and a multiple train pileup among them -- might as well be in Technicolor. These are big action sequences that are still breathlessly exciting today, not only because these were real trains and locations being destroyed, but also by Lancaster doing his own stunts (you practically flinch watching him jump on train that’s whipping by). And learning how Labiche and his team outsmart the Nazis, doing everything they can to keep the train from leaving France, is both constantly surprising and rewarding. But what elevates the film from just another wartime action movie to something more, are the thematic questions that arise, which Frankenheimer wisely knows never to give a clear answer to. Labiche and his team risk -- and lose -- lives to protect these artworks, the cultural history of France, but as the film winds to its close, and lingers in its chilling final moments over the men and women who died for it, the sacrifice lost versus what is ultimately gained comes into question. It’s a powerfully uneasy note to close off the film, but a brave one too.


"Seconds" (1966)
Utilizing a Saul Bass title sequence, a score by Jerry Goldsmith, elements of neo noir, drama, horror and even freaky psychedelia, Frankenheimer's 1966 riff on identity (and lack thereof) and corporate paranoia is one of his most unnerving, claustrophobic and entertaining efforts that is often called a science-fiction thriller (and one that evidently messed with the head of a LSD-soaked Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson). Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a disillusioned and spiritless Manhattan businessman who’s lost in his purpose in life. The convenient reemergence of a old friend thought dead, leads Hamilton to come in contact with The Company, a high-tech, science-fiction-like service that helps unhappy wealthy people disappear and create new lives. However, this new-found utopia quickly turns into a proto-“Total Recall”-like nightmare. Hamilton is essentially blackmailed, going through with a procedure that includes faking his death and extensive plastic surgery. Out the other end comes Hamilton transformed into a “Second,” Tony Wilson (now played by Rock Hudson). Reconstituted as a successful painter in California, and bent on enjoying his new life, Wilson hosts a dinner celebration, only to discover later in the evening that all his neighbors are reborn “Seconds” like himself. Struck by this revelation, Hamilton/Wilson struggles to get out and make contact with his former wife, but escaping the clutches of The Company proves to be its own hallucinatory ordeal. One also cannot mention the disquieting creepiness of “Seconds” without discussing the amazing chiaroscuro-filled, deep-focus cinematography of the great James Wong Howe. Nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning twice), “Seconds” was Howe's penultimate nomination, and the film’s sense of dread, paranoia and insanity is arguably half the film it is without Howe, though Frankeheimer, as usual, makes the transitions from the phantasmic to the (seemingly) ordinary feel completely effortless.

- Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton

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  • Jinky | July 19, 2012 3:21 PMReply

    The Train is woefully under-seen and under-appreciated. Thanks for including.

  • SJHoneywell | July 14, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    I was going to be very upset if Seconds wasn't on this list. I watched that recently and was completely knocked sideways. A great film, and my current favorite Rock Hudson performance.

  • Leonardo | July 10, 2012 4:53 AMReply

    An Underrated director he is a fucking master.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | July 6, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    You should have included 'French Connection II' as an honorary mention, it was (unfortunate jazzy score notwithstanding) one of the best cop thrillers of the 1970's, had it been a stand-alone 'fish-out-of-water' story and not a sequel, it would be regarded as a classic now, Gene Hackman absolutely should have gotten a Best Actor nomination for it...

    One more thing, Frankenheimer's final film, the 2002 television movie 'Path to War' was just extraordinary; the study of an idealistic President - LBJ - increasingly crushed by circumstances and bad decisions in wartime, Michael Gambon's performance of a defeated and demoralized LBJ was simply magnetic, not to mention heartbreaking (and I'm a conservative), with Frankenheimer's direction pitch-perfect throughout, showing the young turks why he was such a master of his craft...

  • Real | July 6, 2012 6:07 PMReply

    Thanks for this list. Always wondered why John Frankenheimer doesn't get much of a mention when talking about film history. He directed some great films. And I'm always happy to see Burt Lancaster get some recognition-another great actor that tends to be rather underrated.

  • James | July 6, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    Dang! I was hoping to see BLACK SUNDAY on the list. It's one of my top 5 favorite films ever - the kind of studio film that could only have been made in the 70s. It's both a gripping thriller with the most thrilling third act in cinema history, and the most intelligent, nuanced look at global terrorism ever made. Not many films would dare to make the Israeli Mossad agent, the Palestinian Black September member, and the deranged Vietnam vet she teams up with ALL into the protagonists. The film treats nobody as stock villains, but looks on dispassionately as the terrorists pursue their horrifying goal. The female terrorist in particular is fascinating and multi-layered - Thomas Harris has said she was the model for Clarice Starling in his later books. And Bruce Dern's frenzied monologue about WHY he wants to attack the Super Bowl is one of the screen's great mad scenes, so brilliantly written that it takes you inside his thought process. By the end of it, you half root FOR him. It also has a glorious John Williams score written within months of his breakthrough STAR WARS score. And never again will it be possible to get permission to film an ACTUAL Goodyear blimp attacking an ACTUAL Super Bowl - no CGI garbage, it's all real. All in all an unrecognized masterpiece to my mind.

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