John Frankenheimer was one of Hollywood’s great yellers. On set, in the editing room, even in interviews, the famously blunt director could be counted on for at least a few booming expletives. It was one of the things that made him so memorable.
Another, of course, was his career, a long, mercurial ride from the top of the A list in the early ’60s to the depths of cable-TV hell (Tales From the Crypt in the ’80s) to renewed respectability (a run of cable movies from Against the Wall to May’s Path to War won him four Emmys). ”Nobody is hipper than John,” Ben Affleck told EW while starring in his last big-screen production, 2000’s Reindeer Games. ”He went from being the biggest director in Hollywood to losing it all to getting it back again.”
Like Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet, Frankenheimer – who died at 72 on July 6 of complications resulting from spinal surgery – started in TV’s golden age, directing network dramas by age 24. (One acclaimed work, Playhouse 90’s ”A Town Has Turned to Dust” in 1958, starred Rod Steiger, who died just days after the director.) He became a pioneer both technically (bolting cameras to race cars for 1966’s Grand Prix) and politically. Many of his films dealt with the social issues of their time – often before their time. Frankenheimer pushed to keep his prescient 1962 assassination thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, out of theaters for years after John F. Kennedy’s death.
Another assassination had a more profound impact on the filmmaker: His close friend Robert Kennedy had been a guest at Frankenheimer’s home before his 1968 murder. Years later, the director would say that the tragedy drove him to hard drinking, a habit that nearly destroyed his career – until he got sober and began one of Hollywood’s greatest second acts.
– BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) Frankenheimer’s first critical hit, with Burt Lancaster as a con whose best pals have feathers.
– THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) Still his most chilling film, with Angela Lansbury as the mother of all bad mothers, pushing her son into assassination.
– SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) Even before Watergate, Frankenheimer tapped conspiracy theories, with Lancaster as an Army officer plotting a coup.
– SECONDS (1966) Businessman fakes his own death, gets plastic surgery, and comes back looking like Rock Hudson. A bomb- turned-cult fave (check out its icy look and ”wild” orgy).
– BLACK SUNDAY (1977) Arab terrorists try to hijack the Goodyear blimp and attack a football stadium. One of Frankenheimer’s last major studio films before he landed in movie jail.
– AGAINST THE WALL (1994) Frankenheimer’s HBO version of the 1971 Attica uprising rescued him from the Crypt.
– RONIN (1998) A slick Robert De Niro thriller, with the most harrowing car chase of the ’90s.
– AMBUSH (2001) It’s just a few minutes long, but this bmw films.com short proved Frankenheimer could still hold his own with whippersnappers like Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee.