Monday, April 22, 2013

John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles

In his new book John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles, editor Stephen B. Armstrong lets his subject largely speak for himself. The result is a fascinating look inside the mind of a filmmaker whose career ranged from bonafide classics--such as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May--to unmitigated disasters. Frankenheimer discusses his work in unflinching terms, defending some critical failures (e.g., Prophecy) while acknowledging that others were made to pay the bills (e.g., The Extraordinary Seaman). His realistic approach to his craft can be summarized in this marvelous quote: "Every movie you make is a compromise."

Twenty-six of the thirty-one chapters are either interviews with Frankenheimer or essays penned by the director. The remaining five chapters are written by Frankenheimer's family, colleagues, and the editor. Armstrong has done a masterful job in selecting the articles, which were originally published between 1964 and 2010. The chronology of the articles allows the reader to learn how the acclaimed director viewed his films at different points in his life.

Frankenheimer fondly discusses his early career in live television in several articles ("I look back on that as the highlight of my life"). He directed over 125 television dramas, earning Emmy nominations for five consecutive years, starting in 1956. In this "Golden Age of Television," he worked with established stars (Robert Mitchum, Claudette Colbert, James Mason, etc.) and actors destined to become stars (e.g., Paul Newman, Ben Gazzara, and Lee Marvin).

Frankenheimer was just 26 when he made his first theatrical film, The Young Stranger (1957), which he describes as "a lousy movie" and a terrible experience with the crew and studio. He credits David O. Selznick with reviving his interest in a theatrical film career. He and Selznick collaborated on the script for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (which Selznick abandoned). After making The Young Savages in 1961, the first of five films with Burt Lancaster, Frankenheimer directed Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate (both 1962)--and sealed his place among the great directors of the 1960s.

Lansbury as one of cinema's worst mothers.
Some of Frankenheimer's best anecdotes focus on the casting choices in his films. Frank Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball to play the maternal role made famous by Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. In Seven Days in May,  Frankenheimer originally wanted Paul Newman to play Colonel Jiggs Casey with Kirk Douglas as the scheming General James Mattoon Scott. Douglas eventually played Casey instead and Burt Lancaster gave one of his best performances as Scott. The race-car drama Grand Prix was written for Steve McQueen and James Garner was cast only because McQueen was unavailable. And in Seconds, Frankenheimer had convinced Laurence Olivier to play both the old and "young" versions of the film's protagonist. When the studio insisted on Rock Hudson as the star, the director decided to cast two actors, with John Randolph playing the middle-aged Arthur Hamilton and Hudson as the transformed Hamilton.

Burt Lancaster in Birdman of
Frankenheimer excels at capturing the frustrations and challenges of making movies. For example, his 1971 film, The Impossible Object starring Alan Bates, was never released. Even Birdman of Alcatraz proved to be a difficult shoot. Frankenheimer reveals that the first cut ran four hours and ten minutes, with the birds not appearing for the first two hours. Deciding that there was no way to cut the film, Frankenheimer convinced the producer to let him rewrite and reshoot the first half: "We put the film together and it is what it is. But we shot (it) one and a half times."

Editor Stephen B. Armstrong, a professor at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, includes a comprehensive filmography, a bibliography, and an index. His book is a must for any library with a film reference collection and for anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes in the making of a motion picture.

Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, provided the Cafe with a review copy of this book.


  1. Rick, this sounds like an excellent film reference work, especially because Frankenheimer tells it like it was. I was especially intrigued by the information about casting. There is absolutely no way I can imagine Lucille Ball as the horrifying mother of "The Manchurian Candidate." I am also quite partial to the cast of "Seven Days in May."

    I think it would be interesting to see the unreleased Alan Bates work. I imagine it is one of many films with that distinction.

    It sounds as if Stephen Armstrong masterfully assembled a remarkable work here. When someone is captivating and capable of speaking for oneself, it is indeed wise to let him/her do just that. Thanks, Rick, for your enlightening review!

  2. This would be a fascinating read and, likely, a must-have for any film student.

    Re: Lucille Ball as the mother in "The Manchurian Candidate" - I think she would be terrific. I love Angela Lansbury in this role but I bet Lucille could be just as chilling.