Archive for John Frankenheimer

Side by Side

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 13, 2015 by dcairns


Some people have died, and even though I don’t do obituaries here, really, I should mark their passing. Jean Darling, star of OUR GANG comedies, whom I sat next to at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, in a seat I sort of scammed my way into through a kind of willful obtusity, passed away in September, aged ninety-three.

“Comedy is tragedy.”

And now Mike Sutton has died, much too young. I got to know Mike properly when he contacted me on Facebook, worried that we had both been commissioned to write essays for Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS, and hadn’t known about each other so hadn’t conferred. I told him my piece was mainly about Frankenheimer and he was relieved because his piece was mainly about the book-to-film adaptation.


Now I hold the disc, and booklet, in my hands, and though there are a couple of overlaps — neither one of us could resist talking about how apposite Rock Hudson is in the role of a reinvented man, a human facade — I feel the essays compliment each other well. I’m pretty pleased with how mine came out. Mike’s is brilliant and heartbreaking. I’d known from his Facebook posts that he was battling oesophageal cancer, but didn’t realize the fight was this close to over. Knowing that, while you read his piece, which is full of sorrow and anger, like the film, like life, makes it all the more powerful.

“Seconds. Second lives, second chances, seconds ticking away in our hopelessly fragile, trivial little lives.”


That’s the first line. The last, describing Hudson staring out the window of an airliner, is ~

“Even before his new life collapses in on itself, one feels that he is already dying, looking at an empty sky, in the words of Philip Larkin, he is staring into “the deep blue air which shows nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns


I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~




Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

The Andersonville Horror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2015 by dcairns


John Frankenheimer dragged himself from live TV in the fifties and sixties to feature films, through alchoholism and bad movies to a kind of commercial comeback with more, slightly better, bad movies — and then went out on something of a high, with two TV pieces (and an extended car commercial written by Andrew Kevin SE7EN Walker which is not at all bad). THE PATH TO WAR is a dynamic study of LBJ’s floundering into Vietnam, a compassionate but critical study of a man sinking deeper into a war he never wanted, propelled on by wishful thinking, snaky advice (Alec Baldwin is a glacial, sinister Robert McNamarra) and a slow accretion of the need to save face. Michael Gambon is BIG, but very good, in the role. Frankenheimer’s full array of KANE-like deep focus groupings make the talking scenes pop and crackle and punch.


ANDERSONVILLE is less showy, perhaps because the subject is more epic and visceral — a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp in the South becomes a prototype for the Nazi death camps, due to overcrowding, lack of supplies, and the indifference of the authorities. The movie tends to follow conventional historical accounts by blaming Colonel Wirz, played by Czech actor Jan Triska with a fairly strong suggestion of raving lunacy. Wirz was undoubtedly guilty of monstrous abuses, but his complaint that lack of resources caused much of the problem could be seen as partially justified. The movie leaves out his Famous Last Words: “I know what orders are, Major. And I am being hanged for obeying them,” which has a pretty strong resonance with Nuremberg, but Frankenheimer and his writer/producer, David W. Rintels, don’t really need to stress the connection since they already have trains, watchtowers, walls, bodies lain out on the grass, and an encampment of starving men.


Andersonville was different from the Holocaust in many ways, of course — the camp’s purpose wasn’t death, that was merely the irrelevant by-product of starvation, brutality, disease and neglect. It was more like the Japanese POW camps of WWII, with the fascinating difference that there was no real direct element of racial difference. There were black prisoners, and in fact its the refusal of the South to exchange black soldiers that led to the breakdown of the exchange system (surely, if you regard black people as subhuman, exchanging one for a white person ought to be considered a good deal? But useless to look for logic when the illusion of race comes into play). But in the main, white Americans were hideously torturing other white Americans based on political difference and a couple of points on the compass.

Of course, all movies fail when it comes to portraying the kind of historic horrors we’re dealing with here — at best they offer a suggestion and a bit of education, but though Frankenheimer has assembled an impressive array of rake-thin background artists, and there’s some striking makeup artistry, there’s nothing with the simple impact of the photographs of survivors. Now, I guess, we have the technology to convincingly portray extreme emaciation onscreen (we also have Christian Bayle, but Fiona is convinced he’s going to die young from what he’s already put himself through). Nobody has had the bad taste to do CGI prison camp inmates or famine victims, YET. All of this kind of thing gets the filmmakers close to obscenity. Praising Meryl Streep for losing a bit of weight for SOPHIE’S CHOICE just seems wrong. Though it’s better than Rod Steiger as the world’s heartiest Auschwitz prisoner in THE PAWNBROKER, a good film whose reconstructions can’t help but let it down. There’s a depressing number of cinematic death trains transporting curvaceous glamour models — and not just in Italian holocaust-porn flicks, either. The terrible problem is, we need films on this subject, but cinema is always inadequate to it.


Frankenheimer, by focussing on a more historically distant atrocity, gets permission to fail at the impossible aspects of the task, and extra credit when he succeeds at the difficult ones. Apart from Frederick Forrest and Cliff DeYoung and William Sanderson, who aren’t big names, his prisoners are basically unknowns. They give terrific performances, committed, agonizing, moving, period-credible, and charismatic. Jarrod Emick, in his screen debut, is terrific in the lead, and should have had a big career. We do get William H. Macey inspecting the camp, but Macey in 1996 wasn’t a star yet. Can’t blame Frankenheimer if one of his actors became a star.The lack of familiar faces helps us experience the piece as a glimpse of the terrible past.


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