The John Frankenheimer Collection is just a couple of titles shy of being a cogent anthology of the filmmaker’s most vital period. Had Seven Days in May and Seconds also been included, it would have provided a fuller, scarier view of the paranoid urgency that made Frankenheimer such a wicked director in the 1960s. As it is, however, this DVD set gives a sturdy outline of the paradoxes in his lengthy career: a graduate of live television productions who loved baroquely cinematic setups, an admirer of classic craftsmanship nevertheless plagued with contemporary anxieties, a jittery modernist who ultimately found himself typecast as a terse action filmmaker. Frankenheimer’s favorite visual trope, a tilted angle picked up from Welles, Carol Reed, Losey, and Aldrich, could be a lazy mannerism in his later, less personal assignments, but in his early ’60s works it becomes the perfect expression of the distortions found in a changing society experiencing the first pangs of self-inquiry.
Frankenheimer was from the start known (and often dismissed) for his shock effects, and 1961’s The Young Savages opens with one such set piece. As a trio of leather-jacketed punks comes striding out of a Harlem alley, their faces and feet are spliced to an almost comically “hard-hitting” beat, leading up to an ejaculatory climax: a screaming girl, charging killers reflected on the blind victim’s shades, ecstatic jabbing and stabbing. The non-style of Frankenheimer’s Afterschool Special-like debut The Young Stranger might account for the relish with which the director here turns on the visual sizzle, but the ostentatious, pressure-cooker flashiness of such passages utterly unbalances the story of a district attorney’s (Burt Lancaster) investigation of a crime involving juvenile gangs. Basically an offshoot of The Blackboard Jungle gussied up with shock cuts, the picture intriguingly portrays New York City (and, by extension, America) at the beginning of the new decade as a veritable minefield of racial tribalism and incipient violence, yet it’s defeated by pat solutions. By the time Lancaster tries to point out our collective sanguine hands in court, it’s hard not to see the film as just another patronizing entry in what one cynical character calls the “oppressed minority season.”
The political jibes directed at Lancaster’s superior in Young Savages are a caustic bud that blossoms the next year in The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer’s most famous and most discussed picture. All of the following decade’s dissonant distrust of authority is anticipated in the story of a Korean War vet (Laurence Harvey), who, brainwashed by a gaggle of cartoon commies, becomes a pawn in a complex conspiracy plot facilitated by his gorgon mother (an unforgettably raging Angela Lansbury) and her husband, a McCarthyian blowhard (James Gregory). Crammed with slips into subjective nuttiness, screens-within-screens, and fevered camera movements, the film is rarely less than hysterical, but its hysteria is integral to its scalding visions of patriotic textures ripped open and Oedipal ruptures dragged to the fore. Bits of inspired, resonant grotesquerie abound: The circular pan which morphs matronly clubwomen into Red-Army Fu Manchus, Frank Sinatra’s wacky karate session with Henry Silva and even wackier love scene with Janet Leigh, Gregory’s hearty partying in Lincoln drag. As a portrait of the uncertainty of surfaces, The Manchurian Candidate lacks the timelessness of Fritz Lang’s The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse or the deep humanism of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake. As a vehement and disquietingly prophetic satire, however, it continues to grow.
The Train and Ronin, the set’s remaining titles, come off as companion pieces despite being separated by an interval of more than 30 years. Both are thrillers set in France that follow laconic protagonists through maelstroms of betrayal, muscular stunts, and stoic heroism; both amply illustrate why, despite his protests, Frankenheimer was branded as a director of action. Of the two, 1965’s The Train is easily the richer picture, a supposedly impersonal task (taken over when star Lancaster fired Arthur Penn) that bristles with taciturn passion. Perhaps the director’s most technically seamless work, it moves so excitingly through its narrative that it’s not until the very end that one notices what a rigorous moral query it really is. Ronin, meanwhile, came in 1998 as a return-to-form following Frankenheimer’s ordeals with The Island of Dr. Moreau. Starring Robert De Niro as the leader of a group of mercenaries tearing through Paris in search of a perfunctory MacGuffin, it offers a superbly handled extended car chase but little of the earlier films’ expressive dissonance. Scarcely Frankenheimer’s final culmination (that would be his great Path to War, made for cable in 2001), Ronin nonetheless displays an old pro’s pleasure at well-executed intrigue, and an appreciation for its antihero’s professionalism as he alternates between paychecks and a personal code of honor, surely a quandary the director could relate to.
Frankenheimer’s frames are often dense with visual information, and the robust transfers (most fierce in The Manchurian Candidate) admirably enhance the busy widescreens. The sound is at its punchiest in Candidate’s Dolby Digital 5.1 channel, though none of the other channels is less than serviceable.
Not surprisingly, Manchurian Candidate earns the lion’s share of extras. Recycled from the film’s 2004 DVD edition are a late-’80s discussion between Frankenheimer, Frank Sinatra, and George Axelrod, Angela Lansbury shedding some light on her monstrous character in the "Queen of Diamonds" featurette, plus "A Little Solitaire," a nifty appreciation by William Friedkin. The director’s commentary (in Candidate, The Train, and Ronin) is sparse, forthright and meticulous, recounting production details, felicitous accidents that have since become cherished by film buffs, and his taste for complex shots. The Train’s choice score gets its own music-only track and Ronin’s thankfully discarded alternate ending is included, along with a still gallery and theatrical trailers.
A robust overview of Frankenheimer’s most vital years, despite the recycled extras.