By Tim Pelan
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, burned a lot of bridges, and reached points at which I’ve had to compromise because the only material I’ve been offered is compromised in the first place. It’s been a question, at times, of just surviving. To understand the ups and downs in my career, it’s important to know about the critical acclaim I’ve received for my cable TV work in the nineties—in my opinion, most of the best movies in America are being made for TV at the moment. After I won the Golden Globe for the movie ‘George Wallace’ in 1995, the thought in people’s minds was: ‘My God, Frankenheimer still makes brilliant quality stuff. He’s won four Emmys in a row, but can he ever make a brilliant commercial movie again?’ I saw ‘Ronin,’ my new film, as my chance to do just that. With ‘Ronin,’ I felt as if every decision I made was the right one—among them, getting De Niro to star and David Mamet to re-write the script. I also directed my first car chases since ‘Grand Prix’ in 1966. The technique was just the same: lots of low, audience-participation shots and no digital enhancement. —John Frankenheimer
John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) feels like a last gasp throwback to the classic Euro-thrillers of yore–location-heavy (Paris, Nice), intelligent, precise. The Francophile director making the most of a scripted winter season continental drift in clouded loyalties and motivations that plays not to the galleries, but to the forgotten audience—the mature thriller connoisseur. Before Bourne, there was Ronin, and its fallen adherents of the Bushido code. These characters aren’t buffed-up beefcakes, but seemingly beaten down has-beens, specialists of some sort or another: relics of the Cold War or deniable black ops in far off frontiers, cast aside in a new world order restructuring. Sean Bean’s “SAS” bluffer Spence sussed out quickly by Robert De Niro’s cannier Sam—“What color is the boathouse at Hereford?” Spence’s name sounds like an expression of his underlying character when the chips are down—spent, washed up. They’re all hoping to make some coin, no questions asked, in their trade of choice: real-world bullet time, no fancy gimmicks (“I don’t believe that violence happens in slow motion,” Frankenheimer says in the commentary). That includes the amazing car chases the film is mostly renowned for that punctuate the grown-up dialogue and meticulous deep focus staging of briefings and brawls—rev, rev, against the dying of the light… The script is credited to John David Zeik and David Mamet (under the nom de plume of Richard Weisz). There are occasionally ropey dips in the Northern Ireland accents of group wrangler Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) and her shady boss Seamus O’Rourke (Jonathan Pryce–SPOILER ALERT!—Sam is either undercover CIA, or still bound by a code of honor—Seamus is his actual target). Also, the final coda about the Northern Ireland peace process, a radio broadcast that fumbles the local power structure, is unnecessary. Otherwise the film is an assured, confident thriller.
The stakes are satisfyingly low-key, the McGuffin the group are tasked to retrieve from “five to eight men” (“What’s in the case?”) and the mysterious puppet master behind the snatch, “the man in the wheelchair” never explained. Coming off 1996’s disastrous The Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenheimer was on surer ground with a subject that spoke to the petrol head perfectionist in him. “I thought I could do it, I thought I could do it rather well. It seemed to fit into things I know how to do.” A car fanatic (he made the ultimate racing movie, Grand Prix, in 1966), the director had customized models of the real type and to scale, in his Malibu home. Roger Ebert describes how he was led around this miniature collection of Ferraris and Porsches in glass display cases: “He showed me how the doors opened and closed, the hoods came up, the wheels turned, and how details like a gas-cap mounting distinguished one model from another. He had assembled and painted the cars himself, he said; watching his face, as the light bounced out from the display cases, I saw not a hobbyist but a dreamer for whom these perfect little cars represented an ideal world.”
Frankenheimer’s Ronin car chases are no-frills extrapolations of his Grand Prix set pieces set down in the narrow confines of Parisian and provincial streets and tunnels, weaving in and out of traffic, drifting around corners and heading the wrong way down a motorway (William Friedkin also did this in To Live and Die In L.A.). “Frankenheimer gives the whole thing a true pulse that makes us feel like we’re not just watching these chases, we’re locked in the cars with them through every pulse-pounding beat so it all plays with total precision and clarity.” —Peter Avellino
Nominal antihero Sam (rumor has it Mamet beefed up his dialogue and role) is our way in, our introduction to the initial clandestine meet in a Montmartre cafe. The adjoining steps he makes his way down to enter the place is rue Drevet. The exterior is all real, a clever cut then matches to a sound stage interior. Our Sam is a cautious fellow, scoping the cafe out and finding a place to hide a weapon by the back door should he need to make a quick exit before making himself known. “Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” In this respect, he’s a little like Sean Connery’s droll Malone in Mamet scripted The Untouchables, a little witticism of truth for jumpy or antsy colleagues on every occasion. Spence baits him later, asking, “You worried about saving your own skin?” “Yeah, I am. It covers my body,” Sam grins. Stellan Skarsgård’s shifty ex-KGB surveillance/tech specialist Gregor grouses at one point, “It would be nice to do something.” “We are doing something,” Sam rejoinders. “We’re sitting here, waiting.” The other recruits are fellow American wheelman Larry (Skip Sudduth, a keen racing driver when he wasn’t performing, did nearly all of his character’s driving in the chase sequences—Frankenheimer told him, “You don’t get any points for going into a wall,” and “I don’t want to see those brake lights.”); the aforementioned Brit character Spence, Sean Bean playing out of his depth (one does not simply walk into an ambush–er, you did Sean, De Niro “ambushed you with a cup of coffee!”); and Jean Reno as local French fixer Vincent, who bonds with Sam over bummed cigarettes and coffee, each recognizing a professional who doesn’t need to show off.
Travis Crawford in his Blu-ray essay Full Throttle Fin de siecle states that the cafe setting, revisited by a wounded Sam and Vincent later, “evokes some of the classic Paris caper films of years past, a Gallic noir world of grey overcast skies, grey overcoats, rain-soaked alleyways and illuminated by a single streetlight, and an endless flow of gitanes.” The cinematography was appropriately by Frenchman Robert Fraisse, who utilized the Deluxe CCE process to heighten contrast and deepen blacks. Frankenheimer wanted an almost monochrome palette to fit this cold, post-Cold War scavenger’s world, where talk is cheap and “everyone’s your brother until the rent comes due,” as Vincent says. Case in point—Vincent takes a wounded Sam to compatriot Michael Lonsdale’s Jean-Pierre to get fixed up after a shoot-out during an exchange in the Arles amphitheater, where the team has fumbled a takedown of turncoat Gregor who stole the case during the confusion of an earlier ambush. Jean-Pierre is a model maker who illuminates the nature of Ronin, masterless Samurai, to Sam, whilst painting detailed model namesakes.
Throughout the film Frankenheimer and Fraisse keep the camera moves to a minimum, slow glides around the room, transitions rather than dissolves, the action for both interiors and on the streets captured with wide-angle lenses and depth of field, something always going on off to the side of frame, making close-ups, of which there are a lot, that more effective and meaningful. Peter Avellino again:
“Frankenheimer focuses on the little things, the metallic cups they drink coffee out of, the assassin keeping an ice skating target in its sight during her routine, the dogs guarding Michael Lonsdale’s compound. The incidentals give everything a certain gravity, however stylized it is, along with a shrewd sense of wit that hangs somewhere on the outskirts of every scene, slyly keeping tabs on everything left unspoken.”
Just like in The Train, multiple cameras for the chases were placed in crash boxes for visceral, close-up thrills. Composer Elia Cmiral’s effective and striking use of the duduk, an Armenian double-reed woodwind instrument made of apricot wood for the mournful mercenary theme in quieter moments, is replaced during the action by “a slashing and bleak series of techno-rhythmed chase cues, often dissonant and changing in tempo as necessary to follow the frantic movements on screen.” (Film Tracks). In and of themselves the action cues are not that special, and wisely for the climactic car chase through Paris Frankenheimer elects to go mostly with diegetic sound only. He spent 23 days filming action sequences including the chases after the conclusion of principal photography, insisting on shooting them himself, not handing over to a second unit, to ensure that they would match the realistic milieu elsewhere. Mick Gould, an ex-SAS specialist, trained the actors in close-quarter combat and firearms handling. I wonder if he knows what color the boathouse is at Hereford?
Frankenheimer shot his car chases for real, at speed, and stuck his actors in the cars too—dozens of cars in use at any one time, nearly 150 stunt drivers and the actual streets of Paris, in the middle of the day. He refused to cheat with speeded up frame rates, insisting that this would affect the lighting of his choice of muted colors, shot in the Super 35 format. Each of the actors went through a high-performance driving school prior to shooting. Until an actor as dedicatedly method as Tom Cruise came along to film behind the actual wheel himself through some of those self-same streets in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, this was as real as it gets, actors often in British model vehicles behind a dummy wheel, the stunt driver in control beside them. Amongst the cars used are the nitrous-boosted Audi S8 driven by stunt driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, during the first dry run deal that Spence screws up, the team ambushed beneath Pont Alexandre III. Jarier hurled the getaway car through a corner drift on the wetted-down, night-glistening road surface.
During the next chase through the winding roads from Nice to Villefranche, when Sam launches a grenade at one vehicle from his Mercedes sunroof, Vincent at the wheel, a stuntman pressed the switch that exploded his own car and flipped it end over end on the move. “There isn’t enough money tax-free in Switzerland to ever make me do anything like that,” Frankenheimer says in the commentary.
Many black Peugeots and Citroëns get totaled in head to heads with the hero cars. The director carefully factored in a wider choreography, everything from outside elements such as innocent motorists (one white van explodes), the de rigeur market stalls that are ploughed through, general property damage and innocent civilians caught in crossfire are all grist for the mill. Car stunt coordinators and professional race drivers Jean-Claude Lagniez and Michel Neugarten were tasked with topping every car chase put on screen up to this point. “We’re really going to raise the bar,” the director said. “So the next time somebody wants to do one of these things, they are going to think twice about it.” The stunt team drove at impeccably choreographed speeds up to 120 miles per hour, and 80 cars were intentionally wrecked during the course of filming. Porsche 911s were often used as camera cars pursuing the vehicles, the front hoods removed so that a camera mount could take its place.
The centerpiece chase through Paris lasts eight minutes, and showcases characters’ personalities through their driving style, Sam and Vincent in a Peugeot 406, Sam driving, in pursuit of Deirdre driving an E34 BMW 5 Series, Seamus and Gregor her passengers (Gregor’s a captive). Priscilla Page: “Deirdre is reckless, and Sam is polite, conscientious: he even flashes his lights and honks his horn to warn other drivers. Frankenheimer’s attention to detail shows in every aspect of the chase: we actually see drivers put on their seat belts and flash their high beams. A six-cylinder engine actually sounds like a six-cylinder engine, and gearboxes make sense (as opposed to, say, the impossible gearboxes of The Fast and the Furious). The chase even looks sequential. Whereas most chases are shot street by street, Ronin’s chases feel fluid, as if you could follow it on a map.”
A sure fire influence must have been guerrilla-style 1976 short film C’était un rendez-vous by Claude Lelouch (Christopher McQuarrie cited it as a major influence for his own Paris chase in M:I—Fallout: both it and Ronin‘s fast, low-mounted camera tracking recalling the short’s POV kinetic shots). Lelouch’s film starts brilliantly, a heartbeat over a slow exit from a tunnel, then the harried rev of a speeding engine hurtling the viewer around iconic Paris streets: the closer to the center the driver gets, the more obstacles are in his path (when pigeons suddenly flutter up in the sulfurous yellow beam of the headlights, I dare you not to recoil).
Between the total, brutal professionalism of Ronin‘s characters and the uncompromising dedication of Frankenheimer and his crew, as Sam says, with just one slip “either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape.”
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
The writer and director of such films as ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ and ‘House of Games’ uses a pseudonym on his next movie, ‘Ronin,’ an action thriller starring Robert De Niro. When the United Artists film is released Oct. 2, it will carry the credit: “Screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz.” Zeik, a newcomer to movies, wrote the original script. Weisz—who either did a little tinkering or completely rewrote it, depending on whom you ask—is really Mamet. “The credits should read: ‘Story by J.D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet,’” said John Frankenheimer, the movie’s director.
Screenwriter must-read: J.D. Zeik & David Mamet’s screenplay for Ronin [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
This article by Alex Simon, John Frankenheimer: Renaissance Auteur, originally appeared in The Hollywood Interview, July 2015.
John Frankenheimer is responsible for some of the hallmark productions of American cinema and television. An innovator in both fields, he helped pave the way for later generations of filmmakers to express their social, political and artistic points of view in bold and breathtaking ways. Consider this:
BEFORE THERE WAS STEVEN SPIELBERG, THERE WAS JOHN FRANKENHEIMER. Frankenheimer was the original wünderkind, having directed over 150 TV plays during the days of live television in the 1950’s while still in his 20’s, including many of the celebrated Playhouse 90 series. His landmark productions of Rod Serling’s The Comedian and J.P. Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses catapulted him to the top of the new medium of television. By the time he was 30 years old in 1960, Frankenheimer was firmly established as the top television director in the country. By the time he was 34, he had been at the helm of the most important political films of the 1960’s, which brings us to our next point:
BEFORE THERE WAS OLIVER STONE (OR COSTA-GAVRAS), THERE WAS JOHN FRANKENHEIMER. Frankenheimer’s trilogy of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) explored American political life, thinking and philosophy like no other filmmaker has done before or since. All three films were bold indictments of the paranoia, corruption and dehumanization that the political process (and politically-motivated institutions) can bring down upon the common man. Plus, he did them in exciting and breathtaking ways, bending the cinematic form into a gritty, visually intoxicating canvas. Which brings us to our next point:
BEFORE THERE WAS JOHN WOO, JAN DE BONT, RICHARD DONNER OR (INSERT THE NAME OF ANY OTHER ACTION MOVIE DIRECTOR HERE), THERE WAS JOHN FRANKENHEIMER. Frankenheimer redefined the way action and suspense were portrayed on-screen, taking cues from his idols Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed and George Stevens (as well as French master Jean-Pierre Melville), using not only action, but character to build suspense. The Manchurian Candidate, the World War II thriller The Train (1964), the science-fiction/realism masterpiece Seconds (1966), and the landmark racing epic Grand Prix (1966) which gave the viewer a front seat perspective for what it felt like to travel at speeds that make the corners of your mouth bend and leave bugs firmly planted in your teeth, all redefined the action film in their own way, while remaining true to Frankenheimer’s own vision, and very plainly carrying his distinctive filmmaking stamp.
Frankenheimer kept his love of politics and action alive in later films as well, including the dynamite sequel French Connection II (1975); Black Sunday (1977), in which the late, great Robert Shaw must stop Black September terrorists (led by Bruce Dern, in a brilliant performance) from blowing up the Super Bowl; Dead Bang (1989) in which cop Don Johnson takes on neo-Nazis in the midwest; The Fourth War (1990), an end of the cold war thriller; and Year of the Gun (1991), which dramatized the true kidnapping and murder of Italian Premier Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades terrorist group in the late 1970’s. Frankenheimer has continued his innovative work in television as well, with a series of made-for-cable films that have tackled subjects that many of the big studios thought too hot to handle, including Against the Wall, a dramatization of the 1971 prison riot at Attica, New York; The Burning Season in 1994, which marked the final performance of the great Raul Julia and won three Golden Globe Awards and two cable ACE Awards. Andersonville, a Civil War mini-series for Turner Network Television, which earned Frankenheimer his third consecutive Emmy. The following year, Frankenheimer helmed the critically lauded George Wallace, with Gary Sinise in the title role. It won the Golden Globe for Best Film for Television along with the George Foster Peabody Award. Frankenheimer also received another Emmy nomination. In 1996, the American Cinema Editors honored Frankenheimer with the ACE Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year Award, celebrating his lifetime achievement as a filmmaker.
Frankenheimer’s latest ranks with the finest work of his career. Ronin tells the story of a disparate group of freelance covert operatives, led by Robert De Niro, who must retrieve a briefcase, the contents of which are a mystery, for an unknown client. The film is one of the best of the year, having all the great qualities of the thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s (intelligence and nail-biting suspense), along with what this writer feels is the finest car chase ever put onto celluloid and some other truly breathtaking action sequences. This is one that keeps you guessing what’s going to happen next right up to the closing credits, after which you find yourself begging for more. Its stellar supporting cast includes Natascha McElhone, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce. In other words, run, don’t walk to see Ronin when it opens in October from MGM/UA.
A true renaissance man, Mr. Frankenheimer is an accomplished chef, having studied at the legendary Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, as well as an accomplished race car driver and tennis player, a sport in which he excelled during his years at Williams College. Mr. Frankenheimer sat down recently to reflect on his truly rich and remarkable life.
Most of your films seem to have either political themes or socio-political overtones. Where does this fascination with politics come from?
It stems from the fact that when I was in high school, I started disagreeing a lot with my father on politics, because he was really very conservative. He really wanted the status quo, and I didn’t want the status quo. The whole racial question really, really bothered me. I came from New York, and one of my first girlfriends was an African-American dancer. And this caused a furor of sorts within my family. And the more furor it caused, the more I realized that this was something I wanted. Then I got a lot of exposure to a lot of actors, dancers and writers at a very young age, and I got really involved in that kind of cause. Then when I got into live television, there was the whole business of McCarthy, which was… you can’t imagine how terrible that was. That really galvanized me into a political arena. And of course in live television it was very hard to do political stuff because there was the blacklist. You could do anything psychological, but nothing sociological. So I couldn’t wait to really be able to do that, which is what I think what attracted me to Birdman of Alcatraz, which is a very political picture… then there was this tremendous involvement with Robert Kennedy. We were very, very close friends and I did all the film and television for his campaign. He stayed with me and I drove him to the Ambassador Hotel the night he was shot. All his clothes were in my house… and I really had a nervous breakdown after that. That’s when I went to France, and that’s when I went to the (Cordon Bleu), because I just had to do something else with my life, and I really couldn’t go near politics for a long time after that. Then little by little, I came back to it. It was really the cable movies that got me back into it, Against the Wall, for instance, then The Burning Season, and then really plunging right back into it with George Wallace, which is something that goes way back to my younger days. Then when (Ronin) presented itself… I love that kind of story, where things are never as they seem to be.
It really reminded me a lot of one of my favorite movies, The Third Man (1949).
I’m so glad you said that because whenever anyone asks me about Ronin, I always say that the film that I want it to remind them of is The Third Man. Carol Reed influenced me more than any other director with Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Man Between (1953)… I have two biographies of Carol Reed that I use as my bibles.
The look of Ronin was reminiscent of The Third Man as well, with its emphasis on light and dark, sharp camera angles, and the way you made all those old buildings around Paris into characters of their own.
Well the whole business of depth of focus, which I use a great deal, goes back to my days in live TV, because we were able to use a big, big stop there, like F-11. We didn’t have instant access to video cassettes or film stock the way young filmmakers do today. So the first time I ever saw Citizen Kane (1941), which was after I’d already become a director and was doing all that stuff myself, and saw that Welles did it too so much earlier was great vindication for me. And I discovered Carol Reed earlier than that, because I always went to see foreign films. Hitchcock also, and George Stevens really helped to form me.
I thought Ronin had a lot of Hitchcockian overtones, in terms of all the deceptions, double-crosses and twists. How did you come to the script initially?
What happened was I read a script that I really loved that was owned by MGM/UA and the producer was Frank Mancuso, Jr. I really wanted to do this picture… I felt that I got along with Frank terribly well, but they seemed to be ambivalent about doing this movie. So I came home after being away for the weekend, and there was this script, Ronin, that my agent had sent me. He said “Look, they really loved meeting with you, and the fact that you lived in France and speak French, they think you’d be perfect for this movie.” So I read it and I was very ambivalent about wanting to do it, because I was very passionate about the other one. But I really liked Frank. He’s the best producer I’ve ever worked with, along with Fred Coe, and that’s crucial. You’ve got to get along with management, or you can be sunk. So I thought about it, and I’d always wanted to shoot a picture like this. I got a brilliant cameraman, Robert Fraisse, most of my crew I had worked with on French Connection II… then we were lucky enough to get De Niro. After that, the rest of the cast just fell into place.
I thought the film hearkened back to the best thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s that had action, but were also smart.
Well you have to be smart, and you have to have style. All the great action films that we love when you look at them, they all have this terrific style to them, like The Third Man. I just think that’s part of the genre.
I find most of the action movies today frustrating because they’re all style and no substance.
The action has to come out of character, it can’t come out of technology. We didn’t use any of that computer shit in the picture. Everything you see, we really did it. And I think you can tell the difference.
As a director you obviously learn a lot from your actors. What did you learn from De Niro?
I learned that you can have a lot of fun, and still do good work. De Niro’s done 50 movies. I’ve done 35, plus 150 live television shows, so neither one of us had a whole hell of a lot to prove. We both knew that the other knew what they were doing. The other thing I learned from De Niro which validated something I’ve always known, is that the good thing about experience is that it enables you to know that no matter how bad a situation might be and how much you might not know the answer to something, that you will find your way out of it. You’ll find the solution. You’ll find a way to do it. Whereas when you’re first beginning, you tend to panic. Just trust your instincts, which is what De Niro does. He trusts himself, and I’m learning to do that. The other thing he does well is listen, as do all the actors in this film.
That’s something else I’ve noticed about your films. You shoot in such a way where the actors just communicate physically, often with very minimal dialogue, another thing lacking in film today. It’s almost like the newer filmmakers don’t trust the actors or the material.
You have to keep in mind, though, that many of the new filmmakers haven’t had the experience. Again, I directed over 150 live television shows, which really let me work with how to stage scenes, with how to let an actor express themselves. I also had great material, written by Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, J.P. Miller, Clifford Odets… and what it enabled you to do was trust the material. And when you trusted the material, you trusted the actors and then used the camera to help that, you don’t use the camera to intrude, to just constantly cut, cut, cut, cut. You try and stage the scene in such a way that movement tells you something. George Stevens was brilliant at that. So was William Wyler. So was Carol Reed. And so was Hitchcock. If you look you can really see the influence of George Stevens in my work, especially my TV work, with all the triple and quadruple dissolves. A Place in the Sun (1951) I think, is the greatest movie ever made.
Let’s talk about your beginnings. It sounds like you were a middle class kid?
Yeah, my father was a stockbroker, then he retired and lost a lot of money. My dad was Jewish and my mother was Irish-Catholic, which was never an issue because my father was never a practicing Jew. He’s the one who drove us to (Catholic) Sunday school. I went to a Catholic military academy for high school. I had wanted to be a priest. I didn’t really find out I was half-Jewish until I went to college, when my father told me I’d never get into a fraternity if people knew that. So I left that out on the questionnaire. It wasn’t a lie, just an omission. So I did get into a fraternity, and then they found out about it, and I was absolutely ostracized. This was at Williams College, which was interesting because it forced me to go to the theater, and that’s the reason I’m here talking to you. I always liked the theater. In prep school I always felt more comfortable being in school plays. I was a very shy kid and my father made me study public speaking and play tennis at a very early age to sort of bring me out of my shell. So theater was just kind of a natural outlet for me.
Were you a good actor?
I don’t think so. I thought I was at the time, but looking back I don’t think I worked at it hard enough. But I always loved the movies, as well, was always going from the time I was a little kid.
Was there one movie you saw as a kid that made you say “This is it. This is what I have to do?”
No, because at that time I didn’t equate movies with something I wanted to do professionally. I just loved to go. I do remember the film that had the most influence on me as an actor, because it made me start smoking, and that was Sunset Boulevard. I was cast at 19 years old in this play as a 35 year-old, very sophisticated New York guy, and I knew that I couldn’t do this. My hands just felt like two dumbbells. Then I went to see Sunset Boulevard and there was Bill Holden looking very cool with his cigarette… so the next day I walk on stage with a cigarette, looking very cool, and I trip over the foot of the leading lady! (laughs) The director said “I don’t care if you smoke, just learn how to do it!” So I spent many nights alone in my room practicing smoking, which I got very good at, but on opening night, I still stunk in the play.
Did you start directing in college?
I did one play in college, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It was done in the round and it was a disaster! It started out with the leading man tripping over the legs of the head of the English department! (laughs) Then I did a lot of summer stock when I was in college. We re-did the University Players, that whole group that was Joshua Logan, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart… all these students from Ivy League colleges. We formed the theater in Cape Cod, and it was a great experience. Then the Korean War started, and I had a commission in the Air Force after being in a Catholic military school. I got stationed in Washington D.C. with the aeronautical chart and information service, through which a stroke of absolute luck, they combined with the Air Pictorial Service and formed the Aerial Photographic Unit, and I got assigned out here, in Burbank to make training films. It was great, and I really learned a lot.
How many films did you direct during that period?
Well, that’s the other thing. The Air Force didn’t know what to do with all these guys out here, and the Air Force (brass) didn’t even know that they had this unit, so there was nothing for them to do! So the Major in charge took me aside when I arrived, I was a lieutenant, and said “Look, my men are all going AWOL, going into Hollywood and bouncing checks and picking up prostitutes… I want my men kept busy!” Now this was at the Burbank Airport. So nearby was this asphalt plant. The Major said “I want you to take all these men, go to the asphalt plant and make a film about asphalt.” And I didn’t have the faintest idea how to do this! So we get there, and this tough guy, a former taxi driver in New York named Kizumplik, he says “You don’t really expect us to make this stupid goddamn movie about asphalt, do you Lieutenant?” They wanted to go to Hollywood, and I wasn’t about to say ‘no’ to him. So they all left and it was just me and this young black guy, and we stayed and read the manual about how to operate the camera, and made this film about asphalt. When we finished it was all under-exposed, because we didn’t know what we were doing, but we kept at it, and we learned. Then I did some training films, and my introduction to television was doing a piece about registered cattle over in Northridge! (laughs) This guy had a weekly television show called “Harvey Howard’s Ranch Round-up.” He said “Lieutenant, do you write?” I said “I sure do.” “I just fired my writer. You’re my new writer.” So I wrote for Harvey Howard for about 18 weeks. It was a country western show where I’d write the introduction for Harvey, he’d come out and sell his cows, and he’d introduce the country-western numbers. The FCC finally came to us and said “Gentlemen, on an hour show you’re allowed to have 12 minutes of commercials and 48 minutes of show. You have 12 minutes of show and 48 minutes of commercials. You’re off the air!” (laughs)
How did you go from there to live TV in New York?
This was about 1952, and I had decided then that I really wanted to get into film. I heard a phrase from Fred Coe once. He said “Talent is doing easily what other people find difficult.” And working with the camera was very easy for me. I’m not going to tell you it’s enough, but it was very easy for me. I was born with that. I had an aunt who lived out here, retired in Palm Desert, and she knew a bunch of old-time film actors. One of them, a woman named Sally O’Neil, had been a silent film star. She knew John Ford and through her, I got an introduction. John was about to do The Thin Gray Line, about West Point. Since I had been to military school, he promised me a job as his sort of assistant/gofer and technical advisor. Then he wound up in the hospital for a cataract operation. He called me in and said “Look John, I don’t know when I’m gonna get out of here. If I were you, I’d consider getting into television. But, I’m not going to help you because you have to do it yourself.” So I took his advice and went here to NBC and they offered me a job as a pageboy. I went to CBS and they offered me a job as a parking lot attendant. There were guys with PhD’s in that job, why not me? ABC didn’t really exist as a network at that time, they just had a series of stations, but they offered me a job as a scenery construction coordinator. So I got my mustering out pay from the Air Force and went back to New York where some guys and girls I had done theater with were now working in television. And they were all very glad to see me until they found out what I wanted, which was a job. So I did the rounds, and through a stroke of luck got into see the guy at CBS who hired assistant directors. It turned out that he had been in the same Air Force outfit that I’d been in, only he’d been in during WW II. So we had a lot in common. And he looked at me, then looked at this pile of resumes and said “Why should I hire you, with your limited Air Force experience, over one of these people who’ve had years of experience in theater and the movies?” I was 23 years old, and you’re brave at 23, and I said “Well, I won’t have to unlearn any bad habits because I don’t have any bad habits yet.” He laughed and said “You know what, I have a feeling that you wouldn’t get lost. I’ll call you when I have something.” So I went to this fleabag hotel over on the west side, and they didn’t have any sort of message service back then, and every morning I’d buy a sandwich, then sit by the phone during CBS office hours and wait for it to ring. I started to get pretty goddamn depressed after about three weeks, but then he called. He said “I’ve got a temporary position for an associate director. Are you interested?” So I took it and learned on the job, and it was all about camera. I started out on the Gary Moore Show, then Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, then to You are There, which was Sidney Lumet and I became Sidney’s associate director. He was great to me. I learned a lot from Sidney, the way he worked with actors and everything else, and he became my mentor. Then in 1954, he left the show and I got to direct. And that’s what happened.
Tell us about what it felt like working in live TV.
I’ll start out by saying this: from 1954 to 1960 when I was working in live TV, I look back on that as the highlight of my life. It was a time when this amazing group of actors, writers and directors was able to get together and do some fine work. Just look at some of the actors there: Paul Newman, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen, Eva Marie Saint. The directors: George Roy Hill, Franklin Schaffner, Arthur Penn, Bob Mulligan, Sidney Lumet… just a tremendous talent pool and we all knew each other and were all friends and really liked each other, which is completely different than it is today. And we’re still all friends today. It was a combination of theater and film, because you rehearsed as a play, then had to put it on camera, the difference being that with live TV you only had one night, and with a play, if you were successful, you went on. Sidney Blackmer, who I worked with, once described live TV as “Summer stock in an iron lung.” (laughs) Which was pretty apt, because the pressure was just tremendous… You were always rehearsing one show, and working on two or three other scripts simultaneously. You would finish a show on a Thursday night, then the next day on Friday, would begin a production meeting for the next one. It was a constant turnover.
The Young Stranger was your first feature in 1957. How did you find the change from TV to film?
I didn’t like it. The film was based on a play that I’d done on TV, also with James MacArthur (Dan-O on Hawaii Five-O) in the lead. I felt the crew had no interest in the quality of the movie. I didn’t get along with the cameraman, who didn’t want to shoot the movie the way I wanted it shot… I like the kinescope version better, honestly. So I went back to Playhouse 90 after that and stayed another three years.
In watching The Manchurian Candidate again, it struck me by how contemporary it felt. At the time (1962), did you realize how innovative it was?
No. I loved the book (by Richard Condon). I loved George Axelrod’s script. I had a great crew and we just went ahead and made the movie. It’s funny that you should ask that question. I was in a meeting yesterday with a producer, discussing this movie that I’m going to do, and the producer said “You know, we’ve got to approach this like we’ve got a real shot at the Academy Award.” And I said “Everytime I’ve approached something with the idea that I have a real shot at being nominated for the Academy Award or the Emmy, I haven’t been,” because you start to take yourself much too seriously, and that makes you much more restricted in what you do. The thing I remember most about The Manchurian Candidate is what a wonderful time we all had making it. And I think it shows. Ronin was the same way. Both films mark very good points in my life.
You worked with Rod Serling both on The Comedian and Seven Days in May. Tell us about him.
The second show I ever did was with Rod. It was in 1954, called A Knife in the Dark. It was a prison drama, with Paul Newman in the lead, which he did for $300. I got $250 for directing it and Rod got $200 for writing it. That was the start of our relationship and I did seven other Serling shows. I hired him to do Seven Days in May. We were very, very good friends. He was a terrific writer, never believed totally in himself, and never thought he could write a love scene. I did a Playhouse 90 once where we were in really bad, bad trouble with the script. Nothing was working. And Serling had another show coming up the next week called The Velvet Alley, which Schaffner directed and he was staying up at the Bel Air Hotel, so I went to see him. Told him what the problem was, especially with this love scene. He asked a lot of questions about the scene, about what it was about, and he’d never read the script, mind you… and in a matter of hours, the new scene was ready and it worked beautifully. Rod was a genuinely good man and he died much, much too young.
Tell us how your association with Robert Kennedy began.
In 1960 I was probably the best-known television director around. And I was approached to do some work for John Kennedy. And I don’t know… I was 30 years old. I was going through a divorce, and I just didn’t want to deal with it, so I said no. Then when we were in pre-production on The Manchurian Candidate a couple years later, there was a great deal of concern that JFK wouldn’t like it because of its subject matter. So Sinatra, who was great friends with him, flew up to Hyannis Port and told Kennedy he was doing the film, to which Kennedy replied “I love The Manchurian Candidate. Who’s going to play the mother?” (laughs) So Kennedy loved the movie, and then when we were getting ready to do Seven Days in May and wanted to shoot in the White House, I’d gotten to know Pierre Salinger. Salinger went to the President to see if it was okay, and the President said “Absolutely, if it’s John Frankenheimer. I want to meet him.” So I met him, went to a press conference with him. He was wonderful to me. He said “So you want to shoot this riot in front of the White House?” I said “Yes sir.” He said “Fine. I’ll be gone to Hyannis Port for the weekend. You just be sure you’re done by 6:30 on Sunday when I get back.” (laughs) Then he was killed, and I’d always felt guilty about not having done that work for him early on.
So then when his brother declared his candidacy in ’68, I immediately called Pierre Salinger and said “Pierre, I want to be part of this.” He said “Well, the candidate is going to be over at the Sportsman’s Lodge tonight at 6:00 if you want to come over and meet him.” So we met, and it was all very nice. The next day, Salinger called me and said “John, the candidate has to go to Gary, Indiana tonight to do a debate with high school students and after that he has to record a speech. Would you come and do it?” So I took about one second, and I said ‘Yes.’ So I flew to Chicago, rented a car, and drove to Gary. I got there and it came time to do the speech. And Bobby said “I’ve only got about ten minutes to do this, I’m in a hurry.” And I said “It’s going to take more than ten minutes, senator.” “Well I don’t have more than ten minutes.” “Then why did you send for me all the way from California? Why didn’t you just get some flunky local director to put the camera on you?” He said “Let’s just do it.” Fine, so he did it, and his people said “What do you think?” And I said “I think it’s terrible. He looked cold. He looked angry. He looked hostile. Awful.” So Kennedy said “Well, thank you very much.” And I said “Well guys, thanks.”
And I left and got a call later from Richard Goodwin (one of RFK’s staff), who asked if I could come tell the senator what I just told them. So I went to see him and he said “What?!” And I said “Well Senator, I don’t think that’s the Robert Kennedy that people are going to want to vote for. You seemed very ill at ease and when you’re ill at ease you have a tendency to withdraw.” “Well how do you propose to fix it?” I said “Well Senator, I don’t know if I can fix it, but I think if we sat down and took our time, and talked about it, the worst that could happen is that you wasted an hour and a half of your time and you just wind up with what you already had. The best that could happen is that we could do something really good. I think you really need help in television because people have this opinion of you as being arrogant and cold and you don’t need that.” So we sat and we talked and we got to know each other a little bit, and said ‘Okay, let’s just do it.’ And we ran the tape, and I said “Just do it to me.” So he did it, and it was much better. We did it again, and it was really good. And I said “That’s it!” So he was very pleased and thanked me, and I headed out to my car. Then Goodwin and Ethel Kennedy came out and said “We don’t know what your plans are, but he really liked you a lot and you really made him good. We have to go to Michigan. Would you consider canceling whatever it is that you’re doing and coming with us?” So to make a long story very, very short, I never left him. I was there with him for 102 days.
If Bobby Kennedy were in the room with us right now, what would I feel? What would my impression be?
Well I think you’d be very impressed. I think you’d see a man who was totally dedicated to everything he believed in. He was funny. He was shy. He listened beautifully. And he got to the point (of what he was saying) extremely quickly. I think if what happened had not happened, I think he would’ve won the Democratic nomination. I think it would’ve been tight, but he would’ve won. I think he would’ve been elected President and I think a lot of the bad things that happened in this country after 1968 would not have happened.
How do you think the country would be different?
I don’t think we’d have the racial problems that we have. I don’t think there would be this terrible line of delineation between the poor and the rich. I think we would have had a great more deal national pride. I think we would have gotten out of Vietnam much, much sooner. All the cynicism that came out of Richard Nixon’s administration would be gone. I think we lost our innocence as a country with John F. Kennedy’s death. Then with Bobby’s death, Martin Luther King’s death and the scandal of the Nixon administration… had Bobby lived, I think this country would have gone through a healing process. And I think that we would be a United States today.
Everyone I’ve seen interviewed who was involved with RFK says that his death was the defining moment of their lives.
Absolutely. It was the defining moment of mine.
You were supposed to be up on the dais with him at the Ambassador, weren’t you?
Yes, then at the last moment, it was decided that having a film director up on stage with him wasn’t the image they wanted, so we had a friend named Paul Schrade, who was about my size and complexion, take my place. And he was one of the three people shot in the kitchen. Bobby said “As soon as I say ‘On to Chicago,’ get the car and have it waiting around back by the kitchen.” So I got the car and pulled up and the cops started pounding on the car yelling “Move it! Move it!” Then this woman came running out of the side entrance screaming “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” Then we saw the cops dragging this guy out from the side entrance, and the guy turned out to be Sirhan. My wife said “That’s not Kennedy! He hasn’t been shot!” The cops were pounding on the car now yelling for us to move, so I pulled away, then I flipped on the radio, when the news came over: “Senator Robert Kennedy, his brother in law Steven Smith and film director John Frankenheimer have been shot in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel.” They thought Paul Schrade was me. This will show you how your mind plays tricks on you: for years I thought the driveway to the Ambassador Hotel was as long as a football field, but it’s only about 150 feet long, as I found out when I went back to shoot “George Wallace” there thirty years later. But that night, as the news came over the radio, it seemed that long.
Was that the first time you’d been back since that night?
Yes. I just couldn’t go back before then. And now it’s in complete disrepair, just falling apart, almost symbolically.
After RFK’s assassination, you took some time off.
Yeah. I managed to finish one film, The Gypsy Moths, (1968) but I just felt like “What’s the point? What does any of this really matter?” I mean, when you’re a part of something like that and then all of the sudden it’s taken away with just one bullet (snaps fingers). It really makes you take stock in what’s important.
How did you get your faith back?
Time repairs a lot of that, really. And for me it wasn’t a matter of getting it back, it was about finding a new reason to continue. And I found some material that I really was passionate about, which for me was Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973).
Let’s talk about some of the later films. French Connection II was the only sequel you’ve done so far. Was that difficult doing a sequel to a film when you hadn’t done part I?
I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was. I wanted to do the story, which (writer) Robert Dillon and I had made up. I had lived in France, so it seemed a logical match. Then when I actually sat down and looked at the original again, I was just awed time and again with how great it was and what a terrific film William Friedkin had made. So I realized that I had to keep that distinctive style, and that was hard, very hard.
You did five films with Burt Lancaster. Tell us about him.
He was very professional. He set a terrific example for everyone else with his work ethic, which is probably the finest I’ve ever seen, his and Gary Sinise’s. He was very nice to the crew and the other actors. He was a great collaborator because he knew a lot about script. And a lot about producing. We became very good friends. I have nothing but respect for him… He was very well-read, entirely self-educated. He taught me an awful lot. I learned more about stunt work from him, because he was a terrific stunt man. Burt really knew more about how to make a movie than anyone I ever met. What I learned from Burt was to have the courage to take my time. To really rehearse the scene, to examine it.
How much do you generally rehearse?
As much as I can. During George Wallace we rehearsed 2 1/2 weeks. During Ronin because we were so rushed to get going, not as much before shooting, but a lot during the production itself. I also like to shoot a lot of set-ups. On George Wallace for example, we shot 20 to 1. I like to work at a fast pace and I expect the people around me to do the same… It’s interesting, because I went back and looked at some of my television work, and I found it a lot more interesting than a lot of my film work. And I thought “Why is this?” I mean, Days of Wine and Roses, for example, is really interesting visually. Then I realized of every actor I had three different sized close-ups. Whereas in movies I’d been saying “Okay, let’s shoot a close-up.” And we’d do a lot of takes of that close-up, but it was always the same bloody shot. And it wasn’t until I did The Burning Season that I deliberately did three sizes of close-ups on every shot. So when you edit, it becomes very interesting, because you can use whichever one you want. When you look at Ronin, it’s filled with different sized close-ups.
Do you do a lot of takes?
No. We rehearse a lot, but don’t do a lot of takes. A lot of times I like the first take best. Not always, but often, which is another reason to rehearse as much as you can. That’s one reason Sinatra and I were perfect together.
Tell us about Frank.
Well I was terrified of him. He had this reputation that he chewed up directors for breakfast, that he’d only do one take, that he was always late, things like that. And I said to my partner George Axelrod “I don’t know if I want to do a picture with Sinatra.” “Well then dear boy, we’ll buy you out. United Artists has put up a lot of money to make a picture with Sinatra, much more so than with you. If you’ve got a problem with Mr. Sinatra, I suggest you call him up and discuss it with him.” So I did. I went up to see him at his house on Coldwater Canyon, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I mean this was a guy who could turn on the charm like no other. So I was honest with him about why I was there. That there was no way I could work with him only doing one take, that sometimes it took longer, and so on. And I finished it by saying “I say these things to you because I’d rather get it out now, rather than waiting until we start shooting. I also realize that what I’m saying could mean my leaving the picture, because if it becomes a choice between you and me, United Artists is going to choose you.” So he said he really appreciated my honesty and said “Look, I’m an insomniac. I can’t get to sleep before 5 am on any given night. If you can arrange it so we can start shooting at 12:00 noon, I promise you I’ll be there on time each and every day.” I said “You got it.” And he was. Regarding the “first take” issue he said, “I’m an entertainer, not an actor. I’m better on the first take. It’s very hard for me to do it again. Is there any way you could simplify the camera shots?” I said “If that’s what you want, you might as well hire some hack, because part of what I bring to the party is to make the film visually interesting. But why don’t we do this. We’ll rehearse really thoroughly, and that’ll make it more likely that we’ll do fewer takes, but that means you’ll have to come in and rehearse every day, with a full crew and cameras and everything.” He said “Okay,” and that’s what we did. The first scene we shot, was the scene where Doug Henderson comes to visit him after he’s had this nervous breakdown. And we rehearsed it, and rehearsed it and everyone was very nervous and finally we did the take, and I said “Cut.” And Sinatra turned to me and I said “That was it. Print it!” And this big smile came over is face and he said “This is going to be okay!” And it was, it was more than okay. I’ll never forget that smile “Are you sure you don’t wanna do it again?” (laughs)
Any advice for first-time directors?
Yeah. Joe Sargent and I were talking about that. He said, “You know when I first started out I almost set myself up for failure, because I waited so long to do my preparation. I kept putting it off, and putting it off. Then by the time I did my third picture I really dragged myself into it and started to prepare.” So I think you really have to prepare thoroughly. Then I think you have to surround yourself with the best people you can surround yourself with. Not necessarily the best people who are qualified, but the people you feel the most comfortable with. And make sure to the best of your ability that the script is in the best bloody shape it can be in. If you have any questions about the script, ask the writer. Try and have a couple read-throughs before production begins. Then try to make sure you’re not trying to do a schedule that’ s too short, because once you fall behind, the pressure really starts to build and you start to worry about all the wrong things. You have to remember that when people see the movie, they have no idea if you were ahead or behind schedule. They don’t care! The other thing I would tell you is what Henry Hathaway told me: “The movie business is a business of compromises. If you make one compromise a day on a 25 day shoot, you’re gonna have a movie with 25 compromises.” And that’s the best advice I ever got: don’t compromise.
Working with Frankenheimer was an eye-opening experience for Fraisse. The director had a very specific set of do’s and don’ts in mind for Ronin. “When we started working on the movie, we talked about the style, and John said, ‘I want a lot of setups, I want the shots to be very short, and I want to work with very short focal lengths,'” Fraisse recalls. “John wanted this movie to appear onscreen almost like reportage, as if we shot had things that were really happening, so we didn’t want to be too sophisticated. Instead, we tried to convey an ambiance, an atmosphere. Also, he didn’t want too many colors, so we avoided colors in the sets, exteriors and costumes as much as we could. Right from the beginning, we decided that we would never see something red. Nobody could be dressed in red, no car could be red—there would never, be anything red in the movie! In fact, he said, ‘I can’t shoot this movie in black-and-white, but I would like to have the least amount of color possible.'” —John Frankenheimer teams with accomplished cinematographer Robert Fraisse on Ronin, a gritty action thriller that makes the most of its French settings
Ronin: Filming in the Fast Lane—a behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses on the director’s approach to the film.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Photographed by Patrick Camboulive © FGM Entertainment, MGM, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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