[Written for The Herald]
One of the cool things about John Frankenheimer is that he really looks like a classic American director. Tall, and still athletic-looking at the age of 70, Frankenheimer has a white-haired, hawk-faced largeness about him. Of course, it probably helps that I am meeting him in a Seattle hotel room so big it seems positively Roman emperor scaled. The director is here to do publicity for his new thriller Reindeer Games, but I am delighted to discover him just as willing to talk about his previous films.
Reindeer Games, coming on the heels of Ronin, represents something of a return for John Frankenheimer. In the 1950s he was one of the bright young talents of the golden era of television, and his extraordinary string of successes in the early Sixties brought him great acclaim: Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, and above all the political thriller par excellence, The Manchurian Candidate. Since then, he has bounced around a bit, scoring the occasional commercial hit and residing in Europe for a number of years. He regained his form this decade by working in edgy cable movies, a graceful return to TV.
I ask Frankenheimer about his visual style, which continues to be dynamic. “I don’t want this to sound like a cliché,” he said, “but I’m a person — all my life — who thinks with my eyes. I’ve always been an extremely visual person … I draw fairly well. I’ve spent a lot of time in art museums, studying painting. So when I read a script that I like, I start to see a vague impression. With this movie, what I saw was this bleak landscape. That that was really a character in this movie.
“I tend to see things in black and white. So what I’ve tried to do in all my movies is reduce the color. There’s a palette is of real earth tones … all the costumes are very neutral. The sets are painted colors that don’t intrude. All the set dressing was chosen for lack of color. Then, at the end of the day, what we do is take the film into the laboratory and desaturate it. That’s very important to me. I feel [black and white] is much more dramatic and much starker. It tells the story much better. I don’t like color. Except when it’s used by somebody like David Lean.
“Also, I think in terms of compositions. All my compositions are done to make you feel a little bit uneasy. And to provoke suspense, tension. I never want you to get terribly comfortable watching one of my movies.”
In nearly every aspect of describing the Reindeer Games working process, Frankenheimer spoke with the meticulous care of an old-school craftsman. “I call it kind of hyper-realism,” he said. “It’s not documentary, it’s making things realer to me than they are. There’s a lot of camera movement, a lot of things going on in the frame.”
I had to ask Frankenheimer about The Manchurian Candidate, a movie so ingrained in the American consciousness that it is linked in some people’s minds with the JFK assassination — and has even been mentioned lately in connection with John McCain (with the sinister and completely unfounded theory that a POW might be brainwashed into entering politics at the behest of a foreign power). Frankenheimer described the excitement of Candidate, a 1962 picture, being rereleased to theaters in the late 1980s. “We were able to sit down and negotiate a contract to rerelease the movie. And they said, OK, we’ll put it out on videocassette.
“And Frank Sinatra said, ‘No, I really want it in the theaters. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ And they said, ‘Well, we really don’t feel it warrants the expenditure of the two million dollars it would take to advertise this to put it out in theaters.’
“Sinatra said, OK. And he reached into his pocket — I was in the room when he did it — and he took out a check, he wrote it out for two million dollars, handed it to these guys and said, ‘I want it in theaters. If you have a problem, just use this.’ Well, of course they never did have to use it, because it was a huge hit. But that’s how it got into theaters.”
I asked him whether he had identified with the Robert De Niro character in Ronin, an experienced criminal on a job. “My contention is this,” he said. “An amateur only does something when he or she wants to do it. A professional does something when he or she doesn’t want to do it. There have been times in my life when I did not want to be on a movie set. But I was there. Yeah, I definitely did identify with the De Niro character. Very much so.” If “professional” is the right term for John Frankenheimer, he carries it well.