A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film

A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film


Think about some commercially successful film masterpieces-- The Manchurian Candidate. Seven Days in May. Seconds. Then consider some lesser known, yet equally compelling cinematic achievements-- The Fixer. The Gypsy Moths. Path to War. These triumphs are the work of the best known and most highly regarded Hollywood director to emerge from live TV drama in the 1950s--five-time Emmy-award-winner John Frankenheimer.

Although Frankenheimer was a pioneer in the genre of political thrillers who embraced the antimodernist critique of contemporary society, some of his later films did not receive the attention they deserved. Many claimed that at a midpoint in his career he had lost his touch. World-renowned film scholars put this myth to rest in A Little Solitaire, which offers the only multidisciplinary critical account of Frankenheimer's oeuvre. Especially emphasized is his deep and passionate engagement with national politics and the irrepressible need of human beings to assert their rights and individuality in the face of organizations that would reduce them to silence and anonymity.


Arguably postwar Hollywood’s most politically engaged and astute writer/ director, John Frankenheimer (1930–2002) was also a powerful visual stylist, a man who learned the craft of image making both from his early years as a photographer and from demanding work in live television drama in the 1950s. In the latter he managed writing, rehearsals, storyboarding, and, as the shows unfolded, the instant editing made possible by multiple camera set-ups. It was an apprenticeship (like the celebrated years D. W. Griffith spent at Biograph) that provided Frankenheimer with the kind of concentrated hands-on training with actors and the camera that few have been lucky enough to experience.

In programs such as Playhouse 90 and Climax! and working with such luminaries of the big screen as Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, James Dean, Zachary Scott, Claudette Colbert, John Carradine, Edward Arnold, Mary Astor, Joan Bennett, Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, and James Mason, Frankenheimer pushed the staging and broadcast of live drama to its existential limits. The work was still set-bound like the Broadway stage but also energized by constantly mutating camera placement that both incorporated and transcended the singleset, missing-fourth-wall convention utilized by the period’s most notable playwrights. Frankenheimer’s teleplays communicate the social and psychological entrapment that writers like Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Rod Serling made their most constant theme, but, exceeding the limitations of the stage, he offered the viewer ever-emerging opportunities to see and understand. By the end of the 1950s, Frankenheimer was widely celebrated, a wunderkind, having become one of the true stars of the Golden Age of the medium’s most prominent art, now lost beyond recovery.

With William Wyler, John Ford, and Orson Welles as possible exceptions, no American filmmaker has better understood the expressive possibilities of a carefully calculated mise-en-scène filmed from just the right angles, with the result that the story seems to film itself, creating both the meaning and . . .

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