Frankenheimer relishes work for small screen Director: His resume includes 'The Manchurian Candidate,' but he believes the good stuff today is on cable.

September 28, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

John Frankenheimer doesn't see why more directors haven't split their time between movies and television. He has, with impressive results, including a string of Emmys and a handful of theatrical films that can legitimately be called classics.

His latest entry in a career that extends over four decades is "Ronin," a post Cold-War thriller in which Robert De Niro leads a pack of leaderless mercenaries on a cat-and-mouse hunt through the narrow streets of southern France.

Filled with the elements for which Frankenheimer has become renowned -- duplicitous spies, shadowy authority figures, intricate plotting -- "Ronin" is further proof that he is one of those rare directors whose work is truly timeless. The sure hand that directed "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962 hasn't lost much of its grip in the ensuing 36 years.

And that's true regardless of where his films are shown.

"There's this snob thing" about film work, speculates Frankenheimer, 68, confronting the question of why more directors don't split their time between TV and the movies. "But most films are pieces of [junk] that come in and out of a screwed-up movie theater in a weekend. The really good stuff, right now, week after week, month after month, is being done on cable television."

He should know. Earlier this month, he won his fourth directing Emmy in five years. Besides the Emmy he took home for TNT's "George Wallace" (which also earned an award for Gary Sinise's portrayal of the once avowed-segregationist governor who died two weeks ago), Frankenheimer has received recognition for 1994's "Against the Wall," a taut, explosive look at the Attica prison riots; 1994's "The Burning Season," with Raul Julia as a Brazilian rubber tapper seeking to save the rain forests; and 1996's "Andersonville," a drama of humanity surviving in spite of itself within the confines of the infamously hellish Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

"When you look at the competition that I had with the Emmy the other night, it's unbelievable," he says over the phone from his Los Angeles office. "John Herzfeld's work in 'Don King' was wonderful; Steve Barron did a great job, I thought, on 'Merlin'; and God knows Billy Friedkin did a wonderful job on '12 Angry Men.' And then you've got Tom Hanks ['From the Earth to the Moon']. Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks."

On the big screen, Frankenheimer's successes have included "The Manchurian Candidate," a Cold War spy thriller considered a (if not the) classic of the genre; "Bird Man of Alcatraz," with a surprisingly quiet and forceful performance from Burt Lancaster

as Robert Stroud, who used his life sentence behind bars to become an expert on birds and their diseases; "Seven Days In May," based on the Fletcher Knebel thriller about an attempted military coup; and "Grand Prix," with James Garner as a race car driver out to conquer Monte Carlo.

Of course, there have also been failures -- most notably "The Island of Dr. Moreau," a mess of a film that even Frankenheimer admits was "a miserable, horrible, humiliating experience."

Not so "Ronin," a film which Frankenheimer says was not only a fun film to make, but should also prove fun to watch -- in part because of the solid, no-frills filmmaking technique he brings to it.

"I really am not an advocate of this whole MTV school of editing that seems to be prevalent today," he says. "I hate it. It all looks like a television commercial, and I tried very hard not to make it look that way.

The film, pitched to him by the folks at MGM/UA, attracted Frankenheimer for the most basic of reasons -- a good script.

"It seemed like a good thing to work on," he says. "I liked the characters, I liked the idea there were these professional people without real attachments anymore. I liked the fact that the action scenes came out of what the characters did, rather than just one of these arbitrary things that you see all the time. And I loved that it took place in France."

It also didn't hurt that the script included a bevy of high-speed car chases. An expert driver with a passion for speed that hasn't dimmed since his college classmates voted him "Highway Menace," Frankenheimer loved the idea of staging these frenetic automotive ballets in the narrow streets of southern France.

What you see on the screen, he says with noticeable pride, is exactly what happened. No trick photography was used, and the actors really are inside the cars -- although, truth be told, they're not always doing the driving. Sometimes, a stunt driver would be sitting alongside, out of camera range; other times, the actors were in a dummy car, being pulled through the streets by a Mercedes possessed of massive horsepower.

"There wasn't a shot in this movie that was [made] at 60 mph," Frankenheimer says. "They're all over 100 There were no blue screens, no computers. The actors were in the cars. That in itself gives a terrific verisimilitude to it.

All of which means those looks of fear on the faces of De Niro and his co-stars (especially Jean Reno, who frequently is seen alongside De Niro) are genuine.

"There was," the director adds, just a hint of mischief in his voice, "about two inches of clearance on each side, and we went

through [the streets] at approximately 110 miles an hour."

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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