Steiger, Frankenheimer

Two masters of complexity leave the screen darkened


July 14, 2002|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

American filmmaking has lost two pioneers of its iconoclastic postwar sensibility -- that adult brand of social rebellion, emotional experimentation and aesthetic adventure that ruffled the surface of the Eisenhower years and peaked before the counterculture.

Director John Frankenheimer, 72, died of a stroke after spinal surgery on July 6; actor Rod Steiger, 77, died of pneumonia and kidney failure on Tuesday.

In the era of live television, they burst into a cathode-ray version of the limelight -- Steiger with his offbeat starring role as the lovelorn butcher in Paddy Chayefsky's Marty (1953) on The Philco Televaision Playhouse, and Frankenheimer with controversial TV plays like the trailblazing drama about an alcoholic couple, Days of Wine and Roses (1958), for Playhouse 90. They reached their creative zeniths in motion pictures between 1962 and 1967. Frankenheimer directed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Train (1965); Steiger performed in The Pawnbroker (1964), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Both lost their bearings when the movie industry's pandering to youth upended American filmmaking. Upstarts threw out craft as well as outmoded traditions and paid little heed to artists and writers who explored American institutions from within and sympathized with older folk who compromised.

The anything-goes atmosphere gave Steiger a license to go over the top -- one he flashed too frequently. Aside from the bright spot of his American Film Theatre production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1973), Frankenheimer retreated into routine genre films. (His best in this mode was 1977's Black Sunday.) He failed at pop-art thrillers like 99 and 44 / 100 Percent Dead (1974), and didn't revive his career until the 1990s with a string of socially conscious cable pictures, from Against the Wall (1994) to Path to War (2002).

These ups and downs obscured but never diminished what these men accomplished in the '50s and '60s.

Their backgrounds differed radically. Frankenheimer came to directing from the external, technical end, while serving in the U.S. Air Force motion-picture unit. Steiger (a Navy man) was a student of the Method -- the acting school that taught its followers to dig into themselves and then reveal their interiors.

But both showed they had the artistic right stuff on early television. For years afterward they never lost the gifts that the world of broadcast drama gave them -- the adrenal energy of live performance and the ambition to match the cream of New York City clubs, concert halls and theater.

Incendiary subjects

Like Brando, and of course with Brando in their famous taxi-cab scene in On the Waterfront, Steiger was one of those postwar New York-bred performers who extended the emotional range of male movie actors. ("In the early 1950s," critic Steve Vineberg notes in Method Actors, "it was said that the toughest task facing a director who worked with him was to keep him from bursting into tears.") Steiger could tap wells of feeling for gushers of revelation, and then regulate those gushers -- in Marty using a wizardly comic-dramatic point and counterpoint, and in Doctor Zhivago a surgical intelligence.

Frankenheimer explored incendiary subject matter with techniques that borrowed from and commented on TV and its influence. Although some quarters greeted it as a crazy misfire when it premiered in 1962--- and indeed it is a cock-and-bull's-eye suspense film -- The Manchurian Candidate long ago outlived its detractors and continues to expand audience perceptions with its terrifying playfulness. Frankenheimer was the first to bring to the big screen an insider's cool appraisal of TV's capacity to create an alternate reality.

At the movie's core is the tale of a Korean War "hero" (Laurence Harvey) who's secretly brainwashed into becoming a Communist assassin; the politically ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury) who exploits him; and the major (Frank Sinatra) who tries to cure him. The movie takes satiric jabs at McCarthy-ism, Communism and mother love.

But it has a hidden theme: The medium is the message. Frankenheimer builds the presence of television into this movie's DNA, not just at press conferences and political events, but even in honeymoon quarters. Harvey quips to his new wife that the world divides between those who turn the TV on when they step into a room and those who turn it off. Lansbury's husband (and Harvey's stepfather) is a McCarthyite senator aspiring to the vice-presidency. Employing sound bites and photo ops, Lansbury molds him into a plausible candidate. "You just keep shouting 'point of order, point of order' into the television cameras," she advises him, "and I'll take care of the rest."

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