After watching four thrillers by John Frankenheimer in one week, Judge Victor Valdivia's heart rate has only today finally dropped down to "hummingbird."
Our reviews of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (published October 4th, 2004), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (Blu-ray) (published June 2nd, 2011), The Manchurian Candidate (2004) (published January 24th, 2005), Ronin (published September 2nd, 1999), Ronin: Collector's Edition (published May 9th, 2006), and Ronin (Blu-Ray) (published March 18th, 2009) are also available.
"With luck, no one will be hurt."
John Frankenheimer was one of the most groundbreaking, influential directors in American film and his work would cast a long shadow over many directors who followed in his wake. MGM has compiled four of Frankenheimer's most famous titles in a box set and they serve as a reasonable introduction to his enormous body of work.
Facts of the Case
Here are the plot synopses for each of the films in the box set:
The Young Savages (1961)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The Train (1964)
John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) began his career as a director in the early days of live television, working on such shows as Playhouse 90 and You Are There. That experience would find its way into his feature film work. The unrelenting pace of live TV, where every error or accident would immediately be seen by millions of viewers, carried over to his thrillers, where he displayed a breakneck energy that was positively overwhelming. But live TV also meant a greater reliance on acting, dialogue, and characterization, and Frankenheimer would develop a real skill for extracting great performances from actors, as well as an eye for details and a knack for storytelling. The combination would result in his gift for intellectual thrillers, films that carefully and deliberately unfolded, revealing complex stories and deploying equal parts action and tension with masterful precision while displaying exceptional acting and dialogue.
Frankenheimer carved out an impressive career at TV directing, and he was given carte blanche for his feature film debut. He even got the chance to work with Burt Lancaster, then hot off an Academy Award win for Best Actor for his performance in Elmer Gantry. Although they clashed at first, both men grew to trust each other and Frankenheimer and Lancaster would make five films together, starting with The Young Savages.
As a feature film debut, the Young Savages is arresting. At heart, it's merely a whodunit that resolves itself in a courtroom finale, but Frankenheimer chose a far more cinematic and realistic approach than one would expect from a TV director. Although the basic nature of the story would lend itself to a simplistic storytelling style, Frankenheimer uses elaborate visuals and gritty realism. In fact, even by today's standards, the film's depiction of inner-city life and gang warfare is quite shocking. Apart from some dated slang, the film is rife with racial epithets and slurs, the violence is ugly and horrific, and the three accused killers aren't whitewashed charismatic rebels in the mold of Dean or Brando. They really are loathsome, moronic thugs whose empathy and humanity has been burned out by grinding urban decay. If the script isn't up to Frankenheimer's direction—too often, it wanders off into unresolved and irrelevant tangents—it does give enough characterization for the cast to give great performances, especially Lancaster, Shelley Winters as Bell's old flame, and Telly Savalas, in his first film, playing a cynical cop.
The Young Savages was enough of a hit to give Frankenheimer a foothold as a director. His next two films, All Fall Down and Birdman of Alcatraz, were even more acclaimed. They would pave the way for the film that many would consider Frankenheimer's masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate.
In all fairness, there are elements of The Manchurian Candidate that have not aged well. Obviously, the Cold War paranoia and Red Scare politics may confuse younger viewers unfamiliar with the history of Senator Joe McCarthy or the Korean War. Not to mention the sight of Sinatra crony Henry Silva, sporting awful makeup and an even worse accent, playing a Korean operative in a performance that's part minstrel show and part freak show. Thankfully, his character is only in a few scenes, though with such an offensive characterization, those are still too many. Despite such quibbles, though, the film is a watershed. Perhaps no other movie, before or since, has gone about upsetting and disturbing viewers in such a quiet, almost cheerful way. The brainwashing scenes are still horrifying and disorienting, even some forty years later; after seeing the appalling murders one character is enticed to commit, you'll never look at hydrangeas the same way again. The added touches of humor, like Marco's sudden, inexplicable knowledge of obscure Greek tragedies, only heighten the shock when the true nature of the elaborate conspiracy is uncovered. (The marketing dunderheads at MGM, however, should themselves be punished with brainwashing for giving away the film's crucial plot twist on the back of the DVD packaging. Viewers are advised to watch the film before reading the cover description.) Though Angela Lansbury is the standout, the other actors are all superb. Harvey, in particular, is able to transform a character that is loathsome and disagreeable at the beginning into a genuinely sympathetic one by the end. The ending, in which one horror is averted by another, was shocking in its day, but fits right in with the prevailing sour cynicism of today.
The Manchurian Candidate was an enormous success, earning Lansbury an Academy Award nomination and hitting big with audiences. Its success made Frankenheimer a star director, and that would eventually allow him to embark on one of his most ambitious films, The Train.
The Train would mark the third of the five films Frankenheimer and Lancaster would make in concert. Not only is it the best of their work together, it's arguably Frankenheimer's tour de force, easily the equal of Candidate and in some ways even better. Both Lancaster and Scofield give superb performances, and are ably supported by Jeanne Moreau (Jules & Jim), playing an innkeeper who assists Labiche. But as great as the actors are, it's as a thriller that the film really shines. Once the action starts, it never lets up, and as the two protagonists become more and more frantic, the tension becomes almost unbearable. Because Von Waldheim is so ruthless, he won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way, and his options become more and more limited as the Allies close in and the German Army withdraws or falls apart. Labiche, similarly, must use whatever inadequate tools he has at his disposal, and he watches helplessly as friends and comrades pay for their mistakes and defiance with their lives. Though the film's ending may seem somewhat out of step with what's preceded it, it merely underlines what has become increasingly obvious to the audience: the duel between the two men had little to do with patriotism, art, or even the war. It was simply a battle of wills between two stubborn men used to getting their way, neither of whom are able to realize the cost of their fight to those around them until the very end.
After The Train Frankenheimer continued to make films, and some would be hits, but none would really click with audiences and critics quite like his early '60s efforts. What happened, essentially, is that a new breed of directors would emerge in the '70s and '80s who would take Frankenheimer's approach to intelligent thrillers and expand upon it. Directors like William Friedkin (The French Connection) and Michael Mann (Heat) would equal and sometimes supersede Frankenheimer at his own game. While he could still get work, he was no longer the titan he was in the '60s.
If truth be told, as the '80s and '90s progressed, Frankenheimer would not enjoy anything approaching a mainstream commercial hit until 1998's Ronin. Though it wasn't a blockbuster, it was enough of a success to open Frankenheimer up to a whole new audience, mainly through the star power of De Niro. In fact, for movie fans born after Frankenheimer's '60s peak, Ronin is probably the film in this set that would serve as their introduction to his style. Which is unfortunate, as it's by far the weakest one of the bunch. True, Ronin moves fast and the action scenes are well-directed, though hardly memorable. The problem is the script. The cast is impressive, but the characters are so poorly sketched out that it's impossible to root for, or even empathize with, any of them—they're all equally cold, unappealing ciphers. What's more, the story is ridiculously convoluted, undergoing all sorts of pointless twists and turns to arrive at a resolution that's not only emotionally unsatisfying, but doesn't even make sense.
Whatever its flaws, Ronin was enough to restart Frankenheimer's career. He was directing films and shorts right up until his death in 2002. Ronin also allowed critics and film fans to reassess Frankenheimer's career and work in a new light. That reassessment is what helped to create this box set, and though he is sadly no longer around to participate, his films, including the ones not included here, will continue to influence directors for a long time to come.
For this new box set, MGM has repackaged the previous releases of The Manchurian Candidate and The Train alongside the DVD debut of The Young Savages and a strange repackaging of Ronin that includes the original "flipper" disc release (widescreen on one side, fullscreen on the other) with the cover art from the two-disc edition. The transfers all are anamorphic (except for the full-screen). The Train and The Young Savages sometimes suffer from scratches, but for the most part they are clean and sharp. Both Ronin and The Manchurian Candidate have 5.1 mixes, though as expected, there are differences between them. The mix in Candidate is done more for ambience, especially during crowd scenes, and isn't bass-heavy or loud. The mix for Ronin, on the other hand, is earsplitting, especially during the explosions and car chases, and will definitely push any sound system to the limit. The other films are in mono.
The extras are a decent mix, except for The Young Savages, which has no extras whatsoever. The remaining three films all have audio commentary by Frankenheimer, and the only downside is that he just doesn't talk enough; there are sometimes long pauses between comments. He does talk more during Ronin, presumably because it's fresher in his memory than the others. When he does talk, he is witty and informative, full of anecdotes, pointers on film technique, and insights into the themes and stories behind each film. Frankenheimer is so full of tales about the filming of each movie that each commentary almost functions as the equivalent of a making-of featurette.
The Manchurian Candidate has the most extras. In addition to the commentary, the film's theatrical trailer (1:02), and a photo gallery, there are also three featurettes. There's "An Interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer" (7:48). Conducted in 1987 for the film's theatrical rerelease, the three men (Axelrod was the screenwriter) discuss the film and its production in a lighthearted, chummy way. Moderately interesting, but it doesn't go into any particular depth. There's also "Queen of Diamonds" (14:49), an interview with Angela Lansbury. Lansbury is thoughtful and engaging; since her performance is one of the film's high points, it's well worth watching. Finally, there's "A Little Solitaire" (13:16), an interview with William Friedkin, one of the many directors Frankenheimer clearly influenced. Friedkin is always an interesting interview, and here he analyzes Candidate with great insight. Ronin also has the film's alternate ending (1:45), and it's even worse than the one that was chosen for the released version. The Train includes the original theatrical trailer (4:22) and an option to hear an audio track during the film that only plays Maurice Jarre's score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The John Frankenheimer Collection contains two films that are acknowledged classics in his oeuvre: The Manchurian Candidate and The Train. The Young Savages isn't quite up to that standard, but its inclusion can be justified on the grounds that it marked Frankenheimer's feature film debut, and it has great performances and plenty of moments of the brilliance that would typify his work. But the inclusion of Ronin is a misguided attempt to market the set to casual consumers rather than film buffs. Not only is the film markedly inferior to the others in the set, it's already available in a two-disc edition that most fans would probably prefer to the single disc included here. Why not use this opportunity to bring attention to some of Frankenheimer's less famous though no less interesting work? Why not instead include 52 Pick-Up (1986), one of his most underrated and noteworthy films? It's already an MGM DVD, so there would be no legal or rights problems with it. Or, since the compilers were already willing to include The Young Savages, his first film, in this set, then why not approach Warner Brothers to include Frankenheimer's last film, Path to War (2002)? That extraordinary HBO production was a harrowing depiction of Lyndon Johnson's tragic and irreversible descent into the hell of the Vietnam War. Actually, there are many other candidates that would have made a lot more sense in this set than the mediocre and forgettable Ronin.
Both The Manchurian Candidate and The Train are integral parts of any thriller fan's collection. For only a few dollars more than the cost of buying just those two titles, fans can purchase this set and get two more films, which, though not masterful, still have elements in them worth recommending. Though one can split hairs with the selection, this set does contain some of the movies Frankenheimer is best known for. In that regard, it serves as a very good introduction to the work of a brilliant, influential director, and will hopefully inspire viewers to seek out more of his films.
The court will have to assess MGM a sizable fine for botching the inclusion of Ronin and for revealing too much in the packaging for The Manchurian Candidate. Otherwise, The John Frankenheimer Collection is acquitted and will serve to initiate film fans into Frankenheimer's work.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, The Young Savages
Perp Profile, The Young Savages
Distinguishing Marks, The Young Savages
Scales of Justice, The Manchurian Candidate
Perp Profile, The Manchurian Candidate
Distinguishing Marks, The Manchurian Candidate
• Interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer
Scales of Justice, The Train
Perp Profile, The Train
Distinguishing Marks, The Train
• Audio Commentary
Scales of Justice, Ronin
Perp Profile, Ronin
Distinguishing Marks, Ronin
• Audio Commentary
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.