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John Frankenheimer
The master of the political thriller is remembered by The OpsRoom.

John Frankenheimer directed some of the most notable political thrillers of the Cold War. Many of his films also contain the clean almost stark narrative style, social awareness and sticky complexity that Sandbaggers fans enjoy.

Born in February 1930, he began his storytelling career by shooting documentaries for the United States Air Force. He was also, for a time, posted to the Pentagon.

Hoping for a tennis and then acting career--the 6'3" man was even asked by producer Albert Broccoli to participate in a screen test for the role of James Bond in the first 007 film--he settled into television production. The early years of live broadcasting trained him to overcome technical difficulties posed by scripts. No how many sets or scene changes were needed, planning and blocking in rehearsal would produce perfection at show time.

He eventually produced 152 live television dramas and only stopped because the medium ceased to exist.

Frankenheimer's documentary roots and the meticulous planning he cut his teeth on television were not the end of his career but he start of it. They allowed him to create four decades of memorable films.

1962, 1963 and 1964
The Manchurian Candidate has been called the archetypal Cold War thriller. Based on the novel by Richard Condon, it details the manipulation of a Korean soldier by Communist brain washers, and by his parents: politicians who wish to use his Medal of Honor fame as a means of furthering their careers.

The home run performances by Angela Landsbury, Laurence Harvey and James Gregory are amazingly effective. Still, the book's plot had to be pared down to get onto the screen; the major theme removed contains a the politician's McCarthy-like rise to power and is still worth reading. The director's stage-management skills are also present here: an entire section of the scenery during the brain washing sequence was actually on a railway car.

The 1962 film was pulled from circulation after the assassination of President John Kennedy the following year. Frankenheimer and one of the other starts of the film, were friends of the Kennedy family.

1964 saw the release of Seven Days in May. This film details a one week investigation into a plot by senior military officials to take over the US government.

If Sandbaggers fans think the late 70s were a bad time in the Cold War, they should be reminded that the late 50s and early 60s was when the Cold War was hot. At the time, the sacking of General Douglas Mac Arthur was still a fissure in US politics; moreover, figures like Air Force Colonel Curtis Le May were working hard behind the backs of elected officials to encourage a first strike against the Soviet Union.

Somewhat Dated
Of interest to Sandbaggers fans is how far storytelling has evolved since 1964.

The first hour of the Seven Days in May sells the idea of the conspiracy to the audience. Not 'What is the conspiracy' but that there even is a conspiracy. Since Nixon, since Iran-Contra, since the X-Files, it is taken as a given that whole sections of the civil service are up to no good; nevertheless, this ethical point--that it is governments which must set policies and not cabals--is the axis upon which Seven Days in May turns.

This same year saw Frankenheimer re-unite with one of the stars of Seven Days in May to make the five-star effort The Train. Arguably Frankenheimer's best effort, Burt Lancaster plays a railroad official in occupied France. At this point in the war, the Germans are looting Paris of its art treasures. Lancaster's character more than unwillingly helps his resistance colleagues keep the paintings from being stolen.

While straying outside the Sandbaggers territory of intelligence and public policy, The Train touches other themes: conflicts of values and imperfect information. This, coupled with Frankenheimer's documentary style makes for fantastic story telling as very normal people are pushed further and further until they accomplish extra ordinary things.

French Connection 2The France Connection
Frankenheimer had served as media consultants to the first Kennedy electoral team. He stayed close even after John Kennedy's murder. So much so that Robert Kennedy spent June 5, 1968, the day of his win in the Calinfornia primaries, at the director's Malibu home.

At 7:15 p.m. Frankenheimer drove the presidential candidate to the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel that evening to hear the results. Later that evening, after giving a speech, the politician was felled by an assassin.

Frankenheimer continued to work, but he was shaken: Sirhan had brushed passed him before the shooting.

He directed the sometimes overlooked French Connection 2 in 1975. This gritty police story sees Gene Hackman pursue the man who got away. The unblinking camera follows Hackman's capture and interrogation with heroin. He then recovers to punish his tormentors. Another thriller followed in 1977 starring Bruce Dern as the deranged airman in Black Sunday.

Frankenheimer's output and quality started falling as he struggled with drink throughout the 70s, but finally in 1981, he pushed the bottle aside.

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