Like so many of the directors who made the successful transition from stage and television to film, John Frankenheimer's glory days were in the early to mid-60's. Workmanlike and a professional journeyman, I've long been a Frankenheimer fan. I recently went back and finally caught up with two of his works that seem to have disappeared in that widening gulf of his career in the late 60's and early 70's- that tenuous time between huge success with classics such as "The Manchurian Candidate, "The Train" and "Seconds", and colossal failure in efforts like "The Fixer" (not available on VHS or DVD) the rampantly maligned "Impossible Object" and "99 and 1/4% Dead". Those directors lucky enough to produce films over several decades encounter this mid-season lull, and Frankenheimer was no exception. "The Gypsy Moths" and "The Horsemen", though, stand out as two underrated gems in an otherwise confusing period in his career.
The first, 1969's "The Gypsy Moths" is certainly the more interesting of the two. Starring his long time alter-ego, Burt Lancaster, as a disillusioned skydiver who rolls into a small mid-western town with his band of tricksters and proceeds to bring even more malaise than existed there before, "The Gypsy Moths" is an unusual slice of Hollywood melodrama. Observing Lancaster and his two partners (Gene Hackman as the hot-tempered and financially voracious of the trio and a young Scott Wilson) during the long weekend leading up to the diving show, Lancaster proceeds to begin an affair with bored housewife Deborah Kerr while the trio shrinks into petty fights, jealousy and varying outlooks about their careers. If it weren't for the extended, thrilling 25 minute set-piece showcasing the divers in action, "The Gyspy Moths" would fit nicely into Frankenheimer's early career of stagy melodrama ala Tennesse Williams. Instead, we get a complex and ultimately dark portrait of individuals in stasis. It's an interesting reversal to create a film about skydiving(!) which so fluently charts the characters morose and often middling feelings on life, love and work. The dichotomy is overpowering.
In 1971, Frankenheimer directed "The Horsemen" starring Omar Sharif as an Afghan son of a proud father (Jack Palance, no less) who enters the customary game of "buzkashi", a tradition in this part of the world dating back to Genghis Khan. Similar to polo on horses (yet much more brutal and soul-stretching) Frankenheimer situates the game and Sharif's presence in it as the mighty struggle for something bigger than himself. Indeed, even after losing the game (and breaking his leg), Sharif chooses the long, more difficult road home because his father never dared travel that route. Unlike "The Gypsy Moths", there's very little metaphorical ideas on display. It's a straight redemption tale about a son trying to impress and one-up his father. While the drama never falls flat, what impresses the most in "The Horseman" is Frankenheimer's complete dedication to the logistics of action. Like the long set-piece of sky-diving in "The Gypsy Moths", Frankenheimer places all moral weight of the story on the long buzkashi match in "The Horseman", filming it in agonizing details as bodies and horses pour into each other like a flowing mosh pit. Frankenheimer has always fetishized the car chase (see "Ronin" and especially his three hour car chase movie known as "Grand Prix" where the low angle, first person shots revolutionized how the industry could enliven this weary cliche) and with "The Horsemen", he again relishes the opportunity to display such kinetic action. Muscular has always been a good word to describe the sensibilities of Frankenheimer, and with "The Horseman", he proves that muscularity transcends time and place, from the asphalt jungles of Paris to a sand blasted desert in Afghanistan.
I don't claim that either film is a masterpiece, yet they're both insatiably watchable. On the DVD commentary track of "The Gypsy Moths" (one of the last things he'd do before his death in 2002), Frankenheimer decried the film's lack of place within its time, calling it a misunderstood work (and without really elaborating more). Neither film will overshadow the more prestigious works of his career, but both "The Horsemen" and "The Gypsy Moths" exemplify the 'journeyman ' tag to his name... revealing that no topic was too far removed from his instincts or visual prowess. Now, if only someone will get to work on releasing the other 'lost' films from this same time period, "The Fixer" and "The Extraordinary Seaman" so this Frankenheimer fan will be even more impressed.