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Maker of memorable thrillers

John Frankenheimer, who crafted some of Hollywood's most thrilling films,passed away recently at age 72. ANAND PARTHASARATHY pays a tribute.

THE SIXTIES and Seventies were periods of global unease and paranoia about big power machinations, presidential coups and wildcat terrorist plots. And when it came to accurately mirroring these anxieties, even while turning the screws of fictional suspense, the moment found its man in John Frankenheimer.

In film after film, during the two decades that were to be his heyday, he delivered edge-of-the-seat excitement.

Frankenheimer died on July 6 in Los Angeles at the age of 72, after complications following a spinal surgery.

His favourite actor Burt Lancaster starred in many Frankenheimer films. Indeed, it was Lancaster's riveting performance in "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962) as the killer sentenced to life imprisonment who becomes a famous ornithologist that launched the big screen career of Frankenheimer after a decade of directing TV shows.

Two years later, Lancaster was once more in the lead in "Seven Days in May", as the U.S. General plotting to overthrow the Presidency (only to be discovered by Kirk Douglas). And to round off the association, he popped up just a year later as the French Resistance chief who follows a German officer all over the railway system to prevent an attempt to carry off a car goof of looted art treasures.

"The Train" was reckoned to be the real hero of this 1965 film made by Frankenheimer in black and white to give it a documentary feel. By the 1980s, Frankenheimer's big screen career was eclipsed by his productions for television — between 1994 and 1997, he won four consecutive Emmy Awards for `Outstanding Director of a TV Movie/Mini series', for products that included "The Burning Season", a thoughtful examination of environmental wars in Brazil and "George Wallace", a political biography of the controversial Southern U.S. Governor who opposed the Kennedy-inspired desegregation of schools in the 1960s.

In 1998, Frankenheimer returned to the big screen with another all-action thriller in the old familiar style: "Ronin," named after the rootless samurai of medieval Japan, was set in the France of today and featured Robert De Niro, Jean Reno and four others as a gang of mercenaries hired to steal a mysterious suitcase. What the suitcase contains soon becomes immaterial as the protagonists navigate a web of political intrigue with high voltage action.

His last film made in 2000, a thriller with sexual undercurrents, "Reindeer Games", starred Ben Affleck as a just released prisoner who wants to settle into domesticity with pen-friend Charlize Theron — but gets sucked into one last criminal plot. The film has not been released in India.

Frankenheimer's Second Coming as a director of memorable cinema was hotly discussed by his fans and associates when he was signed on to direct a `prequel' to the famous 1973 film, "The Exorcist," earlier this year.

With his death, this project remains rudderless. But the films he did make will provide cinema-goers worldwide, some of the screen's most memorable moments — remembered for that delicious feeling that only a sweaty palm and a missed heart beat, in a darkened hall can provide.

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