John Frankenheimer

In “JFK, RFK, John Frankenheimer, and the Mystery of Sirhan Sirhan”, I briefly discuss the Manchurian Candidate director’s strangely intimate connection to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, questioning Frankenheimer’s claim about having been the presidential aspirant’s “best friend” [1]. I do not, however, doubt his assertion that, “His death was the defining moment of my life,” nor do I discount the psychological strain and decline Frankenheimer describes as having resulted from this event. In his 1998 essay “My Not So Brilliant Career”, he writes that “the incident affected my perspective on life” and that as a result his “career was defused”, adding, “It took a long time to reinvest my life with some kind of meaning. I finished the sixties with a bad case of burn-out, which exacerbated my drinking.” After making 1977’s Black Sunday, “things went downhill again for a while.” “But perhaps the most desperate time in my life was 1981: that was the point when I realised I’d been wrecking my life, and things had to change,” he reveals:

Someone once said that if you took the Irish, Catholics and Southerners out of AA, you could hold the national convention in a phone booth. Well I’m half-Irish and brought up a Catholic. I come from a generation that drank without thinking it was a real problem. You don’t think it’s a problem until you start drinking at work. In the late seventies, I started drinking at work. You assume that nobody knows, and then it turns out everybody knows. That’s when you realise you’re totally dependent on this stuff.

I made some harsh decisions and was able to stop, but you can’t stop all the feelings that made you drink in the first place, you can’t rebuild the bad impressions some people have got of you. I also thought the world was waiting for me to get sober. But I was a director who many people felt was past his prime, and the world was going along very well without me. I took some unwanted time off. [2]

Frankenheimer, as he indicates, was half-Irish and raised Catholic, notwithstanding the marked Jewish identity that emerges through his body of work. Had Frankenheimer’s Irish Catholic half genuinely succeeded in plaguing him with guilt over the deaths of the Irish Catholic Kennedy brothers – in driving him to, in a sense, confess? I intend to argue that the crucial film to examine in consideration of this question is one he made in the eighties, a decade he describes as “pretty fallow, a period of recovery.” [3] Frankenheimer’s 1986 thriller 52 Pick-Up is based on Elmore Leonard’s 1974 novel and was scripted by Los Angeles playwright John Steppling. Because of the collaborative and cumulative authorship of the film, the assignment of responsibility for specific content and meaning is somewhat complicated, but Frankenheimer and, secondarily, Steppling are the key figures in crafting what I will suggest is Frankenheimer’s cinematic confession. “Sometimes you create material,” the director explains, taking the major credit: “I kind of created 52 Pick-Up, chasing the book down.” [4]  

52 Pick-Up, funnily enough, is the second film inspired by Leonard’s novel to have been produced by Israel’s Cannon Group in the mid-eighties. The first was 1984’s The Ambassador, which the official Leonard website lists as a “disowned” movie due to its radical departure from the story in his book [5]. Bearing almost no resemblance to 52 Pick-Up, retaining only the element of blackmail over a compromising film, The Ambassador involves multiple attempts on the life of an idealistic US ambassador to Israel (Robert Mitchum) as he attempts to broker peace in the Middle East. Owing to its intertexual relationship to a film sharing its title with the name of the hotel where RFK was assassinated, the Israeli-produced 52 Pick-Up from its inception subliminally evokes the event in a Zionist context. Moreover, the decision to transplant the action of Leonard’s novel from Detroit to the City of Angels further enhances the resonance by situating the ordeal where Frankenheimer experienced the “defining moment” of his life. Frankenheimer’s version stars Roy Scheider as Harry Mitchell, an industrialist whose sexual indiscretions result in blackmail, endangering the political aspirations of his wife Barbara, played by Ann-Margret. The casting decision recalls the previous pairing of these two stars in Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man, which was released by Kennedy-Johnson Middle East advisor Arthur Krim’s United Artists in 1973. The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Scheider as hitmen playing a game of cat-and-mouse in L.A. after the foreign protagonist’s assassination of an American gangster whose wife just happens to be named Jackie – touted in the trailer as “the murder of the century”. The corpse of the “VIP” target, irreverently described as “one of those flag-wavers”, is unusually exhibited in a chair on a dais – rather like a king on a throne. Ann-Margret, who first appears in a platinum blonde wig and low-cut white dress that give her something of a Marilyn Monroe look, plays a woman compromised by the dead gangster and working as a server in a topless bar.

Early in her career the Swedish-born actress had enjoyed some hype as “the next Marilyn Monroe” [6], and Ann-Margret even sang for President Kennedy at his 1963 birthday celebration as Monroe had done so famously the previous year, with JFK even becoming one of the young star’s “much-rumored affairs” [7]. “In 1960, the broken goddess and the spunky star-to-be eyed each other across the set of The Misfits,” recounts Alanna Nash: “Monroe, inquiring about the visitor, looked into the past and the future and saw it all: the gothic elements of their childhoods […] the search for Daddy in every man they met, the struggle to rise from sex toy-tramp to respected actress, the disappointment of failing to conceive a child, the alcohol haze, the overdose of pills, the periods of psychosis, the years of psychotherapy.” [8] These are the extrafilmic associations she brings to Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up, which slyly points to the Kennedy years in other ways, as well. The movie’s tarnished hero, philanderer Harry Mitchell (Scheider), has been married to wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) for 23 years, the invitation to mental math taking viewers in 1986 back to 1963, the year of Ann-Margret’s birthday performance and of JFK’s assassination. Mitchell, the crypto-Kennedy figure, is shown shortly after first being introduced to viewers as he removes the top from his 1965 Jaguar XK-E. The moment serves little purpose except to emphasize that the vehicle is a convertible – not an X-100 like the 1961 Lincoln Continental limousine in which Kennedy lived the last conscious minutes of his life, but nevertheless a convertible evocative of the sixties.

Events in Frankenheimer’s 1986 film never map onto the Kennedy assassinations as a coherent allegory, but an array of details and circumstances coalesce to echo the sixties conspiratorial heyday. Specifically, 52 Pick-Up picks up on an esoteric level with the significance of Frankenheimer’s bizarrely prescient 1962 opus The Manchurian Candidate – also released by Krim’s United Artists – which opens with a prologue set in Korea in 1952, when American soldier Raymond Shaw, portrayed by Laurence Harvey, is abducted from the battlefield by Chinese mind-manglers, subjected to brainwashing, and transformed into a programmable assassin (the letters of “Shaw”, incidentally, can be rearranged as “wash”). Barbara’s announcement of her candidacy for councilwoman of L.A. County’s thirteenth district in 52 Pick-Up – a plot element not present in Leonard’s novel – recalls the title of the earlier film, and the “Crazy Ray” graffiti outside a bar again invokes the tortured Shaw, who executes a fellow soldier named Bobby during his training and later assassinates a politician named John. Shaw is activated by the game of solitaire, with the sight of the Queen of Diamonds enthralling him to his handlers’ commands. 52 pickup is another card game, “typically played as a practical joke, where the ‘dealer’ creates the false impression that a legitimate game will be played, then simply throws the entire deck into the air so the cards land strewn on the floor, and instructs other players to pick them up,” Wikipedia summarizes: “The game requires at least one player who is familiar with the game (the prankster) and one player who wants to be initiated into the game.” “By introducing additional rules,” moreover, “the task of picking up the cards can be made into a solitaire game.” [9] Likewise, Frankenheimer’s confessional 52 Pick-Up presents a pranksterish scattering of arcane significances that can be amusing to the initiated. Like Shaw, Mitchell was “decorated in Korea”, and like Oswald, he becomes a patsy in a murder conspiracy.

The Manchurian Candidate, like 52 Pick-Up, is a work greatly enhanced by its extrafilmic or metafilmic dimensions. “[Production designer] Dick Sylbert and I had just studied photograph after photograph of the Kennedy – of the [1960] Democratic Convention,” Frankenheimer remarks in his audio commentary, describing the process of conceiving the film’s climactic assassination sequence. Whereas Claire Griswold and Robert Wagner were attached to the roles of Eugenie and Raymond, respectively, in pre-production [10], these parts would eventually go to Janet Leigh and Laurence Harvey – a pair whose juxtaposed names in the advertising materials are unsettlingly predictive of JFK’s alleged assassin. Top-billed Frank Sinatra, meanwhile – who, according to his daughter Tina, was employed by the CIA as a courier [11] – is supposed to have hoped to include Jackie Gleason in the film, which would have thrown into the mix an actor sharing his first name with the First Lady [12]. Arguably deepening the JFK connection, too, is that “royal pain” Shaw’s handler (Raymond’s mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin, whose first married name is the same as that of conspirator Clay Shaw) intends for him to terminate presidential candidate Benjamin K. Arthur, the “K. Arthur” part of the name evoking King Arthur and the Camelot mythos that attached itself to the Kennedy White House following the president’s demise, JFK having been a fan of the musical Camelot, which was written by his old Harvard classmate Alan Jay Lerner [13]. In casting an actor named Roy as the crypto-Kennedy figure in 52 Pick-Up, Frankenheimer, whether consciously or not, has hinted at the character’s subtextual royalty. Insinuating the relevance to the Middle East of the conspiracy in The Manchurian Candidate is a set of seemingly meaningless references to the Arab world. Frank Sinatra’s character owns a book on Arabs, and for some reason he makes a cryptic point of asking love interest Leigh, “You Arabic?”, after which she in turn asks him, “Are you Arabic?” In addition, a photographer wearing Arab garb can be seen in the background of a costume party sequence.

Masterminding the “low-budget” blackmail operation against Harry Mitchell in 52 Pick-Up is Alan Raimy, a pornographer and film exhibitor whose profession lends him an affinity with filmmaker Frankenheimer, a kindredness almost made explicit when one of Raimy’s party guests facetiously dubs him “Cecil B. [DeMille]”. John Glover’s performance as Raimy is arguably the most charismatic in the movie, making the character repulsive but also oddly fascinating. Tempting audience consciousness of the link between Raimy and Frankenheimer, too, is the narcissistic presence in Raimy’s home of multiple monitors displaying the seedy footage he takes at his orgies. The use of multiple displays of live performances in a frame is a technique the director had innovated with his deliberate construction of mise-en-scène in The Manchurian Candidate, which found him “orchestrating one unforgettable set piece after another,” writes AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo: “The most visually complex is a press conference at which [Johnny] Iselin performs his ‘card-carrying Communists’ routine, which Frankenheimer fragments across multiple TV monitors in the room while focusing ‘live’ on puppetmaster Eleanor [Shaw Iselin] watching from the back of the room.” [14] Film critic Glenn Kenny, in his audio commentary on 52 Pick-Up, takes note of “the sort of weird […] meta aspect” involving “a lot of pictures within pictures, whether they’re provided by mirrors”, television, or videotapes. When Mitchell refuses to meet Raimy’s first demand, the pornographer has Mitchell’s mistress killed, creating a snuff video in the process, giving the character an additional link to Abraham Zapruder, the cinematographer of history’s most infamous snuff film. After Mitchell is forced to watch the slow-motion footage of his girlfriend’s murder, moreover, it occurs to him that he has been sitting in the very spot where she was shot, breaking the fourth wall or dissolving the barriers between art and lived reality, much as the metafilmic and extrafilmic imbue Frankenheimer’s important work with a luridly winking quality. “You mark my words: that’s not ketchup,” Raimy admonishes Mitchell in showing him the gory video, recalling a less sinister moment involving ketchup in The Manchurian Candidate. “So, gentlemen, we got a little problem,” Raimy later apprises his partners: “We killed somebody, he saw it in the movies, and now he knows about us.”

When Mitchell seeks out stripper Vanity in trying to find out Raimy’s identity, she cryptically poses the question, “You own an umbrella?” – hinting at the resemblance of the criminal mastermind’s name to the word “rainy”, but possibly also in allusion to the mysterious “umbrella man” present in Dealey Plaza. Later in the movie, the spectral reflection of the JFK assassination is sharpened when Raimy (whose name nicely echoes “Raymond”) shoots Vanity in her car. The villain’s habit of calling people “sport”, meanwhile, calls to mind the similar trait of the title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, concerned partly with Jewish ascendancy in America through criminality as illustrated by the character Meyer Wolfsheim, a stand-in for gangster Arnold Rothstein, the mentor of “Mob’s Accountant” and National Crime Syndicate kingpin Meyer Lansky. Raimy, interestingly, is trained as an accountant, his skill with numbers giving him an intimidating Judaic brilliance on top of his perversion.

One of his partners in the venture targeting Mitchell is the snickeringly monikered Leo Franks, played by Robert Trebor, a grotesque actor whose previous credits include the roles of David Berkowitz in the 1985 TV movie Out of the Darkness and Rabbi Blowitz in the 1980 comedy Gorp. Franks, whose name differs by only one letter from that of Jewish rapist and murderer Leo Frank, with the plural form emphasizing the meaty and thereby the phallic meaning of the name, is – just like Jack Ruby before him – a homosexual strip club proprietor, or, more accurately, the manager of a model shop, of the same basic physical type as Ruby, inescapably redolent of criminal Jewry. Completing the trio of crooks targeting Mitchell is Raimy’s druggy black henchman Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III). This character’s name, like others in 52 Pick-Up, is inherited from the Leonard novel, but Frankenheimer seems to have some fun with it nevertheless. One of the features of Raimy’s house is a kitchen egress with an off-kilter “EXIT” sign over the door – reminiscent of RFK’s fatal exit through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel – and Bobby Shy sullenly loiters in this kitchen during Raimy’s porno party. At another point, Raimy is framed against the kitchen exit as he instructs, “Get Bobby” – not, in context, to order Bobby Shy’s death, but just to give the cognoscenti in the audience a smirk. Though Bobby does eventually die at Raimy’s hands, the crypto-Kennedy hero of the story is finally triumphant, with Frankenheimer offering viewers what might be characterized as JFK’s esoteric revenge – appropriately enough, set to “Stars and Stripes Forever”.

John Steppling

Lest the posited JFK connections in 52 Pick-Up should strike some readers as too far-fetched, a few observations about the interests of screenwriter John Steppling might be added. A visit to the author’s ostentatiously intellectual blog reveals him to be a Marxist of Frankfurt School affinities and a kosher dabbler in the conspiratorial. He, for instance, evinces revulsion for the “parasitic vampiric ghoulish class of white WASP banking families whose tentacles extended into all facets of corporate America” – families like the Mellons, who “palled around with the Kennedy’s [sic]” [15]. Though he thinks nothing of applying an adjective like “parasitic” to WASPs, Steppling is scrupulously sensitive on the subject of anti-Jewish prejudice. “Antisemitism is becoming increasingly prevalent on the left,” he frets in a post about “a dramatic spike in Western antisemitism.” [16] Steppling’s professed apprehensions, therefore, are of masked and mutated forms of fascism: “Today there is in the US (as there was in National Socialism) a volkish elevation of physical strength,” he frowns in “A Screen Reich”, a post in which he also expresses admiration for Oliver Stone and acknowledges the “strange circumstances” of RFK’s execution [17]. Elsewhere, he despairs that “people now want to believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. As soon as anyone resorts to a non TV trope or fact, they are called ‘conspiracy theorists’.” [18] “This is the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assasination [sic],” Steppling points out in his 2013 post “Nightmares”. “The CIA, or some faction of it, is almost certainly to blame,” he goes on, elaborating with unintentional humor:

I mention this only because the images are so part of US culture now. The Zapruder film, the grassy knoll etc. The mythology is now refied [sic] and fetishized and forever inscripted [sic] in the consciousness of Americans. The evil of men like Allen Dulles, or John Mitchell help form the constitutive spine of the police state. But other names crop up, it is the stuff of nightmares. James McCord, and Nixon, and actress Joan Crawford (Pepsi heiress) together in Dallas, the Pepsi corporation had a sugar plantation in Cuba that Castro nationalized a decade earlier. Or James Angelton [sic], or E. Howard Hunt. The list is endless. The tentacles spread everywhere. Rioss Mont [sic], James Files, School of the Ameericas [sic], and Cord Meyer, and Lucien Sarti, and then we’ve expanded to the French Connection. This is the fascist deep state. People complain that if it were a conspiracy someone would have talked. Well, people have, but predictably are ignored (E. Howard Hunt). These are the deeper layers of our nightmares. [19]

Perhaps more relevant to 52 Pick-Up, Steppling’s post “Where Dreams Die” introduces the framework of encrypted clues as an “index of meaning” to be gleaned from “today’s ruin-photography”. “The guilt of the detective in his or her search for clues can be found […] in the talismanic properties of amateur videos,” he argues: “These images are fetishes of evidence, watched repeatedly, analysed and interpreted. The Zapruder film was perhaps the precursor to this.” [20] Did the perfectionist Frankenheimer intend for The Manchurian Candidate and 52 Pick-Up to serve as “fetishes of evidence, watched repeatedly, analysed and interpreted”, casting himself in the process as Hollywood’s Zapruder? Is 52 Pick-Up the director’s anguished confession of some form of complicity in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy or the gloating grandiosity of some cinematic sadist? Is it possible that it is both?

Rainer Chlodwig von K.

Rainer is the author of Drugs, Jungles, and Jingoism.

Endnotes

[1] K., Rainer Chlodwig von. “JFK, RFK, John Frankenheimer, and the Mystery of Sirhan Sirhan”. Esoteric Brezhnevism (April 14, 2018): https://rainercvk.blogspot.com/2020/08/jfk-rfk-john-frankenheimer-and-mystery.html

[2] Frankenheimer, John. “My Not So Brilliant Career”. The Guardian (November 20, 1998): https://archive.ph/KwhVP

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ryhs, Tim; and Ian Bage. “Hollywood Survivor John Frankenheimer”, in Armstrong, Stephen B., Ed. John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2013, p. 127.

[5] https://archive.ph/RnmAQ

[6] Dorwart, Laura. “Ann-Margret Once Said She and Elvis Presley Shared the Same Career Frustration – ‘People Don’t Want Us to Change’”. Showbiz CheatSheet (January 7, 2021): https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/ann-margret-once-said-she-and-elvis-presley-shared-the-same-career-frustration-people-dont-want-us-to-change.html/

[7] Nash, Alanna. “Ann-Margret: My Story”. Entertainment Weekly (February 11, 1994): https://ew.com/article/1994/02/11/ann-margret-my-story/

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/52_pickup

[10] https://archive.ph/ahPOq

[11] Ellison, Michael. “Sinatra Was ‘Go-Between for Mafia and JFK’”. The Guardian (October 6, 2000): https://archive.ph/VwSzd

[12] https://archive.ph/ahPOq

[13] Stamper, Peta. “Inside the Myth: What Was Kennedy’s Camelot?” History Hit (November 18, 2021): https://archive.ph/qjqUC

[14] D’Angelo, Mike. “The Manchurian Candidate Remains a Thrilling Classic of Hollywood Paranoia”. AV Club (March 12, 2016): https://archive.ph/gftPJ

[15] Steppling, John. “Corrected Reality”. John Steppling (May 20, 2015): https://archive.ph/XzCBT

[16] Steppling, John. “I Can’t See the Back of My Head”. John Steppling (April 23, 2016): https://archive.ph/7FKbn

[17] Steppling, John. “A Screen Reich”. John Steppling (July 21, 2013): https://archive.ph/e3j7F

[18] Steppling, John. “More Odds & Ends”. John Steppling (March 8, 2014): https://archive.ph/BUzXD

[19] Steppling, John. “Nightmares”. John Steppling (November 25, 2013): https://archive.ph/p1Rq7

[20] Steppling, John. “Where Dreams Die”. John Steppling (January 14, 2015): https://archive.ph/PJ8HU