Monday, August 5, 2013

John Frankenheimer: All Fall Down

John Frankenheimer had an incredible run of films in the 1960s. He would release some of his most visually and thematically ambitious films during this decade. In 1962, Frankenheimer would release three films, two of which were to be his most admired (The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate). However, it is this third film, All Falls Down, that often gets lost in the shuffle, and it’s easy to see why with its resemblance to films like East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass, All Fall Down doesn’t feel like a John Frankenheimer film. And even though that may seem weird to say considering we’re only three films (and just two of those that I’ve seen) into his filmography, All Fall Down certainly sticks out due to how ordinary the whole thing feels.

All Fall Down’s familiar story concerns itself with 15-year-old Clinton Willart (Brandon De Wilde) who arrives in Florida with some money for his older brother, Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty). Clinton idolizes Berry-Berry, an searches for him so that they can take the money he’s brought and invest in a business together. However, upon his initial search for his brother, Clinton finds that the money his brother asked for wasn’t ever intended for a business deal, it was, instead, intended to bail as bail money. You see, Berry-Berry is in jail for beating up a prostitute, and his name is something you don’t want to utter around town. Clinton, regardless of the rumors surrounding his brother, eventually finds him and pays his bail. Once free, Berry-Berry gives a false promise of visiting for Christmas before sending Clinton back home to Ohio.
These initial moments are pretty straight forward, and it was at this point that I was feeling pretty bummed about having to sit through the rest of this film for another 80 minutes or so. But when Clinton returns home, we begin to find out more about him and his family life, and it is at this point that All Fall Down, albeit familiar territory, becomes a much better and tolerable film with an emphasis on showcasing its extraordinarily good performances from Angela Lansbury and Karl Malden. 

So when Clinton returns home, we meet his prodding, talkative mother Annabel (Lansbury in a performance that Frankenheimer showed Frank Sinatra in order to convince him that she was right for her role as Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate) and Ralph (Malden), his likeable but alcoholic (and emasculated) father. The characters are your typical clichéd mom and dad figures in these types of movies, but Lansbury and Malden elevate them beyond cliché and certainly beyond caricature. Anyway, to the surprise of nobody familiar with how these types of films go, Clinton views his parents’ life as a prison — a monotonous existence when held up to his brother’s life. So instead of engaging in conversation with his parents, Clinton spends most of his days sleeping or hiding out in his room, eavesdropping on conversations and then jotting them down into his notepad; meanwhile, his dad constantly retreats to the basement to drink and to get away from his wife, who paces around the house picking every nit there is to pick.

Just as things can’t seem to get any more boring for Clinton, Echo O’Brien (Eva Marie Saint) comes into his life, shattering the dullness that surrounds Clinton and his family. Echo's beauty and charm beguiles the entire family, especially Clinton. Along with Echo’s arrival, the hopes that Berry-Berry will return for Christmas seems to re-energize the entire family. Berry-Berry eventually does end up returning, and, of course, he falls in love with Echo. Or he at least falls in as much love as a narcissist like him can. And when the inevitable happens (Berry-Berry not reciprocating Echo’s love), and Echo falls in love with Berry-Berry only for him to break her heart once he learns that she is pregnant (for he cannot be tied down), she takes her car and drives it off a cliff. Clinton is aghast at the turn of events and goes from idolizing his brother to plotting to kill him.

Outside from a few aesthetic choices and the focus on a seedy milieu, All Fall Down just doesn’t really feel like a Frankenheimer film. Frankenheimer loved the source material, though, and when asked by producer John Houseman to direct the film, he was really excited to make the film (he was also excited to work with William Inge, who Houseman hired to write the script). However, he had to put it on the backburner in order to finish post-production on The Birdman of Alcatraz. So Houseman went about casting the film without him and All Fall Down just feels like a project that Frankenheimer enjoyed making, but one that got the least amount of his attention between The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate.

And I think Inge’s script (based on on James Leo Herlihy, author of Midnight Cowboy) is the biggest thing keeping the film from being anything more than a showcase for some great acting. As alluded to earlier, the film feels too much like Inge’s previous Splendor in the Grass — especially in the way the two films deal with, as Stephen Armstrong says, “a love affair between two beautiful neurotics” — and other films of that ilk released around the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. All Fall Down is different in the sense it deals with establishing characters before tragedy punctuates the film whereas Splendor is about characters deal with a tragedy that starts the film.

The few aesthetic touches that Frankenheimer and his DP Lionel Lindon insert into the film — a few canted angles and the Frankenheimer’s favorite, deep focus, pop up here and there — aren’t enough to make the film any easier to get through, as much of All Fall Down plays out in a pretty straight-forward, melodramatic manner, highlighted by some really strong supporting performances. And I’m not trying to suggest that these stories need the kind of aesthetic touches that Frankenheimer and Lindon implement in some of their more showy efforts, but it does make a film like this easier to get through.

As mentioned earlier, Lansbury and Malden are fantastic as the parents. Lansbury’s role is the kind that lends itself to the kind of showy performance that would earn any actress an Academy Award nomination these days. And although Malden doesn’t play “emasculated husband” as well (or over-the-top) as, say, Jim Backus, his role as the father always retreating to the basement for a drink is reason alone to give All Fall Down a try. And Beatty is alright as Berry-Berry. He’s certainly got the right look and the screen presence for the type of character Berry-Berry needs to be. Frankenheimer hated working with him, and what should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, Houseman mentions what an arrogant ass he was on set. In his memoir, Final Dress, Houseman recalled what it was like working with Beatty:

From the start, our most serious problem was young Mr.Beatty. With his angelic arrogance, his determination to emulate Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean, and his half-baked, overzealous notions of “Method” acting, he succeeded in perplexing and antagonizing not only his fellow actors but our entire crew.

I’m surprised he didn’t mention that Beatty tried to tell Frankenheimer how to direct the film.

Despite the problems on set with Beatty, the filmmakers were pleased with the final product. However, the way the film was received crushed Houseman. MGM’s biggest film that year was Four Horsemanof the Apocalypse, but it was a critical and commercial flop. A panicked MGM scrambled around to find another title to release as their flagship film, but realizing that they didn’t have anything else to release aside from Frankenheimer’s film, they released All Fall Down — what is essentially a small, black-and-white art film — into big moviehouses. And when you think about the kind of mainstream American films audiences were clamoring for in the early ‘60s, the characters and the environment those character inhabit in All Fall Down (or The Young Savages for that matter) were not the kinds of worlds audiences were wanting to escape to. Film’s like King of Kings or West Side Story or Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor were the types of films topping the box-office charts. So, yeah, audiences were not too enamored with this small picture, and the film bombed.

Despite the commercial failures of All Fall Down, Frankenheimer’s film career was just getting started, and his other two films released in 1962 would go a long way towards cementing his status as a true auteur (although Frankenheimer hated that term) and one of the best (and most underrated) filmmakers of his time.


  1. Great comments on a favourite film, I need to see it again now. Its a very lyrical film with great black and white images. The cast are all terrific too, particularly Lansbury and Malden. I loved the book as a teenager, as its written from Clinton's point of view, by James Leo Herlihy, who also wrote Midnight Cowboy and some other interesting tales.

  2. Really nice review! I sat through this movie during a "Teen Rebels in Film" class sometime in college. I remember being engaged by it, but not exactly floor. I believe we watched this right after seeing Splendor in the Grass, and there was just no comparison.

    You are right about this not "feeling" like a typical Frankenhiemer didn't. The stylistic flourished and emotional engagement aren't there. Still, it's a solid entry from the time period. And if it shows up on TCM, it's worth a watch.