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Philip Kaufman has had a remarkable career. I find almost all of his films interesting (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) and he's made at least one classic (The Right Stuff)). Kaufmann showed us that Sci-fi remakes don't have to be terrible and he even helped invent the character of Indiana Jones for George Lucas. As a law student teaching in Paris -- and already married to the love of his life, Rose 1 -- Kaufman soaked up the excitement of the New Wave. Returning to America, he enlisted some of Chicago's Second City talent for his first film, Goldstein, a freeform art picture partly inspired by Anais Nin. It won a coveted prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
For his sophomore outing Kaufman tried something even wilder, a pulp satire of comic strip superheroes shot on the fly and largely improvised by some of the same actors and comics from Second City. Filmed in Techniscope, Frank's Greatest Adventure was completed in 1965 but not screened until May of '67, at Cannes. Paramount had passed on it several months earlier. An unusually obliging Variety reviewer gave it a very kind review, but it found no distribution. Kaufman's lead actor, 29 year-old Jon Voight, made his official screen debut later in the year, in a small part in John Sturges' Hour of the Gun.
Frank's Greatest Adventure would wait even longer to reach the screen. In 1969 (possibly 1970) the distributor Trans-American re-titled the film as Fearless Frank and released it on a double bill with Madigan's Millions. The co-feature was an Italian import that starred Dustin Hoffman, and the poster proclaimed the presence of the stars of The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. Patrons must have revolted -- Hoffman's voice was dubbed, while the Jon Voight movie was probably considered unwatchable by any but a zonked out 42nd street grindhouse audience.
From that point forward Fearless Frank became an occasional ghost booking for late-night TV slots, in miserable flat 16mm pan-scan prints. Because Techniscope is already a smaller format than normal 35mm, the show tended to look like 8mm, or worse. That, plus its lack of a normal continuity, plus the bombardment of TV commercials, made Fearless Frank one of those night-owl ghost movies that one might tune into only to fall asleep before it finishes, like Phantom from 10,000 Leagues or The Slime People.
Fearless Frank plays as if Philip Kaufman gathered together his friends, improvised some costumes and locations, and with no special preparation whatsoever set out to tell a complex superhero story. Al Capp seems a big influence on the concept. Hayseed Frank (Voight), behaving somewhat like a blonde Li'l Abner, leaves home for the big city. Clod-hopping around a Chicago park, he meets the gorgeous Plethora (showgirl-actress Monique van Vooren of Flesh for Frankenstein) and falls in love. The henchmen of Plethora's lover 'The Boss' (Lou Gilbert, the star of Goldstein) immediately gun him down in an alley. The body is recovered by The Good Doctor (Severn Darden), aided with his servant Loyal Alfred (Anthony Holland). Back in his lab, using "Secrets known only to the Ancients," the Doctor revives the corpse. Thus is born 'Frank', whom the Doctor intends to be a virtuous defender of freedom. Using a windup punch like Popeye, Frank can clobber anybody he meets. He's also bulletproof, and he can fly. The Doc dispatches Frank to fight crime, tracking his progress on a TV screen with flashing lights that he calls an "Evil Finder." Frank receives instructions by radio, with a communicator implanted in his brain. 2
Frank easily bests The Boss's gang of Dick Tracy-like weirdos. Screwnose (David Fisher) has a nose that works like a welding torch to open safes. Needles (Nelson Algren) drugs horses at the racetrack. The Cat (Ben Carruthers) and The Rat (David Steinberg) are lookouts and burglars. The boss uses various kinds of smoke to implement his crimes. Further developments include trouble with the Doctor's irrepressible daughter Lois (Joan Darling), who immediately falls in love with Frank. When Frank sneaks into her bedroom at night, the "Evil Finder" registers their activity. Lust begins to alter Frank's pristine personality.
Frank lusts after Lois, is chastened by the Doctor, and becomes corrupted. While Frank becomes decadent and over-confident, we find out that the Good Doctor has a bad twin brother named Claude (also Severn Darden), who suddenly shows up to join the criminal team of The Boss. Claude creates a second, 'False Frank,' out of what we don't know. False Frank (again Voight) has a scar running down his face, with broad, cartoonish stitches. The scar continues through the suit he wears, in a crooked pattern. The Boss sends False Frank out to destroy the original model, a plan that doesn't work out due to the good influence of the virtuous Plethora. Her words of love whispered at night apparently interfere with Claude's 'evil' engineering. Plethora also gives False Frank an amulet. It may 'bring out his soul,' but even with Plethora's influence, he's still a mixed-up zombie. More crimes and kidnappings follow. Meanwhile, the formerly good Frank runs amuck. He destroys a bar, apparently killing everyone in it.
By this time Fearless Frank has become an odd morality play. The good and bad Franks exchange roles, almost as if in a dream. It's easy to dismiss Kaufman's movie as incompetent, a "Z-movie," but I have to admit that I begin to root for the redemption of False Frank. Can he make things right?
Cutting and continuity are not used in any conventional way. The scenes, if they can be called scenes, are often filmed from only one camera viewpoint, and simply cover the actors' improvisations. Philip Kaufman subscribes to the 'happy & haphazard' theory of camera placement. Does he obtain the result he wanted?
I have to think that the answer is Yes. Fearless Frank plays like a beat poetry reading illustrated with loosely organized images. Binding the enterprise together is a narration by 'The Story Telling Stranger' (pro voiceover specialist Ken Nordine), a vagabond writer Frank meets en route to the big city. Toting an ancient typewriter, the Stranger narrates Frank's story from a remove, dodging back and forth and correcting himself from time to time. Things perk up whenever The Story Telling Stranger announces some major plot development. Ken Nordine's voice is very familiar. It is said that he narrated jazz records, as well as film trailers. His reassuring tone gives Kaufman's purposely over-written, arch narration a slightly larger dimension:
"Oh where can he be who will free me and the whole city?, she yearns."
"Evil has its own wavelength."
"And so it was that Frank returned to the river of his youth."
Philiip Kaufman was never a fool or a fake; I believe that with Goldstein he was searching for a new kind of American cinema, free of the constraints of Hollywood production values. There are no special effects in Fearless Frank. When Jon Voight flies, close-ups of his body are simply double-exposed with shaky shots of the sky taken from a tall building. It's like a graffiti version of a comic book epic, a 'let's put on a show' fandango that substitutes energy and sincerity for serious resources. The comedy is mostly weird, and not ha-ha funny. With its improvisations and mugging -- Severn Darden and Voight work up a number of good moments -- Fearless Frank is very much a '60s skit humor film. It's worth checking out just to see Joan Darling, a major talent who eventually found more success as a TV director. Writer-director Theodore J. Flicker used Darling and other stage talent in his 1964 The Troublemaker. Its very different but similarly themed story has a country lad come to Greenwich Village and run afoul of the city's gangsters. Flicker moved on to a genuine masterpiece, the mainstream spy spoof The President's Analyst, which also stars Severn Darden and Joan Darling. She has a brief but unforgettable role as a politically paranoid housewife.
The free-spirit Avant-garde films of Adolfas Mekas are another point of comparison with Fearless Frank. The underground epics of the Kuchar Brothers hit a similar camp vibe, but with a different kind of obsessive zeal. It can be argued that Jean-Luc Godard's sublime Alphaville is similar, in its attempt to intersect with pop culture mythology. Instead of camp narration, Godard's pulp poetry regards an ordinary car on a freeway as a spaceship traversing 'Intersidereal Space.'
Little in Fearless Frank seems as organized as in any of those films. Kaufman's loose direction appears to encourage the comedians to make it up as they go along. When something clever does happen, it's rarely covered well by the camera. Darling is cute once or twice, and Darden and Holland have some amusing little-theater moments. But don't expect much forward momentum, not even as much as Alphaville. The pack of comedians playing The Boss's henchmen, with their greasepaint makeup, are like place-holders for more exciting characters. None of them are given anything particularly memorable to do. It's a comic book story, but a few odd wipes and camera angles don't create a comic book feel.
On the other hand, Jon Voight makes a great impression. Farm boy Frank is a goofy cartoon, and when he's machine-gunned off the screen about five minutes in, we really feel we're looking at something original. Superheroes Frank and False Frank are interesting constructs in that each is like Frankenstein's monster, trying to learn how to behave, and struggling with moral identity issues. Neither is merely Good or Bad. 'Good' Frank plays along with the Doctor in an effort to discover himself. He eventually grows dissatisfied, and cruel. False Frank is an automaton, but the spark of virtue gives him a soul. The idea of a Good superhero struggling against his Evil alter ego holds our attention, even when it's so thinly dramatized. At the dreamlike ending, False Frank is seen contemplating the sunset. Sharing a boat in a pastoral setting with Plethora and Lois, he seems to have found serenity. He cries. Has False Frank been redeemed? Is he at peace with himself? Ken Nordine's reverent farewell suggests that they all proceed to some mythical reward.
In the film's defense, we never feel we're watching a conceptual/commercial disaster in the making. The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour just threw some people on a bus with The Fab Four and waited for wonderful things to happen. It doesn't work that way. Fearless Frank is written and directed... but in a very eccentric way. The show is as legit as any semi-abstract work of art, and manages a pop-art zing or two even in the absence of conventionally coordinated visuals. 3
Yet it must be said that the main impetus for staying with Fearless Frank is simply to see how the damn thing turns out. Lovers of sincere but maladroit movies might take a shine to it. My co-worker Todd Stribich turned me on to it back at MGM. He discovered it because of a problem with insomnia, which I suppose doesn't flatter the movie. Maybe the joke's on me, but I think that Philip Kaufman is an artist, and that his movie is primitive art. Fearless Frank is worth a gander, for lovers of the odd and unloved.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection of Fearless Frank is a very good widescreen-enhanced DVD-R encoding of this reasonably well-photographed movie. It was the first feature effort of cameraman Bill Butler, who moved right to Coppola's The Rain People and eventually Spielberg's Jaws. The picture is colorful and sharp, looking as good as any DVD of a film shot in the half-frame Techniscope format. I have to believe that this is because American-International made a 16mm reduction copy or two, leaving the original negative untouched in a safe place all these years. It was a big surprise to finally see it in 'scope in the late 1990s. Should you catch a cablecast on the MGMHD channel, it will look even better. I suppose it's possible that a boutique label will bring out a Blu-ray, but I'm not holding my breath. I'd certainly pay to see a disc with a Philip Kaufman commentary. Why not with Ms. Darling as well, as long as I'm dreaming?
Classical composer Meyer Kupferman's playful music frequently hits an amusing tone. It doesn't underline the melodramatics as would a conventional score. Kupferman scored Hallelujah the Hills, reinforcing the Adolfas Mekas connection; he also provided music for Allen Baron's Blast of Silence and Carl Lerner's Black Like Me. The transfer on view retains a schizophrenic reminder of the film's title change: the main title pops up reading Fearless Frank, but it's accompanied by a booming voiceover: "Fraaank's Greatest Advennnture!" The disconnect is like something out of Airplane!, or the TV show Police Squad!, which had the announcer say a title different from the one that appeared on-screen each week. The cartoon panels that form the main titles are all badly cropped on top and bottom, indicating that whoever designed them didn't know the film would be composed for an anamorphic aspect ratio. Some names are all but off the screen. MGM has a record of a version ofFearless Frank that is six minutes longer, but I'm not sure if any film elements remain for it.
I'm grateful that this burn-on-demand disc presentation looks and sounds so good. I think I'll leave it out on the coffee table, you know, as a conversation starter. Boy, if I can convince an average reader that Fearless Frank is a work of cinematic art, I'll be able to say I've accomplished something. Any False Frank fans out there?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fearless Frank rates:
1. Rose Kaufman plays a non-speaking role in the movie, a bar patron that the crazed 'good' Frank kayoes with one of his killer wind-up punches.
2. The radio control device planted in Frank's noggin sounds awfully similar to the 'cerebrum communicator' idea in Theodore J. Flicker's The President's Analyst. The doctor even uses the word 'cerebrum.'
3. William Klein's anti-U.S. comic book movie Mr. Freedom is heavily stylized with Pop Art visuals, yet still looks ragged. It decries American tyranny as vulgar and violent, yet its unbridled rage is oppressive, stifling.
4. This is false. The disc has no supplements. The person responsible for this inaccurate nonsense has been sacked.
5. A note from Daniel Mottola, who is apparently a like-minded fan of False Frank. 7.27.15:
Hi Glenn, I agree with your review of Fearless Frank. I stumbled across the movie after its start time on some cable channel a year or two ago, wondered what the heck I was watching, became absorbed, became very interested not primarily because of Voight, but the presence of Severn Darden and Joan Darling, Monique van Vooren of Paul Morrissey fame, and Ken Nordine. What a cult film stew! The whole thing works for me because like many great cult films, the film creates a consistent universe of its own. Somehow it all hangs together (auteur theory for Z-movies?). I think if someone's seen enough movies, then they'll know a true cult film from a pretender. For me it's that feeling of wanting to spend more time with the characters or see more of their world.
I'm sure this isn't an original thought, but Fearless Frank proves my belief that a film maker/creative crew cannot go into a production saying that they will make a cult film. The good cult films just happen. Case in point: Howard the Duck, which was supposed to be a cult film for reasons other than it is held in that category today. Fearless Frank is organically cultish.
Speaking of Darden (he was good in Saturday the 14th) and Darling, I wish that Theodore J. Flicker and Buck Henry's The Troublemaker were available for home viewing. I have been a fan of everything Flicker (even the misfires) and Buck Henry. He never really received the accolades for Get Smart which wound up going to Mel Brooks, I think somewhat unfairly.
The Troublemaker was another one of my "what the heck" stumblings while channel surfing a while back. Like Fearless Frank, it gives that same feeling as bebop (improvised?) movie making, along with James Frawley's multiple odd characters, and Godfrey Cambridge (who was always cool, cf. Bye, Bye Braverman), a cult film smorgasbord. Plus, for me these films have tendrils into the era's Zeitgeist. There's something "proto-" about them. Love that Frawley went on to direct episodes of The Monkees TV series. Somehow they're all linked.
As always, thank you Glenn for writing entertaining and informative articles. DVD Savant has been and is one of my must-reads. Sincerely, Daniel Mottola
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T'was Ever Thus.