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March 20, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin is The Times arts editor emeritus

Director John Frankenheimer, whose "Against the Wall," about the bloody Attica, N.Y., prison riot of 1971, premieres on HBO Saturday night, got a wildly accidental start in the medium on a local Los Angeles station in 1952.

He was a 22-year-old Air Force lieutenant stationed with a motion picture unit at Lockheed Air Terminal (now the Burbank airport). For reasons not entirely clear to him then or later, Frankenheimer and his crew were assigned to make a documentary on a man who dealt in registered cattle in the San Fernando Valley.

The entrepreneur also hosted "Harvey Howard's Ranch Roundup," a country and Western show on KCOP. When Howard fell out with his writers, he persuaded Frankenheimer to fill in. "I dashed to the Beverly Hills library and read everything I could find about registered cattle," Frankenheimer recalls. On the day of his first visit to the studio, Howard ordered Frankenheimer to take over as director because the regular man had shown up unable to work.

"But, Harvey, I don't know what to do," Frankenheimer remembers saying. "There were two cameras, one on Harvey and one on these expensive cows he brought down to the studio. 'Just cut between me and what I'm talking about and then go to the music,' Harvey said."

So, learning as he went, Frankenheimer wrote and directed the show for about three months. Then the FCC intervened and pointed out that the show was exactly reversing the allowed ratio of 12 minutes of commercials to 48 minutes of entertainment. It was an infomercial ahead of its time.

"They shut us down," he says, "but I owe Harvey a tremendous debt, because the experience convinced me that directing was what I wanted to do."

When his Air Force hitch was up, Frankenheimer found a job as an assistant director at CBS in New York, in the heady days of live television when, despite the primitive equipment and no tape, everything seemed possible and the new medium was finding and stretching its muscles.

"We didn't know what we couldn't do, so we went ahead and did it," Frankenheimer has said. He had done summer stock, but now found that he had a strong visual sense. The assistant director in television was essentially the cinematographer, setting up the shots for the director in the control room.

He moved up to director very quickly and began the career which, in a real sense, has now come full circle with "Against the Wall." Frankenheimer's work in live television (which was necessarily even more intimate than the medium is now) was characterized by well-acted dramas of high-tension relationships, including a notably imaginative telling of Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Journey to the Day," a drama about group therapy with a cast that included Mike Nichols and Mary Astor.

Frankenheimer's early work in films--"The Young Stranger," "The Young Savages," "All Fall Down," "Birdman of Alcatraz"--also stressed his gift for close-in, well-observed dramas. Later, he became known as well as an expert handler of the logistics of big-action films--"The Train," "Grand Prix," "The Horsemen," "Black Sunday."

The two aspects of Frankenheimer's work are both evident in "Against the Wall" (as they were in "The Manchurian Candidate," the film by which he is still most closely identified).

The prison drama places one major relationship, between Kyle MacLachlan as a young white guard and Samuel L. Jackson as a black militant, and several lesser relationships, each quickly and vividly established, within the setting of the riot itself. The riot is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, seemingly inchoate but meticulously plotted shot for shot to keep within a stringent budget (itself an echo of the early days).

"I had a discussion with the young cameraman, John Leonetti, and I said, 'This has to look like a documentary.' I don't want anyone coming away and saying, 'This is brilliantly composed.' I want people to look at this movie and say, 'My God, this is a newsreel,' " Frankenheimer says.

It is, he thinks, one of the three best-cast films he has ever done, the other two being "Seven Days in May" (Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March) and "The Iceman Cometh" (Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges and, again, Fredric March).

The carefully chosen supporting cast includes Carmen Argenziano as the prison superintendent. "I've had to cut Carmen out of two films in which he was very good: '52 Pickup' and 'Dead-Bang,' " says Frankenheimer. "I was determined to give him a part he couldn't be cut out of," he adds with great pleasure.

He is already at work on two further projects for HBO. This spring he will be in Mexico shooting "Chico," a drama about Chico Mendes, who was murdered for his efforts to save the rain forests. It is a project David Puttnam has been developing for years and which, ironically, Warner Bros. rejected as too costly but which HBO picked up in turnaround.

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