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Political paranoia is the subject of John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, the key linking film between film noir and the later conspiracy-minded movies of the 1970s. Predating the first Kennedy assassination, the movie weirdly predicts our cultural shift toward political distrust and insecurity. Richard Condon probably meant his book as a Cold War satire, but both it and the movie have now taken on bigger meanings. In the early '60s, the idea that hypnotized deep cover agents could be programmed to carry out the orders of foreign agents was taken as far-fetched fantasy. Now we aren't so sure.
Representing the best movie work by everyone involved, The Manchurian Candidate gets more complex the more one sees it. The title is now commonly evoked to describe conspiracies real and imagined; the conspiratorial filmmakers appear to have hidden a secret or two within the movie itself.
The story takes place in the years after the Korean War. Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring dreams that tell him there's something false about his experience in combat. He investigates his old platoon buddy Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Medal of Honor winner who unbeknownst to even himself has been programmed as a conscienceless assassin by Russian and Chinese communists. Someone is waiting for the right moment to put Shaw into action, but who?
This synopsis has been minimized this time with the idea that someone out there may not have seen The Manchurian Candidate; we wouldn't want to spoil that experience for them. In fact, if you haven't seen the movie and you like intelligent thrillers, stop reading this until you've gotten a chance to see the picture. It's unlike any other. The Manchurian Candidate is the essence of the paranoid thriller, a subgenre that came into its own in the 1970s and is linked to a cultural cynicism over Vietnam, Watergate and the previous decade's political assassinations. With so much lying and covering-up going on, people were ready to believe anything about anything. Now, of course, we as a nation are constantly distracted by so much nonsense, that ordinary relevant facts have been crowded out of the public discourse.
But all that rampant cynicism came later. Frankenheimer's film was a flop when it was released, a development that confounded those critics who instantly recognized a superior entertainment. It was the wrong year for intense intellectual anxiety, what with Americans worried about the bomb. We would instead soon turn to the upbeat escapism of James Bond for reassurance. 1 Yet The Manchurian Candidate stayed in the collective consciousness as a "special" movie that might be more true than it seemed. Rumors abounded as to why it was withdrawn from circulation, to be seen only infrequently until a 1988 rerelease. Some said it was because Frank Sinatra felt guilty about the Kennedy assassination. In reality the film was pulled over a financial tiff between Sinatra's company and United Artists, and was withdrawn simply so it wouldn't drain the profits from other better-received Sinatra pix like the terrible Sergeants Three. In any case, Sinatra had already made a film about a sniper attempt on the life of a president, Suddenly. And Sinatra made yet another sniper-assassin picture four years later with The Naked Runner. So ends the "guilt" theory.
The Manchurian mystery has outlasted all of these rumors and myths. The film advances the notion that Communist experts (descendants, perhaps, of those Pavlovian geniuses seen in silent documentaries of cruel vivisection experiments on animals) could brainwash American soldiers into becoming the unknowing pawns of spymaster-controllers. Using a programmed trigger, in this case the Queen of Diamonds playing card, the controllers instruct a subject to do anything they want him to do and then order him to forget that he had ever done it. Previously, the Remote Control of Human Beings was only investigated in science fiction films like Invaders from Mars. That makes The Manchurian Candidate science fiction as well.
The jovial Chinese mastermind Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) chortles at the naïve idea that "people can't be hypnotized to do things they wouldn't normally do". That commonly held belief is indeed foolish when one realizes that all one need do to circumvent the inhibitions of a hypnotized subject is to create a false reality. Stage hypnotists do this all the time, telling a subject they're alone at home where no one can see them. Then they suggest that the subject do something they wouldn't normally do in public.
Laurence Harvey was often stiff and uncomfortable-looking in his movies. His better pictures Expresso Bongo, Room at the Top and Darling are exceptions to this; The Manchurian Candidate uses Harvey's more typical unhappy presence to good effect. Angela Lansbury's harpy of a mother is correct when she says that it looks as if Raymond's head is "about to come to a point in the next thirteen seconds." Harvey always seems on the verge of a migraine, a perfect stance for a man with a head stuffed full of other people's software commands.
The biggest theme in Condon's book is McCarthyism. James Gregory's John Yerkes Iselin may be a clown, but he's a very dangerous one. Unlike the boorish self-promoter McCarthy, Iselin is a mere puppet following the directions of his wife, played by Angela Lansbury as a uniquely American female monster. Loud, prejudiced and insultingly dismissive of those around her, Mrs. Iselin is a brilliant but frustrated castrating female willing to let the world go to ruin to get her hands on power. She's the engine of destruction in the American landscape, some species of grand misogynistic demon. I've seen plenty of wealthy and manipulative women but none who really wanted to be Lady MacBeth and Mr. MacBeth at the same time. Lansbury actually has very little screen time (this is an intensely economical movie) but we know right away who is in charge. In a film full of actors' best performances, hers is on the top of the stack.
The intriguing pair-up in the show are Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. Sinatra had a bad habit of skating through his pictures, ignoring his directors and falling back on his ring-a-ding persona in lieu of anything like acting. He's obviously quite committed to The Manchurian Candidate and does a great job looking feverish and disoriented. Janet Leigh also gives her part a completely professional spin. She has less screen time of any of the leads and initially appears to serve little real function in the story. As William Friedkin explains, Eugenie Rose Chaney character is just "the girl," someone for Sinatra to romance between panic attacks. Or is she?
The movie is famous for George Axelrod's eccentric writing, weird dialogue stranger than anything in his Lord Love a Duck. Sinatra occasionally reverts to hip phrases, albeit nothing that breaks his character. But there is a vein of content that some writers have pegged as placing a whole new perspective on the movie. 2 What's with Marco's having hundreds of books lying around his apartment on all these weird subjects? Why is he filling his head full of arcane knowledge?
And what exactly is happening in Rose's introductory scene with Marco on the train? She keeps asking him questions and making statements with the names of states in them. She talks about being one of the original Chinese who "laid the track on this line." Then they exchange comments that confuse the notions of being married and being Arabic. On the surface this talk is all nonsense, but they say it like it's hipster jargon, with we the audience excluded from the joke.
The theory is that Raymond Shaw wasn't the only soldier assigned a "controller" in China. Rose Chaney is Marco's controller. Perhaps she rattles through several state names because saying them in a particular order will trigger Marco the way the Queen of Diamonds triggers Raymond. The Chinese laborers would seem an obvious reference to Dr. Yen Lo. What the, "Or are you Arabic?" line means is obscure, except that one of the books Marco was reading was about Arabic customs.
Rose Chaney -- the girl with a thousand faces? -- appears to be a plant who enters the conspiracy to babysit Marco and keep tabs on him. She first intercepts Marco when he's on his way to New York to see Shaw for the first time since the war. She soon has him sharing everything with her. She comes on to him strongly, offering herself as both a lover and a nurturing mother figure. She commiserates with Marco over his bad luck and never interferes with his plans. Notice that when Marco proposes, Rosie deflects the suggestion with professional precision. She changes the subject as if she were talking to a child.
Frankly, in a movie as carefully organized as The Manchurian Candidate, it makes no sense whatsoever for Rosie to be "just the girl" for Sinatra. Why waste the screen time? And why return for a coda where Marco simply recites some facts about Medal of Honor winners before breaking down in remorse? Is Rosie still on the job, babysitting the only survivor who can put the puzzle pieces together? Or who can be the next phantom trigger man? As with later paranoid conspiracy films the movie ends with the villains still at large and their nefarious plots mostly intact. This particular five-year effort didn't pay off, but the planners in Peiping surely have many projects in the works.
The difference between The Manchurian Candidate and escapist spy movies is the sense of unease inherited from film noir. 1989's similarly-plotted The Package builds up a nice momentum as Gene Hackman seeks to undo an assassination plot. But by the halfway point the mystery has become all too clear; we know Hackman will save the day in the nick of time. In The Manchurian Candidate we're never certain about much of anything. It's more than a simple case of "things are not as they seem." Unlike Gene Hackman cutting the baddies down to size, we have no confidence that Marco will save the day. And he doesn't, really.
The Manchurian Candidate is brilliantly cast. Making comedian John McGiver represent the liberal opposition does not reassure us in the least. 3 Leslie Parrish (Daisy Mae in the overlooked musical L'il Abner) is cooly eccentric. Henry Silva is a stereotyped Korean who doesn't look Korean. Various other roles veer toward cartoonishness without upsetting the rest of the film's documentary realism.
Director Frankenheimer pulls off a genuine masterstroke with his objective/subjective circular scene that confuses a Communist seminar with a ladies' garden party. Without words and with the slyness of a political cartoonist, he gets away with extreme gags like having the same scene repeated from the POV of a black soldier (James Edwards), who then imagines all the garden ladies as black. But there's always a sting in the tail - just as we're laughing, we get a (for 1962) shockingly graphic bullet to the head.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray restores Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate to its full theatrical power. When displayed on a large screen, the HD image reveals the director's penchant for composing shots in depth, as in the televised news conference and the killing in the congressman's kitchen. In one of the very first shots we can now see that Henry Silva's face in close-up appears to be matted into the composition. The film was made with a mix of old-fashioned technology (rear projected views out car windows) and cutting edge docu techniques.
MGM has included all of the older extras produced for videotape in 1988 (the year the movie was finally reissued) and for DVD in 2004. The 1988 reunion interview with Axelrod, Frankenheimer and Sinatra moves along well until Sinatra suddenly loses patience with an opinion he doesn't like. He basically shuts the other two out, takes over and tells things the way he sees them. It's pretty amusing. 4 The two featurettes from 2004 are built around interviews with Angela Lansbury and director William Friedkin, who considered John Frankenheimer his personal mentor.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Manchurian Candidate Blu-ray rates:
1. Variety reviewed Dr. No the same week as The Manchurian Candidate and praised it as well. But the "Bondwagon" didn't really get rolling as a full-blown international craze until the release of Goldfinger two years later.
2. I learned about this from Greil Marcus' book The Manchurian Candidate, BFI Classics series, 2002. It's not considered a wild theory, but a legitimate reading of the movie.
3. McGiver's ineffective liberal is mocked with a freaky camera composition that makes it look as if the wings of an American Eagle are sprouting from his head, telegraphing that he's about to become an "angel." Similarly, James Gregory's Iselin is frequently juxtaposed with images of Lincoln, reinforcing the notion that assassination is a historical tradition in America. It's undeniably weird that right after The Manchurian Candidate political assassinations became the scourge of the decade.
4. We got the source tapes of that original 1988 interview and I lobbied to reinvestigate them for a re-cut, to see if there were provocative statements that could be reinstated. Then a phone call asked me if I wanted to play some solitaire, and the idea just seemed to go away...
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