Tuesday, July 28

Good 60s Films: The Manchurian Candidate

1962 Political Thriller
From United Artists
Directed by John Frankenheimer

Frank Sinatra
Laurence Harvey
Janet Leigh
Angela Lansbury
James Gregory
Henry Silva
Leslie Parrish
John McGiver
Khigh Dhiegh

In its day it was an unsettling film and having just watched it again, I can confidently say it still is.  It was intelligent, had something to say and said it forcefully.  Behind the scenes was some force too.  It would take a Presidential okay before filming would start.  Aside from the multi-layered story on power (militaristic, political, sexual, parental, social), what has kept this film memorable in the minds of many is the sizzling performance by Angela Lansbury and a riveting turn by Laurence Harvey.  

As political thrillers go, this may be the template.  It concerned a U.S. platoon during the Korean War that is captured and taken by the Soviets to Communist China where the various members are hypnotized and brainwashed.  One member, Raymond Shaw (Harvey), is not only trained to become an assassin but in fact is ordered to murder two of his soldier buddies which he does with quick dispatch and a blank expression.

We learn about this through a dream (sequence) that his platoon commander, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is having.  It's a beautiful piece of editing as well as we watch the killings and the hold that the enemy has over Shaw.  But the dream is also muddled and fragmented because it is intercut with parts showing the platoon sitting on the stage at a ladies' garden party.  It is meant to show the effects of brainwashing and confuse the audience a bit, coming as soon as it does in the proceedings.  It is goosebump-inducing.  The Oscar nomination that came to editor, Ferris Webster, was well-deserved. 

Shaw is credited with saving his platoon and is given the Medal of Honor for his actions.  But we learn they are actually machinations involving his wicked mother, a controlling, manipulative shrew married to a weakling senator, who wants her son to appear as a beloved hero.  We also learn that she is the U.S. operative for the communists and that her son has been set up to be a political assassin in an effort to keep them both in line. 

In the meantime, Marco has been deprogrammed successfully enough to sign on with the FBI to investigate Shaw after he remembers the two murders.  Marco is emboldened in his efforts when he learns that another member of the platoon is having the exact same dream.

Now and then Shaw is told in person or over the phone to play Solitaire.  When he comes across the queen of diamonds, he knows that he must kill someone.  The card triggers complete and immediate obedience.

We become engaged in the relationship between the mother and her husband, Raymond's stepfather, both of whom Shaw deeply loathes.  He kills a number of people before the dramatic finale, some of whom he does love and cares about, because he is programmed by his mother to do so. 

The conclusion has to do with killing a Republican Presidential hopeful whose running mate is the mother's weak husband.  Here, have a look at how that chilling scene is set up:

That conclusion, a long sequence in Madison Square Garden, is a thrill, deftly and expertly patched together to provide maximum racing of the heart.

John Frankenheimer was the right choice to direct this one.  He was king of the thrillers, and political thrillers are part of his resume.  While he is certainly best known and most respected for The Manchurian Candidiate, he also helmed Seven Days in May, The Train, French Connection II, Black Sunday and Ronin

Frankenheimer and Sinatra were both attached to the project early on.  It was something they both passionately believed in.  It was a surprise to them, it's been said, that no one else took much of an interest.  They'd be turned away from some studios... too explosive, they said, and a political assassination by a Medal of Honor winner, no less.  No thanks.  (The book received the same heat.)  It finally made the rounds at United Artists and its leader Arthur Krim, while he liked it and almost looked as though it would get the green light, he ultimately turned it down.  He was at the time the national finance chairman of the Democratic party and didn't want to cause any embarrassment to President Kennedy.

Sinatra went to Kennedy and asked if it would embarrass him if the film were made or if he had any reservations at all.  Kennedy said that he had none and in fact had read and loved the book.  He personally called Krim and asked him to proceed.

Kudos to George Axelrod's adaptation of Richard Condon's novel.  It was suspenseful, thought-provoking, sad, maddening, hateful and as said in the opening here, intelligent... a wonderful script.

It's been said Sinatra and Harvey formed a nice friendship on the set.  It's amazing considering both were moody, arrogant and egotistical and had a knack for putting film sets on high alert.  It's equally amazing because Sinatra was a well-known homophobe and Harvey was a bisexual who could be wildly flamboyant as he sat between takes in monogrammed bathrobes, brandishing long cigarette holders and barking orders.  But get along they did and saw each other over the years at parties or industry events.  They have many scenes together and I think each brought out the best in the other.

Each needed a hit.  Sinatra had been languishing in the likes of Can-Can, Sergeants 3, The Devil at 4 O'clock and Pepe and Harvey hadn't had a good meaty role since Room at the Top three years earlier.  Both rightfully thought this would be the film to change the tide.

Sinatra has never been a favorite actor of mine but when I like him in something, I like him.  To me he usually played some conceited, arrogant character because it came easily to him and he could be a lazy actor.  When he settled down, rehearsed, stopped bossing others around and worked as part of a team, he could own a part.  From Here to Eternity and The Man with the Golden Arm are certainly two examples of his better work.  So is this film.  But funny thing is, though top-billed, The Manchurian Candidate is Harvey and the film really belongs to him.

Author Condon could hardly hold back the praise for Harvey.  He said he went beyond what he'd envisioned for Raymond Shaw.  I've seen all his American films and most of the British ones and he never failed to make me sit up in my seat because I was waiting for him to go off.  He always did.  The aura of danger swirled about him and it was riveting to watch him erupt, get vicious.  Oddly, he has many quiet moments here and I found his energy very heady.  No doubt what I saw in him others did, too, because the traits are precisely what's needed to play a dangerous, damaged, brainwashed killer with no compunction, no emotion.  Just load, aim, fire and walk.

Lansbury has never really been given the credit she deserved as a movie actress and she would be the first to say so.  Jessica Fletcher was a nice lark for awhile and on Broadway she became a bona fide star.  The movies, however, while keeping her employed for years, never seemed to really appreciate what they had.  She did receive a supporting Oscar nomination for this film.  She has said how much she would have liked to have won and for good reason... she's never been better on the big screen.  An amusing aside:  though she played Harvey's mother, she was only three years older.

I've always been a fan of Janet Leigh's.  Despite a lot of lightweight movies, she was a good actress and she's good here as Sinatra's girlfriend.  But I didn't really understand the part, the need for it, since it was away from the main action (she has no scenes with Harvey or Lansbury) and seemed to slow things down.  Was it necessary to give Sinatra a love interest?  I found her character as jarring as was her entrance in the film. .. Sinatra's on a train and sweating, has the shakes and is having a hard time lighting his cigarette.  Suddenly the camera moves and there she is staring at him, all stalker-like.  A couple of scenes later they're talking marriage.  The idea that she is featured in the poster art (above) has more to do with her name value than the role.

The supporting cast was also excellent.  James Gregory as the weak husband certainly has the best role of his career in a big film.  Leslie Parrish's character is the happiest one of the bunch as Harvey's new wife and character actor John McGiver as her politically-powerful father is great fun to watch as always.   Sinatra's real-life pal, Henry Silva, was smarmy as Harvey's planted houseboy and Khing Dhiegh was as villainy as ever.

Sinatra took it off the market in the early 1970s after ownership was transferred to him per contract agreement.  It's long been said the reason was because of Kennedy's assassination but it's not true, if for no other reason that it had occurred seven years earlier.  Some sources say it's because Sinatra thought there was a lack of public interest.  That seems far-fetched to me but it was withdrawn for a time... that is certain.

In 1994 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Do not ever confuse this great film with the 2004 ignoble remake.

Next posting:
Rambling Reporter II

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