Friday, November 4, 2016
John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate
During the months leading up to this year's presidential election there have been dozens upon dozens of conspiracy theories floating around through the social media. A few of them are proving to have some degree of substance; most are pure, unadulterated hogwash. Of course, when it comes to conspiracy theories and elections the two have gone together every since someone floated the rumor that George Washington lied to his father in claiming to have cut down the cherry tree, probably right after stretching the truth regarding his throw-ing the silver dollar (with his image on it, no less) across the Potomac. (He didn't say where he did so or how wide the river was at that point.) If you happen to be a connoisseur of conspiracy theo-ries, then by all means rent John Frank-enheimer's 1962 The Manchurian Cand-idate to watch on election night. You'll find it much more exciting than pundits, polls, and politicians.
The Manchurian Candidate is all about the Cold War. You remember the Cold War, right? The Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin airlift, the Korean "conflict," all major battles having, at best, only modest effects upon the world we know today. Even after an all-too-brief ceasefire following the 1990 fall of the Berlin wall and the Christmas Day fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we're reminded by the whole WikiLeaks controversy that little has changed--the cold war never really ended. The book and movie (top) are also an outgrowth of the McCarthy era and the early 1950s...not Eugene, but way back to Joseph and his wildly unsubstantiated charges of "a Red under every bed."
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was a film that cleverly glided along these two historic tracks; employing subtle political satire, while also being an exciting, spy thriller. In watching it today, it's not hard to savor both aspects, in addition to being awestruck by film’s amazing predictive powers. One year after its release, an American president would be assassinated by a troubled young man--a young man who had once lived among America’s enemies, committing a crime eerily similar to that depicted in this film. It will probably never be known if the tragedy of November 22, 1963 was a case of life imitating art, but that, along with today’s trashy, hyper-partisan political atmosphere, lend the film a startling relevance that was lacking when it was first released. In the truest sense, The Manchurian Candidate is a classic. In its accuracy and immediacy, it could just as well be made today. Actually, it was (needlessly) remade in 2004 by director Jonathan Demme starring Denzel Washington, Jon Voight, and Meryl Streep.
I'm not going to get involved in relating the plot. If you've never seen the movie before (or even if you have) I really do want you to watch it again. Suffice to say its about brainwashing, and a Chinese Communist conspiracy with enough twists to make a very sturdy rope. The movie was promoted with the words, "If you come in five minutes after the picture begins, you won't know what it's about." I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot in using the photo above from the first five minutes.
The Manchurian Candidate cast is superb. Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and James Gregory all impress. Among all these men, (and perhaps because there were so many of them) Janet Leigh does a solid job in a role that is ultimately unnecessary. When a director and producer (George Axelrod, in this case) cast a movie they never know who will end up winning all the accolades. The surprise performance in this film is that of Angela (Murder, She Wrote) Lansbury, who steals the show. She may well be one of the most evil creatures ever to hit the screen...made all the scarier because you can’t help but think there are more than a few people in Washington (now as well as then) just like her. Her portrayal of Mrs. Iselin, won her an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.) I can't help but think she may have gotten the role due to the fact that her sagging jawline has always made her look slightly older than her age (37 when the film was made). She was, in fact, just three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played her son, Raymond Shaw. We shall forever be thankful that Axelrod and Frankenheimer didn't get their first choice for the role--Lucille Ball.
Frank Sinatra was hired as the star and hero of the film. Even though he turned in a suitably heroic performance, sufficient to also win his own Oscar nomination, Sinatra has always had such a strong persona that whenever you see him on screen, you see Sinatra first, and then his character (in any case, he'd already won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1951 for From Here to Eternity). Politically speaking, James Gregory’s Senator Johnny Iselin was clearly inspired by Joseph McCarthy. However, for those on the other side of the aisle, the relationship between Gregory and Lansbury foreshadows the Clintons more than many would care to admit. Very much like today, none of Richard Condon's characters are admirable, or even likable. Perhaps it's only natural that people will see those they don’t like politically reflected in these portrayals. On the other hand though, it’s hard to get wrapped up in politics with a story as tense and engaging as this one. The clip below should entice you to want to see the whole movie.
Angela Lansbury at her best...or worst.
Posted by Jim Lane at 12:01 AM