|Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962).|
(Spoiler alert: This article discusses plot details that The Manchurian Candidate keeps hidden until quite late in the narrative. Though they are quite famous, if you don’t know them you might prefer to see the movie first and encounter the revelations with all the suspense and surprise that the 1962 audience would have experienced.)
Political conspiracy thrillers flourished during the early days of the Cold War and especially during the Korean War. Generally their heroes were pure-hearted Federal agents who succeeded in stemming the insidious behavior of Communist infiltrators, icy devils with no more dimensions than the Nazis bad guys Hollywood had featured just a few years earlier. The exception was Leo McCarey’s notorious and distasteful 1952 My Son John, in which the Commie is a young American man (Robert Walker) who comes home to give the commencement speech at his old high school and alarms his mother (Helen Hayes) by mocking his parents’ patriotism and refusing to attend church with them. He is also clearly gay, though the movie doesn’t say so explicitly; you deduce it from the flourishes in Walker’s performance, which are recycled from the truly splendid one he gave the year before in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The idea seems to be some debased version of the Renaissance notion about the clustering of vices in a corrupted personality. In the great Jacobean tragedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, when the husband of the protagonist realizes she’s a murderess and her partner in crime calls her a whore, the husband replies, “It could not choose but follow.” More specifically in My Son John, the un-American elements in John’s behavior – cynicism, atheism, homosexuality – all point to his being under the influence of a foreign power.
The saintly mother, symbol of all that Americans hold dear, who turns in her own son to the FBI when he sees he’s become a monster, is turned on its head with devastating wit in The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s dazzling 1962 film, just out in a gorgeous restored print on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. Manchurian, adapted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s ingenious novel, revisits the Cold War conspiracy thriller eight years after the censure of Senator Joe McCarthy killed it off. Instead of Hayes’ Lucille Jefferson we get Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury), a narcissistic, devouring Freudian mama who emasculates her son, the Korean War hero Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), and stage manages the political career of her moronic, alcoholic second husband, Johnny (James Gregory), whom she’s steering toward the White House on a platform of hysterical, finger-pointing anti-Communist rhetoric. (Iselin is a wickedly funny caricature of McCarthy, down to his mantra, “Point of order!” and the shifting number of Communists he claims have slithered their way into the State Department.) “She always wins. I can never beat her,” Raymond admits to Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), whose testimony has helped get him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Raymond tells Ben the story of how his mother’s tireless berating drove him to give up the only woman he’d ever loved, Josie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), because her father, the liberal Senator Tom Jordan (John McGiver), was her political enemy. Only years later, when it suits her agenda, does she allow – actually encourage – Raymond to take up with Josie again, and though they manage to elope, their marriage is ill-fated and short-lived. Mrs. Iselin is one of the most infamous villains in American movies – and, thanks equally to the writing (Axelrod lifted most of her dialogue straight from the book) and Lansbury’s performance, an exhilaratingly modern confirmation of Shakespeare’s discovery that a thoroughgoing villain can be complex. And she sets a new bar for terrible mothers. We learn early in the picture that Raymond’s heroics are a fabrication by a Soviet mind doctor (Dr. Yen Lo, played by Khigh Dhiegh) who planted it in the heads of the men in his unit while brainwashing Raymond to become an assassin manipulated by his Communist masters. Then two-thirds of the way through the film we find out his own mother is his American handler, her husband’s well-rehearsed anti-Communism a ploy to gain Communism a foothold in America after the presidential candidate whose running mate he’s supposed to be is picked off during the Republican convention (by Raymond, of course).
|Angela Lansbury (and, inset, James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate .|
The movie’s treatment of sacred motherhood is one of its two central satirical thrusts. The other one is its premise, which spins off the platitude, often heard during Joe McCarthy’s popularity, that he couldn’t do more harm to America if he were a Soviet agent. Axelrod puts that exact sentiment in Tom Jordan’s mouth. As satirists, the filmmakers are fearless: in one scene, Johnny is reflected in the glass of a poster of Lincoln on his wall, and when he and his wife throw a costume ball he dresses up as Lincoln, drunkenly slathering caviar in the shape of an American flag on a cracker. Satirical movies have rarely been as highly regarded or as popular as The Manchurian Candidate. But then, it came out in the optimistic, abbreviated period when Kennedy was president and Hollywood movies were beginning to reflect not just the promise of his youthfulness and idealism but also the cultivated tenor of his White House. Perhaps the only other American satire to score as high, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, came out two years later – after JFK’s assassination but also unmistakably the product of the Kennedy era. Howard Hampton points out in “Dead Center,” the essay that accompanies the Criterion release, that the invented rescue mission attributed to Raymond Shaw is inspired by Kennedy’s own heroic war past aboard PT-109. Kennedy is all over Manchurian – not only because his enthusiasm for the novel helped get the movie produced, not only because he was such a close friend of Sinatra’s, but also, inescapably, because it’s a movie about political assassination that came out the year before Dallas. (The unhappy coincidence is the reason it was more or less removed from distribution for twenty-five years. I say “more or less” because it did show up occasionally on television and I saw it in the campus film series when I was a college student.)
Axelrod’s script, which is almost entirely faithful to Condon, is a high point in the history of American screenwriting, but Frankenheimer’s direction is every bit as impressive. Viewed in the context of his career, it seems hardly possible that he could ever have done work as imaginative and darkly funny as Manchurian; most of the pictures he turned out were dull, with a few pretty fair entertainments scattered among them and one remarkably good stage-to-screen adaptation, of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). But in Manchurian, collaborating with cinematographer Lionel Lindon and editor Ferris Webster, he’s working audaciously and at a level of breathtaking sophistication. Visually the film mixes styles and influences: surrealism (the two nightmare sequences), expressionism (the climactic scene on the convention floor; the Hitchcockian tipped camera in one scene and in another the unsettling Wellesian use of deep focus, with the pulled, fish-eye foreground), comic-book-style hyperbole, and the look and feel of live TV – Frankenheimer’s own training ground – for the scene where Johnny introduces his claim of Communist infiltration in the middle of an unimportant Congressional committee meeting. Frankenheimer focuses on Mrs. Iselin, watching the event transpire as she staged it, her eye not on Johnny but on the monitor so she can concentrate on how it plays for the TV audience. Hampton comments in his essay on “the immediacy of shallow-field television compositions, and . . . raw video feeds to create a dizzying overlapping-overloading audiovisual effect,” observing that the film “leaps into a new media world without making any fuss about it, as if Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone were merely a natural extension of Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now.” The comic-book scenes are set up by Raymond’s observation, when he lands stateside after Korea and finds that his mother has prepared a welcome parade for him – really to maneuver a photo op for Johnny – that he feels like Captain Idiot in the funnies. In one of these sequences, Raymond, set off by a casual remark by a bartender that triggers the mechanism his Communist masters have implanted in his brain, jumps in Central Park Lake. The mechanism goes into effect when someone suggests Raymond pass the time by playing a game of solitaire; as soon as he unearths the Queen of Diamonds, his mind is receptive to whatever scenario next presents itself. In another of these comic-book scenes, Josie appears at the Iselins’ costume party dressed by sheer coincidence as the Queen of Diamonds. The most memorable one is a spontaneous fight between Ben and Chunjin (Henry Silva), who was guide and interpreter for Ben and Raymond’s unit in Korea and suddenly shows up in New York, where Raymond has landed a post-war journalist’s job, begging him to hire him as a domestic. Ben drops by to see Raymond and when Chunjin answers the door, Ben remembers that he’s seen him more recently, in his recurring nightmare, where he was clearly working for the Chinese.
Surrealism was sometimes hilarious in its earliest cinematic form, as in the two celebrated shorts Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali co-directed, Un chien andalou (1929) and L’âge d’or (1930), but no one – not even Brian De Palma or David Lynch – has ever combined humor and horror in quite the way Frankenheimer does in Manchurian’s two nightmare sequences. In the dream that haunts Marco, he and his men sit, bored and half-dozing, in a hotel convention room during a rainstorm listening along with club ladies in flower-print dresses and flowery bonnets, to a lecture on hydrangeas. The doze, like the ladies, is drug-induced; in fact, they are in an operating theatre in Manchuria where Lo is demonstrating the effects of the brainwashing on Raymond for a convocation of Communist higher-ups. What Ben remembers in his sleep is both the ladies and the Communists, one shifting into the other, so sometimes the ladies speak the Communists’ lines. The effect is stylistically complicated, with Brechtian and absurdist elements overlapping with the surrealistic ones, and the tone is complex. Lo (from the “Pavlov Institute” in Moscow) insists that his Manchurian experiment proves that brainwashing can remove a man’s inhibitions and when the Communist Zilkov (Albert Paulsen) demands, as evidence, that Raymond strangle the most likable of his comrades, it’s one of the club ladies who offers her handkerchief as the weapon. The stoned men are so becalmed that Ben moves obligingly out of the way to let Raymond pass, and the victim, Ed Mavole (Richard LePore), barely objects when Raymond slips the hankie around his neck. But the murder is grotesque, and Ben wakes from it screaming.
It turns out that one other veteran from their unit, Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards), is having the same nightmares; that’s how Marco knows for sure that the story of Raymond’s heroism is a scam. Al is African American, and – in an inspired twist – in his version of the dream the club ladies are black as well. There’s another difference, too: Al’s dream goes on longer, past Mavole’s death to Raymond’s shooting the youngest member of the group, their mascot, Bobby Lembeck (Tom Lowell), through the forehead. (His blood sprays the poster of Stalin on the wall behind them.) Ben doesn’t dream that part because it’s he, following Lo’s orders, who hands Raymond the gun, and the horror of his collusion in Lembeck’s death would be too much for his mind to acknowledge.
Lo’s claim that the brainwashing can subdue moral qualms without any consequences is false: we see the residue of their experience in Manchuria in Ben’s and Al’s nightmares. And though Raymond carries out his orders, when he murders his own father-in-law (whom he loves and respects) and turns the gun on Josie, who runs into the room just as he’s doing it – he’s been instructed never to leave witnesses alive – as he staggers out of the house like a robot assassin, his face is drenched in tears. Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra have been justly lauded for their performances in Manchurian, but in acting terms the linchpin in the cast is Laurence Harvey, who manages to play, in scene after scene but most movingly in this one, both the Manchurian weapon and the trapped, helpless man behind it. The role is written as tragic, but it wouldn’t work that way without a master actor. Harvey was a star but he’s been largely forgotten, partly because he died young (at forty-five, of cancer, in 1973) and partly because many of the movies he starred in were glossy, expensive bombs (Butterfield 8, Summer and Smoke, Walk on the Wild Side) that capitalized on his sexual charisma but not on his talent. He was terrific in some of the English pictures he made in the 1950s, like I Am a Camera and Expresso Bongo and his breakthrough film, Room at the Top, but Manchurian may be the only one of his Hollywood pictures that showcased his gifts. His performance is built on ironic contrasts – not just between the assassin and the man who’s dragged along with him but also between the supercilious, puritanical personality he presents to almost everyone and the sweet, lovestruck boy only Josie and her father see. One of the movie’s best jokes is that all the men in the unit are wired to recite, at the mention of his name, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” when the truth is they can’t stand him. “It isn’t as if Raymond Shaw is hard to like,” Ben explains at one point. “He’s impossible to like! He’s probably one of the most repulsive people I’ve known in my whole life!” But Ben’s assignment – to learn the truth about what happened in Korea – requires that he get close to Raymond, and they get drunk together. That’s when Raymond tells him about the one time in his life he was “lovable” – with Josie – and Ben, too, sees the side of him only the Jordans know. And, in the flashback, so do we.
|Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate.|
In the novel, Raymond is described as “sexually neutral,” and while Lo is fiddling with his brain, he casually implants the capacity for sexual arousal in him (because he can, not because he feels compassion for him). It seems clear, though Condon doesn’t make it explicit, that Raymond’s sexual deadness is the result of his mother’s crypto-incestuous feelings for him, a holdover from her incest with her father, whom Raymond resembles physically. (Axelrod also gets rid of Mrs. Iselin’s morphine addiction and her extravagant displays of temper when she can’t get what she wants.) Eventually she acts on those feelings, but in the movie the manifestation of her desire is restricted to a kiss on the lips that makes the point effectively enough. The omission of Lo’s little sexual present to Raymond gives the character more freedom; his response to Josie is entirely his own. And when Ben uses a deck full of red queens to disconnect his trigger, his genuine heroism at the eleventh hour, eliminating his mother and stepfather instead of the presidential candidate he’s been ordered to kill, is also an act of free will. But it comes too late to save him, since releasing him from his mother’s control also makes him aware that he murdered his beloved Josie. In the novel he never gets to act as a free man (Ben becomes his new master), which, I think, diminishes the tragedy. At the end of the movie he turns the gun on himself and, in the last scene, Ben eulogizes him.
That eulogy might be the best scene Sinatra ever got to play. I’m far from the first critic to observe that Sinatra squandered his talent for the camera because he simply didn’t care about his acting the way he cared about his singing. Aside from his Oscar-winning portrayal of Private Maggio in From Here to Eternity in 1953, which helped to jump-start his stalled career, and his magnificent work as the junkie gambler Frankie Machine in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm, his work in Manchurian is the only genuine evidence of how fine an actor he could be. Certainly Ben Marco, a voracious reader who can quote Aeschylus, is the damnedest part anyone would ever have imagined casting Frank Sinatra in, but he’s superb. (Presumably he reads so much because of his insomnia: he’s terrified to go to sleep and start those nightmares going.) It’s not just the hip looseness of his line readings but also the way he gets Marco’s haunted quality. The movie gives Sinatra the underrated Janet Leigh as a romantic partner, and their scenes together are amazing – and uncategorizable. The dialogue (again, straight out of Condon) is weirdly, wildly funny, but only with Leigh’s Rosie, whom he meets on a train when the nightmares have worn him down to a neurotic nub, is Ben is able to reveal himself, and the mixed tones in their scenes are quite stunning. Leigh reads her lines with a combination of sexual directness and emotional tentativeness, curiosity and warmth.
The less said about Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of Manchurian, as a screechy allegory for corporate fascism with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in the Sinatra and Lansbury parts and Liev Schreiber in a composite of Raymond Shaw and Johnny Iselin, the better. (Its one virtue is Jeffrey Wright as Al Melvin, whose nightmares have turned him into the Incredible Shrinking Man.) But I do think there’s one political conspiracy movie that can stand next to the original Manchurian Candidate. The genre became popular again in the mid-seventies, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, but these later movies, like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, were overlaid with a pessimism about America that was a far cry from the way the genre had been conceived in the first place. Then, in 1981, De Palma wrote and directed Blow Out, which is as radical a reimagining of the 1970s conspiracy political movies as Manchurian is of the Korean War-era ones. In it a sound effects expert named Jack Terry (John Travolta) who works on schlocky horror pictures inadvertently gets on tape evidence that the death of a presidential candidate was no accident. But Terry, who believes in exposing the truth even when it’s an ugly truth, is a holdover from another time, when Americans weren’t so cavalier about giving away their liberty, and no one wants to listen to his conspiracy theories. (The film’s ironic setting is a fictional Philadelphia holiday, Liberty Day, and the climax is set against a Liberty Day parade.) The movie, like Manchurian, ends as a tragedy. Criterion released a beautiful print of Blow Out – a magnificent-looking film, shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who died in January – five years ago. They would make a staggering double bill.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.