Monday, March 31, 2014

The Manchurian Candidate


Forest fires in Appalachia are playing havoc with our locations, so I had no filming today. As my schedule would now permit it, I was invited to serve as grand marshal of the Welch, West Virginia Veteran’s Day parade. I put on my best turban, large cats eye sunglasses, and a cunning little Chanel suit with ocelot trim and headed back into coal country in my lovely new motor home in order to be at the parade grounds on time. I was a tad disappointed at the arrangements; I had been led to believe that there would be a large Cadillac convertible in which I could ride and wave at the adoring multitudes. Instead, there was someone’s ten year old Miata with a large rip in the convertible top that flapped rather uncomfortably around my tush when I took my position in back. I was also not given the place of honor at the head of the parade as promised, I was behind the Chamber of Commerce float which featured a very zaftig hausfrau wrapped in aluminum foil who was, I think, impersonating the Statue of Liberty. It was somewhat hard to tell as her sparkler kept going out. At the end of the ten-block parade route, I was so exhausted that I simply had to retire to my quarters. 

While resting up, there was further bad news. Joseph, my manager, called about the new musical version of The Last Seduction, Bridget Over Troubled Waters. The choreographer, my old friend Wakefield Poole, is having a terrible time with the second act dream ballet. In order to be topical, it’s a Taliban number entitled Osama Chanted Evening but the quick political changes in that part of the world are throwing poor Wakefield for a loop. I finally came up with an absolutely brilliant idea. The chorines will begin in their full-length sequined burqas and then, as the music changes to a Sousaesque march, those costumes will fly out revealing them in stiletto-heeled taps and hot pants. It’ll be a sensation. Joseph agreed that it would be fabulous and also promised to keep Wakefield from beating the chorus girls with a stick every time he sees an ankle during rehearsal. 

American politics and foreign policy being somewhat on my mind, I decided to  watch one of the great political films of all time, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. The film, based on Richard Condon’s novel, explores the extremes of American politics, both left and right, showing how they are more alike than different and how inherently dangerous extremism can be. It couches its heady themes in a crackerjack plot of brainwashing, political assassination, dysfunctional family ties, and shrewd deconstruction of McCarthyite grandstanding. 

Laurence Harvey is Raymond Shaw, an officer in the Army during the Korean War. In the prolog, he is introduced as being a rather nasty piece of goods, unloved by his men and grudgingly respected by his second in command, Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra). Shaw’s patrol is captured on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. There is apparently an action of some kind in which Shaw supposedly behaves heroically and he receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. Raymond returns to the loving arms of his mother (Angela Lansbury), a thoroughly odious snake of a woman who is married to an idiotic buffoon of a Senator (James Gregory). She is bound and determined to make her husband and his McCarthyite tactics a political force to be reckoned with and it soon becomes apparent that her ambitions have no bounds or controls. She is willing to use any means necessary to come to power. 

In a stunning series of dream sequences, we soon find out that Raymond’s patrol was not involved in enemy action but were rather taken to Manchuria and psychologically conditioned by operatives of the USSR and China. Raymond has been turned into a killing machine, who will assassinate anyone he is told if the right sequence of events, involving a game of solitaire and the queen of diamonds, takes place. Ben Marco, who keeps having these recurrent dreams, soon figures out that these are reality. Aided by his new girlfriend (Janet Leigh), he starts to unravel the mystery of Raymond Shaw, Senator and Mrs. Iselin and just who Raymond’s American operator is and what he has been built to do. 

The Manchurian Candidate is an unusual film in several ways. First, it’s a film that succeeds despite its principal cast rather than because of it. Sinatra, never the strongest of actors, plays Major Marco as a confused, but likeable regular guy. As he moves farther and farther into the heart of darkness that is the plot, he never seems to change or be affected by the issues involved. Janet Leigh, whose introduction to the film is one of the most bizarre monologues ever offered in the history of cinema, is more of a pretty face and love interest than a complete character. Laurence Harvey, playing the damaged Raymond, is robotic and wooden, which fortunately plays into the character rather than against it. Second, the supporting cast, especially Angela Lansbury and James Gregory more than make up for the deficiencies in the principal performers. Lansbury was robbed of an Oscar (Patty Duke won that year for The Miracle Worker) for her performance as the vicious mother from hell. Fifty years later, she’s still capable of causing chills to march up and down the spine in some of her scenes. Her success here also robbed us of another indelible villainess. When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed some years later, the producers tried desperately to get Lansbury to accept the role of Nurse Ratched. She refused them saying she had already depicted ultimate evil on screen and did not want to repeat herself. James Gregory, best known to modern audiences as the pompous Inspector Luger on Barney Miller, is almost her match as the addled senator who cannot remember how many card carrying communists there are until shown a Heinz ketchup bottle. Third, the politics of the film may be those of the cold war but it remains absolutely relevant. Substitute the word ‘terrorist’ for ‘communist’ and we could be listening to talking heads on CNN. 

Frankenheimer, who wrote the screenplay together with producer George Axelrod, continues to work in film but has never again equaled this achievement as either author or director. It remains to be seen but there are certain parallels with Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie creating the brilliant The Usual Suspects which they are likely never to top. The script is literate, cohesive, and the suspense builds and builds with almost perfect pacing as each new revelation is made to the audience. 

The film was kept out of distribution for many years due to legal problems (and due to some uncomfortable echoes of the Kennedy assassination) and only re-emerged in the late 1980s. At that time, documentary footage was shot with Frankenheimer, Axelrod, Sinatra and others who worked on the film, discussing its making and its political implications, both in the 1960s and today. This is included on the DVD release of the film and is worth viewing. 

This is perhaps the classic paranoid political thriller and should be seen by all serious students of American film. 

Helicopter airlift. Sinister houseboy. Ladies garden club meeting. Strangulation death. Giant playing card. Press conference uproar. Bullet through milk carton. Madison Square Garden rowdiness. 

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