The Manchurian Candidate—a 1962 movie starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, and Laurence Harvey—is just one of the crazy roller-coaster-rides we need to cleanse ourselves of the 2016 election cycle. It’s a riveting thriller yarn that finds its resonances today in its nailing of American exasperation, the feeling that the international political situation has gradually spiraled out of control. TMC’s position? “You bet it has! Let us sing the ways!”
Paranoia is the chief sensation of a movie as tense as The Manchurian Candidate. Paranoia of a sinister conspiracy behind every political action. Paranoia that the country is going down the drain. Paranoia that no friends or family (not even your boyfriend or your mommy) can be trusted. The Manchurian Candidate laughs in the face of stability, stasis, stillness. It is one of the most jittery, whirling films in the American canon. It is slangy, vivid myth-making of a sweaty type. Its monstrous poet-bard Homer (a Cerberus consisting of director John Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, author Dick Condon) are ill-prepared to control the uncontrollable story. Manchurian Candidate wrangles loose from their weak headlock, existing, improbably, in spite of the political circumstances that bred it.
When the film came out on October 24, 1962, the United States was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On this eve of destruction, President J.F. Kennedy coolly negotiated with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to dismantle the Russians’ heavy missile cache in Castro’s Cuba. The threat of nuclear annihilation was imminent. Amid the tumult of those two weeks, JFK may have had The Manchurian Candidate jangling in the back of his mind. After all, he very much enjoyed Dick Condon’s book of it, and Sinatra was said to have used his Mafia connections with Kennedy to finance this mutual passion-project of two old comrades. Later, when President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, a mortified Sinatra pulled the film from distribution, seemingly for good. It was not until 1987, when it played at two sold-out screenings at the New York Film Festival, that United Artists bought the rights to the film, re-marketing it for theatrical and home video distribution.
The big question: what is The Manchurian Candidate? It is an American blockbuster that has more in common with the instability of a French New Wave frenzy (Godard’s collages or Demy’s musicals) and Bollywood musicals (mixings of romance, melodrama, musical, war film, thriller, horror all in the same 3-hour stretch of film) than with The Sound of Music or West Side Story, TMC’s successful contemporaries. It is a schizoid parable that aims to be the ultimate Cold War statement on paranoia, embodying the sensation to such a skillful degree that you feel the film is going to literally catch on fire in the final reels.
Everything in TMC is pumped up for maximum madness. Regular characters get syringed with an extra dosage of the mean red jim-jams, because nothing can ever be left too clean, too normal. The most shocking example is the now-legendary performance of Angela Lansbury (or should I say “Lans-scary”?), in the role of the senator’s wife Mrs. Iselin. She acts as a cruel parody of the nice, tasteful, American mother. Her characterization is both totally regressive (of course the non-suburban, non-romantic interest would be portrayed like this…) and weirdly feminist (ah…the non-suburban, non-romantic interest is being portrayed like this…). With her badgering, Gestapo-like intensity, Lans-scary smokes cinders into men’s faces with her smoldering eye-sockets, mowing down senators’ words with a locomotive brutality. She will be heard, never ignored.
In a similar vein, Janet (Psycho) Leigh plays a shady, Robert Walker-like femme fatale whose cryptic language may or may not indicate she’s a member of the Communist Ring that she and the Kennedys and your auntie and six other audience-members may be a part of. The most celebrated (and widely discussed) meet-cute in film history occurs aboard a train in TMC, as Janet Leigh and Sinatra whisper sweet-somethings in the most roundabout, I’ve-never-heard-people-talk-like-this way imaginable. Critic Manny Farber describes it thusly: “Sinatra’s romantic scenes with Miss Leigh are a Chinese torture: he, pinned against the Pullman door as though having been buried standing up, and she, nothing moving on her body, drilling holes with her eyes into his screw-on head.” One can’t help but break out into hysterics at the audacity of this hipster’s rebellion against romance. Something screwy’s up, and we’ve a feeling that Leigh may be working with the Commies (as lots of Manchurian Conspiracy theorists like to think).
However, after that dazzling first scene, Leigh is screwed into place by the Cerberus, playing the safe, rote role of Sinatra’s girlfriend who coos and cooks when the script demands it and looks worried when 60s America insists upon it. But rather than removing a layer of consistency to the already inconsistent plot, this maneuver adds it. Everything is out of wack. We can never get the nervousness of that first encounter out of our minds, and we always wonder “When’s she going to start talking about meeting Arabs in Maryland again?” She never does. And we remain worried. Cue the cycle of anxiety that this film keeps us hopelessly locked within.
Where does this sense of imbalance come from? Two sources: one is the Tashlinesque perversity of George Axelrod’s script, and the other is the sobering TV punch of John Frankenheimer’s direction. Light and heavy, hilarious and serious—these two states-of-being clash electrically, causing short-circuits in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Axelrod’s writing background was almost exclusively in the comedy realm: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961),The Seven Year Itch (1955), and his daffiest invention, Lord Love a Duck! (1966). Frankenheimer’s got his starts directing for 50s television, helming such in-your-face, bravado works as The Comedian starring Mickey Rooney for Rod Serling’s Playhouse 90 series. Frankenheimer was trained to deliver images with punchy, Sam Fuller immediacy—but, crucially, without the disruptive and messy wackiness of full-on Fuller. There’s a reason, then, why Frankenheimer’s TMC political-thriller followup (Seven Days in May ) is so damned starchy, staid, and stuck-up. It doesn’t have the crazed inspiration of Axelrod’s script:
“He’s a Communist!” “And a Republican!”
“Tastes good, like a cigarette should!”—the old white garden ladies switching in and out of praising Mao and praising the Marlboro Man, capitalist commercials and hammer-and-sickles equated with one another.
“Fah-ther is absolutely scared tiddly of snakes. I know it sounds so terribly Freudian,” Laurence Harvey’s girlfriend says as he rubs his crotch area in their own bizarre meet-cute. (Doesn’t hold a candle to Sinatra-Leigh, of course).
“I want to marry you more than I want to keep eating Italian food,” says Janet Leigh the robotic Commie Agent. “Well, then why don’t we get with it, kiddo?” counters Ol’ Blue Eyes in sultry Sinatra-ese.
“It’s the greatest speech I’ve ever read.”
What perfect nut there is in these lines! Frankenheimer needs Axelrod, or else he’ll be too heavy and preachy. Axelrod needs Frankenheimer, or else his manic cartooned world will have no grounding, and his sub-Tashlin jokes won’t land (cf. Lord Love a Duck). They both contribute to making the film a masterwork of deadpan standup comedy.
(Of course, this is not to completely devalue Frankenheimer, who gives the film its share of outstanding, shocking images. The best, maybe, is one where a bobby-soxer 40s kid from some jerkwater surburban berg gets his head shot out at the garden party, the blood and brains splashing onto a poster of Stalin. It’s a demented riffing on white-bread primetime shows like the 50s’ Ozzie and Harriet or the 90s’ Full House.)
The jitteriness of Manchurian Candidate doesn’t detract from the point of the story; rather, it brilliantly enhances it. It is shamelessly littered with contrivances (Laurence’s sweetie wears the Queen of Diamonds to a costume just when she decides to propose to him) and Sam Fuller-like coincidences (a Korean manservant and an Italian crooner both magically know Japanese karate; the history of segregation in America is replayed in a recurring nightmare among the GIs, where the white guy dreams of white ladies, and the black guy dreams of black ones). Engagements get called off and marriages are planned in less time than it takes one to eat a baby-carrot. Sinatra and Leigh discuss the plot so far, then go into a gloriously random tangent about the Baby Buddha and whether Buddhists celebrate Christmas, then go right back to talking about what’s happened to Harvey. No plot point or character detail ever walks in a straight line.
Elsewhere, there are other contrivances, but used to more ambiguously political motives. In other words, what’s great about this film is that you can’t pin down its political leanings. You can’t tell whether the film leans left or leans right because the Cerberus has thrown the political spectrum out the window. Laurence Harvey’s weak attempt at an American accent is completely abandoned by his second scene. So are the English behind this conspiracy? What does that make of Kennedy’s alliances? (Lansbury clearly never tries to hide her Britishness.) It despises and condemns the McCarthyist reign of anti-Communism, yet its thriller aesthetics are built upon a fear of Communism. A dancing black couple are one of the “sinister” icons pinned on the Communist grannies’ Berlin Wall of Fame, along with Mao, Stalin, and some Vietnamese soldiers.
And what does all this TMC paranoia, this lurching back and forth between Logic and Lunacy, symbolize? Why, only the Pandora’s Box opened by the McCarthy witch-hunts, and the fear of a weird foreign “other” (Koreans and Chinese then; Mexicans and Muslims today) that has been a mainstay of American bigotry since the dawn of time. No one is to be trusted in The Manchurian Candidate. Its message: America breeds hatred and mistrust of those that don’t look or sound or act or think like “we should,” yet it’s often the people working from the inside (i.e., Angela Lansbury and her anti-Commie hubbie) who starve the American people from experiencing true democratic freedoms. American paranoia is both totally irrational and expected, both completely unsubstantiated and yet omnipresent. We can’t get rid of it. We never will be rid of it. We can only keep it at bay for so long, before inevitably it will come and do damage in whatever ways it can.
The current presidential shenaniganry is a return to this paranoid rhetoric. There’s, of course, the media blitz of constant coverage, with no segregation of noise. We see this in two TMC sequences: the first is the celebrated senate hearing, with Lans-scary sharing space with a television-set in foreground, surveying the chaos like an Evil Geppetto who babies Lyin’ Pinocchio in her spare-time. The second is the final assassination sequence, where Sinatra tries to stop Harvey in better-than-Third-Man Dutch-angle-mode. The presidential speech undergirding Sinatra’s mad dash is perfectly grammatical, yet hazes in and out of the soundtrack. When we catch snippets of it, it sounds like pure hokum nonsense. We get the impression, then, that the American political system is a network of half-recycled promises, bargains, shady deals on the sly—the outsider’s paranoia that nothing gets done, and yet the sun keeps shining, so what gives! No substance in the political speech; all that matters is the delivery, the conviction, the punch. Lans-scary has it.
People will say, “But, Carlos! The movie is manipulative! It presents us a stacked deck!” To which I say, “What the Frankenheimer-Axelrod-Condon Cerberus presents us isn’t contrived in that Kramer-Fail Safe way. It only looks that way because of how patently ridiculous and horrifying it all is. Why? Because it’s a reflection.”
Yes, The Manchurian Candidate (whether you like the plastic TV technique or not) works as a grotesque reflection, a funhouse mirror that reveals our unfounded, unconscious fears. It takes our fears to their most logical extremes. TMC is propulsive, addicting filmmaking of the highest order. It demands our attention, choking and grabbing us by the coat lapels in the process.
Photos courtesy of here.