Thursday, April 21, 2011

Film #54: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


Director: John Frankenheimer

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about ten years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

U.S. Army officer has mind bent into an assassin during Korean War, comes home, experiences strangeness; Machiavellian mother.

Extended Summary (Complete summary of major story points, MAJOR spoilers included. Fair warning.)

In the thick of the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is the thoroughly uppity, humorless and utterly disliked Staff Sergeant of a small platoon. One night, thanks to their traitorous Chinese interpreter, the entire platoon is captured and dragged away by mysterious, black-clad figures.

Fast-forward several weeks. Raymond Shaw arrives home in the United States to much fanfare. We are told that he had escaped capture by fighting his way out of a POW camp, destroying enemy fortifications, and rescuing his entire platoon, save two men, in the process. For these acts, he has been awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor. His plane is met by marching bands and hordes of reporters, as well as his mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and step-father, Senator John Iselin. It soon becomes apparent to the young Shaw that the entire pageant has been set up as a platform for his step-father's political ambitions. Raymond is clearly disgusted and embarrassed by the entire show.

Elsewhere in the country, two of Raymond's fellow soldiers from Korea are having some bad experiences. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Corporal Allen Melvin are having bizarre and terrifying dreams. In these dreams, they see themselves and their platoon sitting in a hotel lobby, listening to what starts as a lecture on hydrangeas. Eventually, however, it becomes an exposition by a Chinese hypnotherapist, Doctor Yen Lo, to high-ranking communist party leaders from places such as Russia. Lo is explaining to his comrades how he has brainwashed the platoon, but particularly Raymond Shaw. Shaw has become a weapon that, upon seeing or hearing the correct triggers, will follow whatever orders he is given. To demonstrate, he has Shaw kill two of his own squad members in front of the others. At this point in their dreams, Marco and Melvin always wake up.

Bennett and Shaw, brainwashed with the rest of the platoon.

In the waking world, a shaky Marco Bennett is assigned as a press relations attache to a federal congressman. On his first duty, at a small press hearing, he comes almost head-to-head with the blustering Senator Iselin, who shows up unannounced and loudly levels anti-Communist accusations towards many unnamed members of Congress. While the doltish Iselin holds the position of power and the attention of a communist-wary public, it is clearly his wife, the cold and calculating Eleanor, who is behind all of his fear-mongering.

Bennett's dreams continue to disturb him; so much so that he is temporarily relieved of duty. He seeks out Raymond Shaw to find some sort of answers, and finds him working for a left-leaning journalist in New York. In speaking with his ever-misanthropic former subordinate, he learns that he is not alone in his dreams, as Raymond had received a letter from Melvin shortly before. This, however, is all he can tell Bennett. Soon, Marco convinces his superiors of the validity of his suspicions, and he and Melvin are separately able to identify some of the communist leaders they have seen in their dreams. The army decides to let Bennett stay close to Shaw to keep tabs on him.

While being under Bennett's watch, Shaw reveals a seminal moment in his past: the one time that he has both truly loved and been loved. It was with the lovely Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan, the staunchest rival to Raymond's fanatical mother and her puppet Senator husband. Raymond and Jocelyn had a summer of happiness before Eleanor learned of it, and forced Raymond to break it off in brutal fashion. Raymond then enlisted in the army.

Shortly after this revelation of Raymond's past, Major Bennett witnesses a clue to the brainwashing technique through a bizarre accident with a deck of cards. During a random encounter in a bar, Bennett sees Raymond hear the suggestion, “Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” Upon hearing this phrase, Raymond robotically follows the suggestion until he overturns the queen of diamonds. Whatever suggestion is made to Raymond after he sees this card will be seen through and completely forgotten by him, no matter how ridiculous or brutal.

Bennett works out the triggering mechanism for Raymond's fugue assassination states.

Raymond's mother decides to throw a costume party with two subversive purposes. She invites her arch-enemies, the Jordans, so that she might reunite Raymond and Jocelyn, thus getting Eleanor closer to her rivals. Also, she reveals to Senator Jordan her plans to spearhead her husband's nomination as Vice-President in the upcoming elections. Jordan informs her that he will seek to impeach Iselin if they do any such thing. In a side room, Jocelyn, costumed as the Queen of Diamonds, steals in upon a dazed Raymond, and inadvertently hypnotizes him into eloping with her.

While all of this is happening, Major Bennett has been back at headquarters, puzzling over Raymond's strange behavior. He eventually puzzles out all of the triggers, and he plans to find Raymond in order to try and de-program him. Whom he finds first, however, is Jocelyn Jordan, who pleads with Bennett to give them 48 hours together while on their honeymoon. She assures Bennett that hers and Raymond's love for each other will overcome any potential brainwashing. Bennett reluctantly accedes.

Back at the Iselin residence, Eleanor schemes. She knows of her son's elopement, and puts her darkest plan into motion: We now learn that she has been the communists' agent in America, and she uses Raymond's triggers to hypnotize him and send him to kill both Senator Jordan and Raymond's own new wife, Jocelyn. Raymond does so, in the same mechanical fashion as he had killed his fellow soldiers.

The slaying of Jocelyn and her father by her own husband. One of the most distrubing scenes I've ever watched.

We also learn that, in addition to eliminating Senator Jordan, Eleanor has even greater ambitions: she has orchestrated the assassination of the presidential candidate who her husband will be running with as Vice-Presidential candidate. Her overall plan is to use the killing, which will happen in mid-acceptance speech, to whip up such powerful anti-communist sentiment that her husband will become president (with her making all the decisions, as usual), enact martial law, and turn the country into a war machine that will crush the supposed “Red Menace”. During her exposition of this plan to her entranced son, she recalls how she had requested an assassin from the communists, not knowing that they would use her own son in an attempt to bind her to them. Alas, she is willing to sacrifice Raymond for her own ends.

Upon hearing of the deaths of the Jordans, Major Bennett is wracked with guilt and self-doubt. He realizes that he could have stopped it, but did not. He receives a call from Raymond and races to meet him in hotel across the street from the fast-approaching acceptance speech for Raymond's detested step-father. Bennett finds Raymond and uses his own deck of cards, all queens of diamonds, to send Raymond into a trance and attempts to “rip out the wiring” by telling him that its all over now, and that he is free of the psychological strings that the scientists attached to him in Korea.

Still, it would seem that Bennett's work has gone for naught. When the speech approaches, Raymond frees himself from Bennett and seems to fall back under his mother's control. He disguises himself as a priest and takes a rifle into a high point in the convention hall. Bennett and another officer get to the speech just as it starts and desperately search for Raymond. As the speech nears the point at which Raymond is to kill the presidential candidate, Bennett spies Raymond's position and runs up to him. Just as he reaches the door, Raymond turns his rifle sights away from the presidential candidate and rapidly shoots and kills both his step-father and his mother. He puts on his Medal of Honor, turns, looks at Bennett, and sadly explains that “nobody else could have stopped them”. Then, he puts the rifle in his own mouth and kills himself.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any research)

I'm still trying to get my head around this one. It's not hard to see why so many of the original press releases and posters had things like, “You'll have to watch it again immediately!” Quite true. If I hadn't seen it once already, I would probably feel the same way. Even still, as you can see from the massive plot summary, it's hard to give a thumbnail synopsis of this movie. There are too many bizarre, novel, and absolutely necessary elements to explain.

But really, do they all amount to a movie that I liked? Overall, yes. While there are some clunky elements, I really enjoy the film and recommend it to nearly anyone with a stomach for very dark subject matter and stories that go for the slow reveal.

First, the bad, though perhaps “bad” is not quite the right word. As fascinating and unique as so many of the facets of The Manchurian Candidate are, there are some odd ones as well. Probably foremost are the several false leads that the movie throws at you. In a film that, from its very beginning, is all about not taking things at face value, there are many conversations and happenings that lead you down false paths. Marco Bennett's reading books of odd and varied topics is one of them. In a movie that so masterfully interlocks seemingly disparate and puzzling story elements, this is one that is never explained or connected to any other element. Or if it was, I'll be damned if I can figure it out.

Related to this are two things that are themselves connected. In the middle of the film, a very shaky Major Bennett is on a train and meets the gorgeous Eugenie Rose Cheney, played by the sultry Janet Leigh. The two have a conversation that is, in turns, flirtatious, awkward, and laden with bizarre questions and answers that lead we viewers to think that there is something much deeper going on. Is Rose romantically interested in Bennett or is she some kind of agent for one of the great Cold War powers? Well, it turns out that she merely fancies Bennett. No more, no less. Once this is clear, the strangeness of their initial conversation seems far out of place.

On top of these strange feints and hintings at things that are not there, it seems completely incoherent to have a romantic plot-line that does nothing to enhance the story. Hollywood has always been notorious for this, and rarely has it been more obvious than in The Manchurian Candidate. The characters of Rose Cheney and her wooing of Major Bennett have so little to do with anything else going on in the movie that they are mere distraction. It's utterly bizarre to me that a film that was, in all other respects, so carefully crafted and rich in story would have such a malformed component attached to it. I strongly suspect that this was something that the studio, not the original creative forces, demanded. I plan to find this in my research.

Aside from these clumsy add-ons, the film is a wonderful mind-bender. I can only imagine the impact that it had on audiences in 1962, in the middle of the Cold War, but I have to assume that it took real guts to pull this one off. You have double-dealing, backstabbing, and brainwashing thrown into a dizzying plot-line that rarely gives the viewers a moment to truly figure out whose side they're on. The political climate would have been just post-McCarthyism, who the buffoonish Senator Johnny Iselin is clearly based upon, but having him be the puppet of a communist-backed, double-dealing, viperous marionette in Angela Lansbury is just plain wicked, in all of the right ways. The layers of fear and betrayal going on in this movie are astounding, but never completely out of reach for us viewers. This is a testament to John Frankenheimer's directorial powers.

Raymond Shaw, the last guy you want to be seeing from this perspective.

I suppose that part of me feels that this movie is a sign of the times. Having been released in the middle of the Cold War, when the fear of spreading communism was all-too-palpable, The Manchurian Candidate must have been quite a shocker in that it demonizes both political extremes. The hard-core communists are portrayed as manipulating, soul-less monsters. However, their monstrosity is equally matched by Senator Johnny Iselin and his dictator wife. In the end, the movie is the ultimate condemnation of fanaticism, which gives it a life far beyond the political climate of the Cold War decades.

The acting is quite solid. Sinatra does fine (though he does add in some strange, “Brat Pack”, hipster lingo here and there.) The strongest performances, though, are from Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury. Who would have thought that the woman most of us know as a kindly, geriatric sleuth on Murder, She Wrote could so convincingly play an icy, calculating, she-demon? When you see her go to work on both her son and dunce of a husband, you're as scared of her as of the ostentatiously sinister communist hypnotherapist, Doctor Yen Lo.

The visuals are just right for the movie. Done in black-and-white, the stark tone is set and compliments the theme of dual extremes that is explored. There are many shadows and skewed angles that enhance the viewers' sense of unbalance and the warped nature of what certain characters are doing. A bonus for me is that I watched this movie on a cold, rainy day. It was perfect, and I recommend anyone else try the same.

Considering the ultimate fate of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, I'll go ahead and say that it is the darkest, most disturbing movie I've seen from the TIME list so far. So many films claim to go to dark places, and some of them even flirt with it, though very few actually plunge right into those shadowy recesses. The Manchurian Candidate doesn't balk at leading you into the abyss. Darkness and all, this movie is one-of-a-kind. So much so that I probably will never watch the recent re-make with Denzel Washington. I never have seen it, and I simply don't see how it can pack the same punch.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research):

Ah-ha. After some digging, some interestings factoids emerge, and I feel less stupid about a few things.

The Manchurian Candidate was adapted from Richard Condon's novel of the same name, published in 1959. Most of the elements from the novel are kept for the movie. However, one notable change was made: In the novel, Eleanor Shaw not only uses her son as an assassin to further her nefarious political goals, but she also leads him into a hypnotized, incestuous relationship with herself. This, as we can all imagine, was not going to fly in a mainstream movie in 1962. The closest the film gets is a rather disturbing, lips-on-lips kiss that Eleanor delivers to her mesmerized son just before the movies' climax.

A curious side-note about the novel: it has since been cited for blatant plagiarism from the Robert Graves classic novel, I, Claudius.

My moment of vindication came when, after reading several critical reviews, including the cinematically erudite Roger Ebert's, it became clear that the conversation between Bennett and Rose Cheney that so befuddled me has been perplexing viewers for decades. Apparently, this was also taken almost word-for-word from the novel and is universally baffling. Ebert, in his review here, offers the interesting notion that we are meant to infer that, though never openly suggested, Rose may also be a communist agent of some type. If this is the case, then the movie is flirting with an ambiguity that may be just as upsetting as any of the other aspects of the story.

The altered "incest" scene, tamed for the masses.

The initial critical reviews were almost unanimously positive. Almost. TIME magazine's rather short review from 1962 does seem to criticize it, but more for lacking some of the literary punch of the novel.

One final interesting note: The Manchurian Candidate was pulled from release and basically never shown between 1963 and 1988. The reason? The Kennedy assassination, which happened a mere week after the movie's premier. Frank Sinatra, who had purchased the rights to the film, reportedly felt it in poor taste to allow a film about political assassination to reap profits for anyone, including himself. So, the movie remained in virtual hiding for 25 years. Good thing for us younger movie lovers, he opened up the cage.

That's a wrap. 54 shows down, 51 to go.

Coming Soon: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Law-RENCE! Law-RENCE! Law-RENCE!

Once I find the roughly four hours it takes to watch this behemoth, I'll let you know how it went.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.