I’ve always had a problem playing just downright rotten women.
—Angela Lansbury, “Queen of Diamonds”
You believe in the way she exercises power, but you also believe in her femininity and her reality as a woman, and as a kind of master politician of the ‘60s.
—William Friedkin, “A Little Solitaire”
The virus of capitalism is highly infectious. Soon, you’ll be lending money out at interest.
—Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), The Manchurian Candidate
“This movie was turned down by every studio in Hollywood,” says producer/director John Frankenheimer of The Manchurian Candidate. At the start of the commentary track for MGM’s new “Special Edition” DVD (timed to promote Alex Proyas’ remake, starring Denzel Washington), he recalls the familiar story, that Frank Sinatra’s commitment to the project got the thing done. It’s a good story, as is the one about Sinatra pulling the film from distribution following John Kennedy’s assassination, though the latter has been mostly debunked.
The movie that almost didn’t get made, based on Richard Condon’s Cold War novel, is at once anti-communist and anti-anti-communist. “The thing that I really care about, about this movie is that it was the first movie to really take on Senator McCarthy,” says the late, great Frankenheimer in his commentary (borrowed from the first, retroactively un-special edition DVD, released in 2001). The plot concerns the brainwashing of a U.S. army sergeant, the sanctimonious and unbearably uptight Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), by a group of definitively evil Chinese and Russian operatives.
They capture Raymond and his unit in North Korea, condition them for three days, then send them back to the States, where he’s awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing his troops. Now a “soulless,” mechanized assassin, Raymond is just waiting to be cued by his “operators.” The initial trigger is a suggestion (usually made by a phone call): “How about a game of solitaire to pass the time?” This leads Raymond to play the game until he sees the queen of diamonds, at which point, he’s receptive to whatever command he might hear.
A couple of years pass, as the political circumstances for his mission are established. The “meanwhile” part of the plot has Raymond’s men suffering nightmares. Combined, the dreams of Major Bennett Marco (Sinatra) and Corporal Alvin Melvin (James Edwards) reveal the nefarious plan that’s in play: the conditioning sessions are buried in dreams of a garden club where the subject du jour is hydrangeas. The speakers are white and snooty for Marco, black and pious for Melvin, to denote the ingenuity of the scheme, that is, the memories are buried under images that might pass for familiar, except that in each case, the dreamer recalls Raymond murdering two their fellows, at the behest of the presiding garden lady, who is, as the superbly edited three-way scene (that is, three sets of memories) reveals, Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), of the Pavlov Institute.
Both are also trained to respond to any mention of Raymond’s name with the same phrase: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful person I’ve ever known in my life” (a line that Frankenheimer chuckles over on the commentary track, saying he’s used it repeatedly in life, as it’s so all-purpose). The army’s consulting psychiatrist (Joe Adams, who, Frankenheimer notes, represents one of the first instances when a black actor was cast in a part that didn’t call for a black actor: “We weren’t trying to win any great causes, we just decided we wanted to do that”) is skeptical of Marco’s story, as are the military officers who decide Marco is suffering from some proto-form of PTSD.
That the trauma is deliberately induced is the film’s great insight, even if the primary scheming is attributed to the most malevolent character imaginable—the bad mom. As Raymond’s mother (Angela Lansbury) is married to the ambitious and idiotic, Joe McCarthy-like Senator Iselin (James Gregory). She’s all-controlling, and her snaky effects on Raymond are chilling (much has been made of her incestuous inclinations, of Lansbury’s same-ageness as Harvey [she was one year older]).
But her depravity is pervasive—she is an appalling mom, a domineering wife, a woman who not only wants too much, but will go to any lengths to get it. She is, at last, the “American operator” who will give her son his final instructions. That is, she is the worst of ‘50s “momism,” translated, as Frankenheimer notes, into a ‘60s politician, a nimble behind-the-scenes manipulator. (This last is terrifically rendered during a scene where she watches Iselin on a tv monitor as he fights with the Secretary of Defense at a hearing: the camera shows multiple levels of mediation, with mom in control of all mass-consumed images.)
At the opposite ends on the film’s female scale are the more obviously appropriate partners, Raymond’s love interest, Jocie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), daughter of Iselin’s arch-enemy, the liberal and utterly sensible (and ACL- supporting) Senator Tom Jordan (John McGiver). Warm and intelligent, the Jordans welcome Raymond into a healthy family unit, but his damage is already done (even before Korea). That Jocie is introduced, in Raymond’s happy-by-the-lake flashback in mid-lengthy-speech about her proposed treatment for his snakebite, stripping off her blouse in order to tie up his leg and stop blood flow. With Jocie, Raymond recalls, he is “lovable,” but it’s a fleeting, impossible moment, thwarted by malicious mom.
Marco has his own love object, in the form of Rosie (Janet Leigh), whom he meets on a train, en route from DC to New York, where he means to meet Raymond and clear up his trauma. So undone is he by his nightmares that Marco is sweating, in a panic, unable to light his own cigarette; she takes this as a sign that he is available, apparently, lighting his cigarette for him, and giving him her number in the Manhattan. Their romance is, as Frankenheimer notes, a function of her role as “the girl,” though he underlines the wonders of Leigh’s performance, in making any of this part remotely believable.
The DVD includes three extras, one a 1988 conversation among screenwriter George (Lord Love a Duck) Axelrod, Frankenheimer, and Sinatra; and two new interviews, “Queen of Diamonds,” with Angela Lansbury (who has already wondered publicly about the reason for remaking such a perfect film) and “A Little Solitaire,” with William Friedkin, who speaks to Frankenheimer’s genius, from the long takes that allowed actors to act, to explore characters and establish rhythms (even if Sinatra, famously insistent on completing his performances in one take, kept some exploration to a minimum).
Throughout his intermittent commentary, Frankenheimer recalls details of shooting (wide angles, deep focus, big head in the foreground), editing (by Ferris Webster, and, according to Frankenheimer, Axelrod, whom he got to help one day, though he’d never edited in his life), and acting (he very evidently likes his actors, praising them often and noting small-part players whom he uses repeatedly). He extols the brilliance of Axelrod’s script or the bits lifted from Condon’s novel (for instance, the notoriously odd dialogue when Marco meets Rosie on the train, as they discuss the states they may be passing through and inquire whether the other is “Arabic”). And he loves his designers and camera operators: the man’s generosity sounds as boundless as his enthusiasm for his craft.
As brilliantly innovative as the movie is with regard to style, especially, it is painfully backwards in its unthinking racism and desperate nationalism. The film throws into horrific relief a chaotic sense of U.S. national identity (Iselin appears repeatedly with busts and portraits of Lincoln in view, and shows up at a costume party dressed as Lincoln, as he ferociously attacks a U.S. flag made of caviar), even as the assassin Raymond is associated with American eagles, here an emblem of violence without conscience, thought, or will).
But even as such images are ludicrous and vicious, its use of the “Korean” houseboy and traitor Chunjin (the Puerto Rican-backgrounded Henry Silva speaking pigin English and losing a “karate” fight with Marco) is most egregious. The most awful villain is the (British-transplant?) mother, but her visible accomplices are broadly “Asian” (and, to a lesser extent, Soviet) stereotypes; Marco refers to Yen as behaving like “Fu Manchu,” which suggests that someone is aware of some stereotype sources, at least.