[25 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Legend has it that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, close friend and political ally Frank Sinatra was so distraught that he pulled the latest movie he produced, The Manchurian Candidate, out of distribution, relegating it to the land of cinematic myth. Certainly, the theme of the forward thinking film - the Communist infiltration and attempted take-over of the United States via espionage and sinister subterfuge - would have continued to resonate with a McCarthy and Cuban Missile Crisis weary public, but it seems the still controversial killing of the beloved leader, loaded with conspiracy and incompleteness, would warrant reconsideration.
Of course, in our current overview of cinema, the long unseen gem earns an easy moniker of “masterpiece.” In the hands of one of the genre’s true masters - John Frankenheimer - Richard Condon’s novel becomes a blueprint for any nation’s rocky internal relationships. In this case, the excellent Frank Sinatra plays Bennett Marco a returning soldier whose memories of heroism are slowly shifting into nightmares. In particular, he seems to remember his buddy, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) killing two men in their platoon. Yet the world believes him a hero. With the help of others in their outfit, Marco manages to instigate an investigation. In the meantime, Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Landsbury) is plotting to advance her demagogue husband, Sen. John Yerkes Iselin’s (James Gregory) political career. Eventually, a massive conspiracy is unraveled, with Shaw a pawn in a power play between two Cold Warring nations.
In these days of suicide bombers and intricate terror plots, something like The Manchurian Candidate might seem slightly surreal. Making matters even more specious is the notion that we’ve survived nearly three decades without a serious threat to one of our standing government figureheads. Back when the movie was released, we had outlasted a world war, careened through another conflict in the East, and a positioned ourselves within a rising police action in Vietnam, and yet no attack on our President proper. Then Kennedy was killed, and it seemed like society skewed toward the insane. A man tried to fly a plane into Nixon’s White House. Ford had two assassination attempts thwarted. Then Reagan bought a bullet from a starstruck psycho and - BOOM - the world changed again. Suddenly, compounds were exploding and building were being targeted by 747s.
So when our group of POWS come back, minds messed up by a Red tinted plot, the threat is palpable, if slightly implausible. The notion of someone being brainwashed into playing a killer is not that outrageous, nor is it beyond the pale that, somehow, this mechanical murder machine could get close enough to its target to influence an outcome. But in these post-Watergate days of raised eyebrows and cynical spin, the Iselins’ would be instant ‘persons of interest.’ Similarly, the son would be pseudo psychoanalyzed by blowhards such as Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly, his motives metered out among a series of pundits, pariahs, and professional screwheads. Even the wholly unnecessary remake starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep opted for technology over symbolic sovereignty as the purpose of the ploy.
Luckily, it doesn’t really matter. The movie’s multiple joys overwhelm our prevalent jaundice and allow for the masterful moviemaking to take over. Indeed, Frankenheimer’s intense, bleak approach (lots of askew angles and noir style flourishes) make the most of the monochrome dynamic. Like a post-modern equivalent, Michael Haneke’s brilliant The White Ribbon, this is a b&w film where nothing is. Even the ‘hero’ role being essayed by Sinatra comes with its complaints and complexities. These are not completely whole men. They have been dissected - and in a couple of cases, destroyed - by the evil behind the Iron Curtain. Even worse, we have a familial connection so deep and diabolical that it’s impossible to conceive of its cunning. If the Iselin idea succeeds, it suggests a new kind of sabotage - one undetectable and indefensible.
With his world weary face and advancing age, Sinatra is flawless as Marco. He makes us care about the outcome of his search, as well as wonder what will happen should he fail. He is an excellent psychologically flawed foil to Harvey’s more mainstream leading mannerisms. As the unlikely weapon in this bureaucratic battle, he is the remarkable paranoia patsy, the kind of face you’d figure would be getting a medal, not getting away with murder. Yet its Landsbury that walks away with most of the movie’s choicest bits. She is a shrewd, stilted manipulator, able to get her way without truly turning on the power. Instead, she is a wonderful backroom con artist, failing to look the part but acting it out effortlessly.
For his part, Frankenheimer is magnificent, restrained without losing any of his directorial import, able to suggest as much as spill. In the supplementary materials available with the Blu-ray, his work is praised incessantly, and rightfully so. Even his own commentary can’t contain all the achievements here. Elsewhere, Sinatra sits down with screenwriter George Axelrod and the filmmaker to discuss the film. It is an interesting overview, as is the Q&A with a bright and bubbly Landsbury. As for the sound and image, it couldn’t be better. The starkness of the visuals are matched well by the cold and crisp delivery of the dialogue. The result is a presentation which mimics the inherent material faultlessly - a great film given an equally fantastic finish.
In the 50 years since its release, The Manchurian Candidate has gone from hushed about hidden treasure to universally embraced entertainment achievement. Its modern day authority is as obvious as its lost in time tenets. It seems impervious to criticism, and rightfully so. Few contemporary efforts can claims its station or sphere of influence. Of course, this still doesn’t address the legend, and the lengthy debate over why it went away. One guesses the record will never be set straight…and since we now have the film itself to moon over, it doesn’t really matter. In one of the rare cases of fiction fusing to fact, The Manchurian Candidate is as viable a myth as it is a movie.