Tuesday, December 31, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Manchurian Candidate

One of the driving forces behind this retrospective was the urge to revisit The Manchurian Candidate. I hadn’t seen the film since high school film class, but Frankenheimer’s film — the last of three released in 1962 — is one that I’ve always had the urge to revisit but just have never gotten around to. It’s a classic thriller containing classic performances (Frank Sinatra was never better), sure, but as Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay: "The Manchurian Candidate" is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released.” I love the use of the word “frisky” and “alive” because The Manchurian Candidate has an energy that not one of Frankenheimer’s films to this point in the retrospective have had. It not only was, to that point, the best showcase for Frankenheimer’s style, melding brilliantly his experience with live television and aesthetic flourishes (deep focus, handheld, tilts, et al.) that he had been fine-tuning on those previous films, but it was also his most efficient and effective and popular film, and it arguably remains so to this day.

The Manchurian Candidate is exhilarating and darkly funny and emotionally exhausting; it’s also endlessly fascinating — as both paranoid thriller and political satire (the fact that we can’t trust politics at face value is nothing new in the era of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” constantly lampooning our inept government, but it is nevertheless relevant and effective still as satire even if it may not seem as effective as it once was). It’s not just the film’s narrative that is enthralling, though. The mythos surrounding the film’s production and whether or not it presaged the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as the subsequent snags the film’s distribution faced because of what the film may or may not have presaged, is ingrained in popular culture.

For the one or two that may not know what the film is about: The Manchurian Candidate concerns itself with Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who during the Korean War, is credited with saving the lives of two of his men, who have been reported missing, in combat. The platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), suggests that Raymond be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. When Marco returns to the states, he suffers from a terrifying, recurring nightmare in which Shaw is hypnotized during a demonstration before military higher ups from different Communist nations. During the demonstration, Shaw is ordered to murder the two missing soldiers. Something about this nightmare keeps gnawing at Marco, and he wants to investigate further but has nothing but his gut to back up his claims of a massive government brainwashing conspiracy. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the same platoon has had the same nightmare, and when Marco get him to identify some of the men in the dream, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate his claims.

Raymond Shaw's mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury in a movie-stealing performance), is the puppet master behind the political career of her husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). The senator is essentially a McCarthy clone, claiming that a number of communists work within the Department of Defense. Raymond wants nothing to do with his stepfather or his mother, who is parading him around for photo ops and the like. Unbeknownst to Raymond, his mother is a communist agent with a secret plan to supplant her husband as vice president and then have her brainwashed son kill the president so that Senator Iselin can become the new (Communist) president. The catalyst: a playing card. And when Raymond goes into his trances, it is due to the emergence of the Queen of Diamonds during a game of solitaire.

Okay, enough of that. Like I said, The Manchurian Candidate is so ingrained in popular culture that one doesn’t really need a detailed plot synopsis do know what the film is about (the image of the Queen of Diamonds is synonymous with the film’s primary theme). There are so many things that amaze me about the film, and the performances are right near the top of that list. Arguably the best performance Sinatra ever gave (I know many prefer The Man with the Golden Arm), his portrayal as the haunted Marco is great stuff. Notorious for just wanting to do one take (this bit Sinatra in the form of a broken finger during the film’s famous, claustrophobic fight scene with Henry Silva), Sinatra plays Marco’s desperation to figure out the conspiracy brilliantly. Especially in the scene near the end where he plays solitaire with rigged deck in order to get Shaw to tell the truth about the conspiracy.

Lawrence Harvey is quite great, too, although it’s a more subdued performance. The way he acts with his eyes is one of the most memorable things in The Manchurian Candidate. During the aforementioned scene of solitaire, where Marco is playing with the rigged deck, Frankenheimer films Harvey in extreme close up so that we feel his despair (and the paranoia that underlines the scene) — as if we could walk up to the screen and wipe the beads of sweat off of Harvey’s face — and his sad, sad eye say so much. It’s a helluva bit of acting on Harvey’s part, and it all seems so effortless. The way he plays Shaw as the hapless pawn who has serious women issues (established early during the film’s opening scene in a Korean bordello and hammered home by his awkward interactions with his overbearing mother) is just one of the reasons why the film is so unforgettable.

The real show-stealer, though, is Lansbury as Iselin. Already having played a similar character in Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (which was the reason for her being hired as Sinatra insisted on Lucile Ball for the role, but once Frankenheimer showed him Lansbury’s performance as Warren Beatty’s overbearing mother in All Fall Down, Sinatra was all-in), Lansbury plays Shaw’s mother as the proper doting, overbearing — she’s also maniacally evil in her civility. She knows just when to bring moments from Raymond’s tortured past (a forbidden romance with a girl on a summer vacation) to needle him and remind him how much he needs her.

And in one of the film’s most terrifying scenes, she sits with her son and tells him what he’s going to do (“you are to shoot the presidential nominee in the head” – the matter of fact way she says that is chilling), laying out the plan for her husband to take the reins of the country after the presidential nominee has been killed by Raymond (“the speech is short, but it is the most rousing speech that I have ever read”). The whole thing is chilling because of how Lansbury plays it low-key. She could have easily shouted these lines or made them more menacing by implementing hokey acting tricks like some kind of silent movie villain twirling their mustache; however, she very plainly, very confidently lays out the plan for poor, hapless Raymond as if it’s just another conversation.

Apparently the character was toned down considerably from the source material. In the book, Iselin uses the brainwashing techniques to have sex with her son. Wisely thinking that audiences in 1962 wouldn’t go for such a plot point, Frankenheimer had Lansbury play that part of the role very minor (the only hint is the scene near the end where she kisses her son on the lips — I believe this was the compromise). Her portrayal of Iselin as the puppet master vicariously living through the two weak-willed men in her life is one of the legendary performances in all of cinema.

The Manchurian Candidate is also notable for being the film that stands above all others in Frankenheimer’s oeuvre. Only his fifth film, Frankenheimer peppers The Manchurian Candidate with all kinds of signature visuals (a two shot where one character is in focus in the foreground and the other, in focus as well, is in the background is his favorite), and the surreal images and vérité style were not that common to American film at the time. Obviously Frankenheimer is influenced by these styles, but he also implements the documentary he loves to use to evoke that things are really happening at that moment. This is found at the end during the convention and the press conference earlier in the film.

Frankenheimer, like he does in a lot of his film, uses his experience (and techniques he helped innovate) in live television to evoke a sense that the things we’re watching are real/are really happening at that moment. It’s really quite something (the fantastic opening to his follow-up film, Seven Days in May, is even more indebted to this style), especially in those final moments in the convention hall. But for those final moments in the convention hall, Frankenheimer couldn’t figure out how to stage the setpiece where Marco identifies Shaw’s location logically, so he decided to use something out of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent where a lone light in a window would locate where the assassin was hiding out. Frankenheimer even joked that was would be seen as plagiarism during the ‘60s would seen as homage today.

I like what Stephen Bowie on Frankenheimer’s Senses of Cinema page has to say about this style in The Manchurian Candidate:

“Amidst this documentary-styled mise en scène Frankenheimer plants a series of Buñuelian images and draws so little attention to them that the effect is, literally, hallucinatory. The ingenue turns up dressed as a gigantic playing card. One character is shot through a milk carton so that he “bleeds” white. And then there’s the rifle toting assassin with the Medal of Honor pinned directly beneath his priest’s collar. Frankenheimer places each of these moments in an utterly realistic context, never winking at the spectator to acknowledge their out-of-context absurdity. The tone that dominates by a fifth or a sixth viewing may be black comedy.”

The most memorable of these hallucinatory moments is the opening brainwashing sequence. Frankenheimer and his editor, Farris Webster (who also does a great job of cutting the fight scene between Sinatra and Silva), move seamlessly from subjective point of view to objective point of view in one virtuoso 360 degree pan. The scene begins with the objective point of view of Marco’s platoon sitting in a communist seminar to a subjective point of view of the soldiers attending a harmless and quite banal meeting of the Ladies’ Garden Society.

What makes the staging of Marco’s dream sequence so memorable and haunting is that it steers clear of the clichéd dream imagery found in most films (even though I like Spellbound’s Dali-designed dream sequences, they aren’t as unnerving as the unflinching presentation Frankenheimer goes with here). Instead, Frankenheimer slowly metes out the information in a single shot — drawing a nice comparison to the way the characters slowly draw card after card during their games of solitaire throughout the film — so that we go from the safe location and boring garden club seminar (the soldiers even yawn and look totally disengaged with their far-off stares) to a stage where the stuffiness of the garden club is replaced with the starkness of the Communist seminar backed by portraits of Stalin and Mao. It’s really quite something, and does a tremendous job — since it shows up so early in the film — of displacing the viewer in a manner that makes everything that follows all the more intriguing because of how Marco’s dream makes us think everything in this world is askew.

I also love what Frankenheimer and his production designer, Richard Sylbert, do with the blocking. Most shots are just one take (typical Frankenheimer two shot), but they both blanket the screen in political (mainly Lincoln) iconography. There’s a shot where Lansbury sits in the foreground and Harvey enters the scene in the background, but Frankenheimer stages the scene to almost make this a three shot by having a bust of Abraham Lincoln on the desk where Lansbury is sitting, staring at her. He also positions a lamp in a manner that makes the lampshade looks like Lincoln’s iconic hat. There are other scenes, too, for example where Senator Iselin sees his reflection in a portrait of Lincoln or when Frankenheimer has him dress up as Lincoln during the scene where the Iselin’s are at a Halloween party, which also includes the famous shot of Lansbury standing over the Queen of Diamonds costume (just as important an image as Lincoln).

Frankenheimer’s aesthetics often steal the show (and rightly so in many cases), but it shouldn’t ignored that his approach to the film’s narrative (aided by screenwriter George Axelrod) is what also makes it memorable as a dark satire. Like Bowie says in the quote above, it is certainly Frankenheimer’s straight-ahead approach to the material that allows the viewer to see it as a black comedy. The film never preaches its politics, and that’s because that wasn’t Frankenheimer’s intent — he set out to adapt the source material, and that’s it. They weren’t trying to make any grand political statement. And that’s why despite the film’s Cold War setting, The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t feel dated in the least. I also think that detachment from the material — that straight-ahead approach — helps Frankenheimer and Axelrod create the appropriate tone for the film, which Jonathan Rosenbaum called, “conceivably the only American film that deserves to be linked to the French New Wave, full of visual and verbal wit that recalls Orson Welles.” 

I can’t speak for this since I haven’t seen Axelrod’s films post-The Manchurian Candidate, but Stephen Bowie does make a point to mention that the reason the narrative works as satire on repeated viewings is solely attributed to Frankenheimer as Axelrod’s own attempts at directing satire (Lord Love a Duck and The Secret Life of an American Wife) were apparently the types of comedies that constantly wink at the camera and italicize every joke.

As we look at The Manchurian Candidate today, we think of it as being a presage to what occurred a year later with the assassination of President Kennedy and the subsequent assassination of the man accused of killing Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald (who many claimed was nothing more than a “Manchurian candidate”). Unfortunately a lot of the film’s provocative elements now seem common place in the political realm, and so seen through the lens of 2013 politics and the farce that American congress has become, The Manchurian Candidate's satirizing of politicians may possibly feel dated to some. But as a film — as a piece of brilliantly executed paranoid cinema — it’s of the highest order...timeless, I dare say. Frankenheimer was not yet a major filmmaker at this point, but he would cement himself within Hollywood as a major talent known for blending realism with visual metaphor and a kind of “What can I get away with?” mentality. William Friedkin called him “the best, most important, and most innovative filmmaker of his era.” I’ve yet to see enough that makes me think Friedkin is correct, but judging solely on The Manchurian Candidate, I can definitely see where he’s coming from.

Frankenheimer’s next film was another political thriller, Seven Days in May, which was unfairly criticized for being just another version of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s better than those criticisms suggest, but it lacks the darkly wry undercurrent of this film (it’s also really talky) and plays more like a Very Serious Message Movie than something that gets under your skin and continues to work on you. But really, what could have Frankenheimer done to follow up The Manchurian Candidate? It’s a career defining film, and it’s one of the great pieces of cinema from the 1960s.


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