|Manchurian Candidate, The (1962)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 25 March 1998|
With the remake now in theaters, it made sense for MGM to reissue the original “The Manchurian Candidate” on DVD. This new DVD includes features the older one lacked, including recently-filmed comments by Angela Lansbury and (somewhat peculiarly) William Friedkin. No, Friedkin had nothing to do with the movie; he’s just a director who likes it a lot and has some interesting things to say about it. This release retains the commentary track by the late John Frankenheimer, who recorded it for the laserdisc release.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is a dazzling movie; it took audiences by surprise back in 1962, and was so brilliantly made that John Frankenheimer for a time rivaled Stanley Kubrick as most daring, inventive and talented young American director. The movie is amazingly inventive, but almost casually so; the imagination shown throughout is such a close match with the daring of the story that the movie is satisfyingly unified. The new version is also very good, but wisely director Jonathan Demme didn’t try to copy the most memorable stylistic elements of the original. And his version lacks the very dark humor of Frankenheimer’s.
Novelist Richard Condon said that the story grew out of a comment he heard a newsman make, that the grandstanding, red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy couldn’t have done more harm to the country than had he been a dedicated Communist agent. That struck the sardonic Condon as funny, and he spun off his jaw-dropping 1959 novel from that premise.
A platoon of soldiers in North Korea, led by Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) sets out on a patrol but is betrayed by their Korean guide, Chunjin (Henry Silva) and carried off in helicopters by military types as yet unidentified.
Shaw returns to the States a Medal of Honor winner: he’d saved all but two of the platoon. To his disgust, his mother (Angela Lansbury) immediately uses his medal of honor fame to plug the political campaign of his much-hated stepfather, Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory). Meanwhile, Marco, still in the Army, suffers from a recurring nightmare: he sees himself and the other platoon sitting through a boring lecture on hydrangeas given by a woman’s club. But sometimes the women are Chinese and Soviet Army officers, with scientists among them. And in his dream, Raymond does something odd with his hands, then kills one of the platoon—one of the two who didn’t come back.
Marco becomes convinced that something other than what was reported happened to him, Shaw and the other members of the platoon. That Shaw has been programmed by brainwashing to do—what? How to find this out? And what does all this have to do with solitaire, Senator Iselin and the upcoming political convention?
The story is very good, and the script by Axelrod his best work as a screenwriter. He and Frankenheimer came up with the immensely creative treatment of the “hydrangea” scene—there’s a 360° pan from the women in a hotel in New Jersey that returns, without a cut, to the Communists on the same stage. They’re led by chuckling Yen Lo (Khiegh Dhiegh), who is in charge of whatever the operation is. (On “Hawaii 5-0” some years later, Dhiegh played the very Yen Lo-like Wo Fat.) Frankenheimer mixed up the shots—sometimes it’s the old ladies, sometimes the Communists in the hotel room set, sometimes in an auditorium; sometimes the old ladies talk about hydrangeas, sometimes about the brainwashing scheme. The scene includes a brief but powerful moment of unexpected (for the time) violence.
The movie is very well structured, building smoothly to a very tense climax involving political assassination. In 1962, this seemed a remote possibility; in 1963, it came true. There’s been a story that Sinatra pulled “The Manchurian Candidate” from theatrical release because of the deaths of his friends John F. and Robert Kennedy. The assassinations of the 1960s may have played a part, but the real reason lay elsewhere. And in fact, Sinatra had approved a remake of “Candidate” before he died; his daughter Tina is one of the producers of the new one.
It is stunningly photographed, inventively designed and edited, and altogether one of the funniest, most suspenseful political satires masquerading as melodrama ever made in Hollywood. It is a delight from beginning to end, and unlike any other movie, including its own remake. As pointed out in the commentary track, Axelrod and Frankenheimer didn’t use the ending of the novel; the one they came up with is even better.
They have fun with imagery: the dimwitted Sen. Iselin surrounds himself with Lincoln imagery, including wearing a Lincoln costume at a big party late in the film. But the liberal senator Jordan (John McGiver) doesn’t get off scot-free either; the first time we see him, great eagle wings (on a wall behind him) seem to be coming out of his head. And when he’s shot, he bleeds milk.
The dream/repressed memory sequence is fascinating and brilliantly edited, but so is a scene of Iselin sounding off at a Senate hearing; live video feed was used for this, which had to be done in a very few takes. And the movie features the first karate fight in American movies, between Sinatra and Henry Silva. It’s still a rough, exciting fight, in which Sinatra broke a finger.
The cast is outstanding. Frank Sinatra gave many good dramatic performances, some more challenging than his role here, but he plays the driven Marco with intensity and focus—he’s never less than convincing. Laurence Harvey was very well-liked by those who worked with him, but he was almost always a wooden, patrician actor—but that’s precisely what was needed here. Even though the brainwashing has led all the platoon survivors, including Marco, to regard Raymond as the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being they have ever met, even Marco has to declare that Raymond is actually “impossible to like.” And Harvey makes Raymond’s sneering arrogance unlikable indeed—but when he tells Marco of the summer he fell in love with Jordan’s daughter Jocie (Leslie Parrish), the sorrowful Raymond gets Marco’s pity—and our sympathy. This is Harvey’s best movie performance, absolutely unforgettable.
But the best performance in the movie is that of Angela Lansbury as Raymond’s mother. She’s a cold, calculating shrew, domineering her weak-willed husband and her cringing son. She’s also oblivious to her own effect on poor Raymond, why what she has made him into is what makes him ideal for the Communists’ scheme. Lansbury is sharp and intense, often scary and funny at the same time. She received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role, and should have won.
In the “Queen of Diamonds” interview segment on the DVD, Lansbury talks about Frankenheimer’s enthusiasm, and of the delight she had in playing a woman so thoroughly horrible. She studied real-life Washington hostesses of the day and used some of their style. In the “A Little Solitaire” featurette, William Friedkin points out that Franenheimer was one of the great TV directors of the 1950s, and also pays tribute to editor Ferris Webster. Friedkin also says that Janet Leigh, playing Marco’s girlfriend, is very good in a thankless, underwritten role. And concludes that the story is just as politically valid today—as demonstrated in the remake.
The interview with Sinatra, Axelrod and Frankenheimer isn’t long enough (but it’s probably all there is); Frankenheimer says very little—at times over the years, he felt more cursed than blessed by the reputation of “The Manchurian Candidate.” Axelrod is initially chatty, and finally draws Sinatra out. It’s fascinating to see an interview in which Sinatra does not feel pressured to enact his public self; he’s unguarded, natural and warm, three elements few interviews ever elicited from him.
Frankenheimer’s commentary track is excellent; it’s as if he made the film last week. He takes us through how he and Axelrod read the book and bought the movie rights in one day, then took it to Sinatra, who immediately agreed to do it. (When Sinatra told JFK that he was going to be in the movie of Condon’s novel, Kennedy’s first comment was, “Who’s going to play the mother?” He, too had read the novel.) Frankenheimer was pleased with his use throughout the film of extreme wide-angle lenses, which allowed him to have in focus people both near and far from the camera. He adds a few amusing anecdotes, as how Axelrod got all his hydrangea knowledge from a seed catalog, and concludes that he’s pleased that “The Manchurian Candidate” was the first Hollywood movie to criticize Sen. Joe McCarthy.
If you’ve seen “The Manchurian Candidate,” it’s not likely that I’ll need to urge you to buy this DVD—you probably already have it. If you have not seen it, however, or have seen only the new one, please do yourself a favor and watch this brilliant, funny, scary, suspenseful movie.