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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic and Blu-ray. The Manchurian Candidate




(Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.; John Frankenheimer, 1962 (MGM/20th Century Fox)
 I. Manchuria
It’s one of the most brilliantly scary scenes in any American movie. It’s a shocker, a mind-bender. Bewildering. Exhilarating. And, in the end, as icily terrifying as a bullet aimed at your brain. Ka-pow!

“Korea, 1952,” the picture’s opening title reads. And, as John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 movie thriller The Manchurian Candidate begins, we see what looks at first like a far more conventional black and white ‘50s-‘60s war-movie and returning-home opening — before we‘re abruptly plunged into one of the American cinema’s greatest nightmare sequences.

But first, after that “Korea, 1952” title, we see a squad of U. S. Army soldiers, led by their well-liked good-guy Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and brusque Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who go out on a mission but are betrayed by turncoat guide Chunjin (Henry Silva), then slugged by rifles and handed over to some Russian officers to be helicoptered off. It’s a bit like a Sam Fuller scene.

We’re not shown what happen next (at least not right away). But, after the credits — close-ups of striped campaign buttons with pictures of stars Sinatra, Harvey and Janet Leigh and then of a playing card, the Queen of Diamonds (which will figure importantly later on, in the plot) — we see a U. S. Air Force plane landing at a Washington airport, and a bustle of reporters and photographers swarming over it while a portentous narrator informs us that the unpleasant Sgt. Shaw has won the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Korea. (You’ll recognize the narrator’s voice: It’s Paul Frees, who was the voice of Boris Badenov on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”)

We also soon see that Raymond has an imperious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), and a knuckleheaded sap of a stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who also happens to be a United States Senator and a well-financed Presidential candidate (he‘d do well this year) — and that Raymond hates them both. It’s like a Franklin Schaffner scene.

Now comes the nightmare. We are in the reassigned and promoted Major Marco’s hotel room, and we see him tossing and sweating next to a table full of high I. Q. reading matter that includes James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Franz Kafka‘s “The Trial,” Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” another novel by Joyce Cary (probably “The Horse’s Mouth”), poems by A. E. Houseman, and non-fiction books on a variety of controversial topics. (Try spotting book titles like that on some current movie hero’s night table! You‘d be lucky to see “Diary of a Wimpy Kid“ or “Confessions of a Shopaholic”)

Why the cold sweat? Does Marco read himself to sleep with Kafka? He’s dreaming, remembering, noir-style; so are we. And so we find ourselves, with Marco, Shaw and the others, back in the Korean War, but also in one of the strangest damned ladies club meetings ever seen, anywhere. It‘s a scene that probably only John Frankenheimer could have dreamed up, planned, executed and shot.

It starts slowly, then relentlessly builds. The soldiers we met — some now shaggy, unshaven, smoking cigarettes — are sitting on stage at a quasi-posh-looking gathering of a New Jersey women’s horticultural society in a hotel lobby full of plants and flowers and windows and middle-aged ladies, preening. The ladies club chairlady and speaker, a dowdy, thin but imperious know-it-all named Mrs. Henry Whittaker (Helen Kleeb), is delivering a stupefyingly boring lecture on hydrangeas. As she does, the bored soldiers slouch, and the camera pans across the men and ladies on stage, and the floral arrangements and windows behind them, then pans over the audience of plant-loving dowagers, all watching contentedly from comfy chairs, catches the strange, almost voracious expressions on some of the audience faces, then moves in a complete 360 degree circle back to the stage and suddenly…

…And suddenly the setting has changed. The captured GI’s are no longer in New Jersey in a lobby with lush plants and ladies in old-fashioned print dresses, but on an ominous bare stage in a prison-like medical mini-amphitheater, sitting in a semicircle before walls that are decorated with posters of Stalin and Mao. And the speaker is no longer a tiresome middle-aged lady spouting off about hydrangeas, but a smiling, bald Chinese doctor named Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who is delivering, to an audience of very important-looking Chinese, Russian and probably Korean military and political people, a lecture on the fine points of brainwashing the enemy. (The enemy. Us, the U.S.). Actually, we are in Manchuria.

Now, as we watch, the scene keeps shifting from the New Jersey hotel lobby to the Manchurian theater and back again. Would we like a demonstration? The affable Doctor Yen, a man who almost never stops smiling, calls on Sgt. Shaw, asks him to pick the man he likes best of all his fellow soldiers — and Shaw picks Marco. No dice, says Yen. They need Marco to get Raymond his Medal of Honor. Pick another. Raymond chooses the very likeable Ed Mavole, who is puffing away happily on a joke cigarette that Yen’s men have mischievously filled with yak dung. Fine. Yen, still smiling, always smiling, asks Raymond to take a white scarf or towel passed to him by General Berezovo (Nick Bolin) who is also a lady (the shivery Madame Spivey), and to strangle Ed to death. Raymond obligingly takes the scarf or cloth, winds it around his friend’s neck, and obligingly kills him. While his friends are maybe still in a reverie of hydrangeas, Ed dies. Dream? No.

Marco wakes up screaming.

II. The Candidate

They called it the Cold War, and it doesn’t get too much colder than The Manchurian Candidate…


a movie that climaxes with a presidential candidate and a pretender on another stage, with Marco searching desperately for Raymond, and with Raymond waiting somewhere with a gun. Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie classic, adapted from Richard Condon’s bizarre, scary novel about U. S. presidential politics, brainwashing and political assassination, is one of the great movie political thrillers, one of the great film noirs (or neo-noirs, take your pick), and one of the great Frank Sinatra movies, even though there isn’t a song in it.


No Sinatra signature tunes in this dark night, in this lonesome old town (when you‘re not around). No Nelson Riddle arrangements. No “You Make Me Feel So Young” or “I Get a Kick Out of You” or “Angel Eyes“ or “One for My Baby.” But there is, in compensation, one of Sinatra’s best-ever screen performances, as the smart, gutsy, unusually well-read but nightmare-plagued Korean War vet and now Defense Department P.R. man, Major Marco.

And there’s a bone chilling shocker of a plot, all about Marco’s friend (?), Korean War “hero“ Raymond, who‘s been programmed by the Red Chinese to be the zombie triggerman in a plot to destabilize the American government by putting an idiot into the U.S. presidency. The candidate — and he sounds like he’d do well this year with Iowa Republicans — is Raymond’s addle-brained McCarthyistic, Commie-hunting Senator stepfather, Johnny Yerkes Iselin, a boob who likes to wear yachting caps on his campaign plane, and to finger imaginary Reds.

All that, plus terrific visionary neo-noir direction by Frankenheimer, and flawless black-and-white visual execution by production designer Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Lionel Lindon. That revolving camera track in the ladies’ horticultural club nightmare execution scene — which begins with the unbroken 360 degree pan around the shifting room, before they split the scene into eerie, jarring fragments — is still an all-time stylistic movie coup. I remember how it knocked me out when I first saw it in 1964 in college. It knocked me out again,  just ten minutes ago, when I watched it again.

And a fantastic cast: Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, an obligatory love interest about whom only a spoilsport would object, Laurence Harvey in the finest hour of a peculiar career, Henry Silva as one of the main traitors of a movie saturated with treachery, James Gregory a hoot as the reactionary U.S. Senator who can’t keep track of the number of Communists he’s exposing (Johnny finally settles on the easy-to-remember Heinz Ketchup figure of 57), John McGiver as the liberal senator who, when he‘s shot (as Manchurian fan Pauline Kael noted) bleeds milk — and, as one of the most evil mothers in the history of movies, giving one of the most darkly magnificent movie performances, Angela Lansbury, long may she reign. (Yes, Miss Lansbury probably deserved a supporting actress Oscar that year, but 1962 was, you’ll recall, one of the most extraordinary years for American movie acting ever. Would you really have taken the Oscar away from Patty Duke’s Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker?)

All this is at the service of one of the most hypnotic, blood-chilling yarns ever to be put, mostly uncompromised, on screen: a movie whose twists and turns are so brilliantly calculated and so largely unexpected and so beautifully anxiety-inducing, that I won‘t even tempt myself with more SPOILER ALERTS.

The Manchurian Candidate was written and then filmed at a time when the Cold War still held sway, after the decade of the Black List and McCarthy. And few films reflect that Kennedy era, and all it’s contradictions — and especially its nightmares — so memorably and so well. The producers of The Manchurian Candidate were Howard W. Koch, plus the film’s writer Axelrod and director Frankenheimer. (Good strategy on producer-hiring.) Condon specialized in nightmare political and crime thrillers. Koch specialized in action and crime, and during this period, in Sinatra movies. Axelrod was an expert at sex comedies and satire. Frankenheimer was the ex-champ of live TV theater and a recognized post-Wellesian ace at left wing social and psychological drama. Like the cast, all pretty much at their peaks, these guys meshed.

Frankenheimer was the key. In the 1950s he’d become famous as the enfant terrible and ace performer of a great generation of TV drama directors — a generation that included Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer was the leader/glamour guy of that group: an instinctive master of live performance and especially, of camera movement — and his live TV direction on his favorite venue Playhouse 90, of the 1957 Rod Serling teleplay, The Comedian, with Mickey Rooney as an explosive and arrogant TV comic, was a staggering display of performance (by Rooney) and of live camera blocking and technique (by Frankenheimer)– even though The Comedian, like most live ‘50s TV shows, suffers today from being available only on faded-looking kinescopes.

When Frankenheimer switched over primarily to movies in 1961, he carried all that TV technical mastery with him. But The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 was the film where he was able to work his technical savvy and virtuosity into the very texture of the film itself, where TV and the way it records (and interferes with) real life becomes part of the drama, part of that special world of Washington-as-usual that‘s half politics and half-malarkey, where the majority neither say what they mean, nor mean what they say. In the scene at a supposedly live Defense Department hearing where Senator Johnny starts babbling about all the Communists he‘s uncovered, and the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) screams that he‘s an idiot, we see TV monitors carrying the clash, and Eleanor smugly watching it, even as the real drama with real people plays out behind them.

The Manchurian Candidate deploys its cameras and TVs, and uses those TV images with truly commanding skill. Frankenheimer’s film plays constantly with the idea that politics is theatre, that TV is a huge part of that drama, and that national conquest can be just as much a matter of controlling images as of marshalling vast armies and heavy weaponry. (Fox News, anyone?) In a way, the nightmare garden club scene, which suggests a corny local or public TV show gone berserk, cues us to the idea that everything in the movie, even the characters’ most private moments, is a show, and that everything can also be ideological.

With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer created a style that was almost as original and exciting and unique as the young Orson Welles’, and he remained, I think, one of the great American moviemakers throughout most of the ‘60s, regularly turning out exciting, thoughtful or visually dynamic films like All Fall Down, The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix and The Fixer.

III. The Ambassador

But something bad and traumatic happened to Frankenheimer in the late ‘60s, he sometimes turned to drink and succumbed to insecurity, and with the exception of a few films like his superb American Film Theatre adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, he floundered for several decades. It took TV to revive his career, and he came roaring back in the ’90s with four best director Emmy wins (for miniseries or special programs) for ambitious and dramatic and excellent projects like 1994’s Against the Wall (Attica prison riots), 1995’s The Burning Season (migrant labor), 1996’s Andersonville (the infamous Civil War prison) and 1998’s George Wallace (Southern politics). His theatrical films were also more exciting (Ronin), and by the time of his death in 2002, he had definitely established himself again as a great director, in his prime. Ready for another Manchurian Candidate.

Maybe, if he’d had a few more years, it would have come to him. But material like that is few and far between. Condon’s book, which I read before I saw the movie, is a strange mixed drink of a political thriller. People still wonder if it’s left-wing or right wing, since most of its villains are Communists — albeit Communists who are manipulating anti-Communists for their own evil purposes. (Perhaps those wonderers haven’t read Winter Kills or Prizzi‘s Honor or Condon‘s other books.) But The Manchurian Candidate is clearly a liberal Democratic novel and a movie by liberal Democrats (including, at the time, Sinatra). It’s a Cold War era book, very obviously written and filmed before the political tide turned over Vietnam. And it’s great stuff.

Despite that cast, those writers, and that director, and despite the fact that it’s so incredibly entertaining, the mass public and some critics didn’t totally get The Manchurian Candidate, a hit but not a super-hit, though two years later, they managed to swallow an even darker doomsday pill in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-Nuclear War nightmare Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The Manchurian Candidate was the path that led straight to Strangelove, just as the Cold War liberals would eventually see their sons and daughters take to the streets to try to end the war in Vietnam.

Sinatra meanwhile became conservative, supported California Republicans, sang adoringly to Nancy Reagan at her husband Ron‘s second inaugural ball. He also owned the rights to The Manchurian Candidate, and for many years he refused (it seemed) to let it be shown — maybe because, or so some people thought, he was worried that it might have helped inspire the assassination of his erstwhile friend (and his Mafia acquaintances’ enemy), Jack Kennedy. I don’t believe that. I think maybe he just loved the film, loved having it around.

In the end, the crooner who sang “All or Nothing at All” and “Young at Heart,” and who liked to call himself Ol’ Blue Eyes, seemed justly proud of his strangest and most wonderful movie, perhaps as proud as he was (and should have been) of albums like Only the Lonely and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and the record he made with Antonio Carlos Jobim — and of his other top movies From Here to Eternity and On the Town and The Man with the Golden Arm. When, thanks to Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate was released again in the late ‘80s in theaters and on home video, Sinatra joined a group interview for the video with Frankenheimer and Axelrod. (You can see and hear it on this MGM/Fox DVD.) He even suggested that they all get together on another movie, some time, somewhere. (Unlikely, but I wish they had.)

Frankenheimer had to be really proud of The Manchurian Candidate too. (He told me once that it was his favorite, then he stopped and corrected himself and said no, his favorite was Grand Prix.) So, no doubt, was Axelrod. So was probably every other person who helped make The Manchurian Candidate into the neo-noir masterpiece and inarguable classic it became — with a special bow to Frankenheimer, Condon, Axelrod and to Mme. Angela Lansbury, and her spellbinding portrayal of a mother only a mother could love. They all deserved to beam, to crow, to feel great. Movies like this are rare and unrepeatable — as Jonathan Demme learned to his (I hope) regret.

Life, which sometimes slips through your fingers, can be scary too: stranger than fiction, so they say. I’ll bet Frankenheimer, like maybe Sinatra and maybe a lot of the rest of us, still had some qualms, still wondered why this movie of his, made when he was only 31, seemed so prescient, so far ahead of the curve. How much did Frankenheimer think about it, obsess on it. Try to envision Frankenheimer, in a scary, virtuosic 360 degrees panning shot, right after that night in Los Angeles, years later, when he opened up the engine on one of his fast cars and gave another fast ride to another of his friends, taking him to a special celebration being held at a hotel in town. The friend was Bobby Kennedy. The hotel was The Ambassador. The year was 1968. And at the victory party or just outside, was Sirhan Sirhan — or somebody, somebody — waiting with a gun.

Extras: A great interview with Sinatra, Axelrod, and Frankenheimer; A great commentary by Frankenheimer; Three fine featurettes, Queen of Diamonds, A Little Solitaire and How to Get Shot; Even a pretty good trailer. 


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon