The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Far away from the ’60s, far away from the Kennedy administration and the Korean War and the time when Cold War-era satire of American political and social life would seem to possibly hold any relevance, The Manchurian Candidate still feels like a timebomb of staggering potency. Taken from a popular political thriller by Richard Condon, John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece sets its cultural menace ablaze across the decades; its dressing down of McCarthyism retains its ghastly relevance now in a country where elected representatives are shot in the face and fringe charlatans shut down our infrastructure until they get their way. It’s a movie that’s so much a product of its time yet seems eerily prescient, a result of its galvanizing craft and intelligence and the way that it serves us as well if we’re looking for a cracking thriller as if we’re seeking counsel for our horror at the heartless dystopia in which we now find ourselves. Then imagine how it felt to see it first-run, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Of course it’s a film that, despite its joyously coy and ingeniously presented story content, is meant to leave us despairing. The brainwashing central to it — of a platoon of troops in Korea, one of them a favorite political son formed into an unconscious assassin, Raymond Shaw, and made to be remembered by the others as a faultless hero — is grittily presented enough to seem less improbable than it probably should, and its parallels to a cynical landscape of American thirst for greed and power are unmistakable. The fearlessly scathing use of Mr. and Mrs. Iseling, Raymond’s mother and stepfather, as ruthlessly manipulative politicos offers a fearsome contrast to the dead-eyed unfriendliness of Raymond himself, who is emphatically not the kindest, bravest, most wonderful human being that anyone has ever known. Like Psycho before it, though, the film also finds joy in its deviousness — a phrase so benign as “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little Solitaire?” comes to send chills down the spine.

If The Manchurian Candidate isn’t a focus of teaching in film school of how to structure a thriller, it should be. The tremendously disturbing moment when we realize what the premise of the film really is — when a clearly programmed James Edward (a woefully underused actor you may remember from Kubrick’s The Killing) recites the treatise he was taught to remember about Shaw to his wife, apropos of nothing, residual from the hypnosis that led him and the rest of his platoon to believe they were at a ladies’ club rather than an internment camp. Let’s call this the “moment of recognition,” a regular device in suspense films; this is one of the most powerful, blood-curdling, when the reaction of any viewer is surely a widening of the eyes and a magnetic need to see what happens now. Frankenheimer unfolds the truth carefully, slowly, never imparting too much information to distract from the carefully cultivated characterization. Everything has its place and its importance in the narrative, impeccably.

Some of the film’s agelessness, despite being inexplicably remade in 2004, is possibly enhanced by the fact that it doesn’t flinch on its humor; it’s twice as funny as you probably remember, and indeed retains an impressive level of wit and still-relevant sardonics about the political process and the very American “with us or against us” programming we’ll so fondly recall from our own time. The Heinz 57 gag must count as one of the most priceless smash cuts in cinema outside of 2001, and in just a couple of seconds defines the paranoia and the ruthless commercialism of American life, now as then. Like Citizen Kane, this is the film of an unapologetic and empathetic but skeptical observer of its world and says as much as any documentary, even one as brilliant as Emile de Antonio’s McCarthy-destroying Point of Order, ever could. (How beautiful is it, in the end, that the film more or less posits that the anti-commie histrionics are the work of Communist operatives?)

Incisive mockery can only go so far, though, and the film righteously and breathlessly changes tone with the unbelievably brutal double murder sequence, which is horribly unflinching despite not being very graphic, and is thus about as a disturbing a scene as American cinema has ever given us. It’s here that Frankenheimer begins to investigate the politics and the dangers of not caring, of being at the mercy of the lustful and ugly forces behind the wheel. That sounds conspiratorial, but its ideas are hardly lofty X-Files nonsense, just acutely aware of the logical conclusion of the grubbing gamesmanship and blindly fierce, insincere jingoism it documents.

As though the film weren’t masterful enough already, the entire third act is a full-force toss into movie oblivion. The convention sequence, taking a cue from Foreign Correspondent, is one of the most beautifully constructed suspense scenes we will ever witness, predicting the nightmarish playing out of violence and mayhem on live TV in the late ’60s. With its director’s training in live shows like Playhouse 90, the film is able to present its climactic finale as though it’s being witnessed in real-time, with all the rapid cutting and confusion thereby implied. It’s possible to look at this moment through a prism that anticipates 1968, Vietnam, Watergate and more long thereafter, everything that was soon to cast a pall over our national character.

That Vietnam reference is crucial because the film in some sense is about PTSD, before there was a term for it; the veterans at the core of the film all suffer in their fashion and are eventually brought around to maybe just touch their former selves. Even Raymond himself has his redemption when we discover that there is a sense of life and an ability to love beneath his cold, broken exterior, something that his mother will of course violently destroy. The surreal, lyrical first train conversation between Frank Sinatra as the haunted investigator Marco and his soon-to-be-girlfriend Rosie (the great Janet Leigh at her most haunting and human) may be the most beautiful meeting of lovers in the movies, despite the short-sighted branding of it as possible secret plot device by several critics. It’s a poetic scene clearly meant to show that the two of them are both extremely screwed up and in turn that a traumatized person can find redemption — a straight and hypnotic (!) positioning of Marco as the opposite of Raymond, who has not escaped the terrors of the war and never can up to his final “oh, god” and self-inflicted death. As much as it’s about the American zest for war and power, the film is really about the traumatic human cost of same.

But look past what The Manchurian Candidate says about us and our country and you’ll see how purely and devilishly brilliant its technique is, how perfectly it (forgive me) plays its cards. Look past the technique and find the emotional core of broken men and women, so beautifully underplayed by all involved: Leigh and Sinatra are the lonely and weary come together, the erudite and charismatic Laurence Harvey is an unforgiven pariah for whom the film shows absolute compassion, Angela Lansbury is one of the great villains in film history as his incestuously charged, power-hungry mother, and even bit players like Leslie Parrish, John McGiver and the hilarious, frightening James Gregory all make their marks and make the film seem all the more strangely real. It’s that realness — that daring to imagine the worst — that keeps this astounding creation permanently in the mind. It’s a glorious jumble of modern culture, and one of the best American films ever made.

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