More than just a film: The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

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John Frankenheimer is one of those movie directors whose films, I feel, are so unique, that I couldn’t compare them with the work of anybody else. He fits, I believe,  in the category of those “authors”. But it’s subtle and you have to look at them with a lot of reflexions. There’s a certain weirdness about Frankenheimer’s films but this one is executed in a fascinating way. Yet, his name is sadly not enough mentioned among cinephiles discussions. Yes, we talk about his films but not so much about him. If I’m not wrong, I was introduced to his work via Birdman of Alcatraz, one of his most mainstream movies. The main actor of Birdman, Burt Lancaster, was seen on several occasion in Frankenheimer’s filmography: first in The Young Savages and then in Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, The Train, and The Gypsy Moth. But the film I’m going to discuss today, which is one of John Frankenheimer’s most acclaimed ones, doesn’t star Burt Lancaster. The cast of The Manchurian Candidate is composed of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, John McGiver, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, Khigh Dhiegh, and James Edwards.

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Frankenheimer, directing

The occasion for me to write about this film is Michaela’s Janet Leigh Blogathon that she is hosting on her blog Love Letters to Old Hollywood. The iconic actress would have been 92 years old on July 6, 2019. I have to admit, I have only seen four of her films, but writing about The Manchurian Candidate felt very tempting. There’s a lot of relevant elements to discuss about this film.

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Frank Sinatra, who plays one of the main characters, had an important involvement in the production of The Manchurian Candidate. The major studios didn’t want to involve themselves in the making of this controversial film but, the Oscar-winning actor, highly motivated by the role, worked hard for this film to be made, even investing himself financially. Arthur Krim, head of United Artist, initially refused to produce the film. Frank Sinatra took drastic measures and went to John F. Kennedy who gave his blessing for the making of the film. United Artist finally accepted to produce.

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Released in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate takes place at the center of the Cold War. The action starts in Korea where an American Army platoon is being captured by the Russian and Chinese communist enemies. They are taken to Manchuria and, after three days, they manage to return to the American lines. Two of them are dead and three leave the place as changed men: Maj Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards). Considered a hero for saving the troops, Shaw is to be awarded a Medal of Honour under Marco’s recommendation. Back in the USA, Raymond Shaw is welcomed by a delirious crowd and his mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), who is married to Senator John Iselin, whom Raymond despise (well, he doesn’t like his mother so much either). But back from Korean, Raymond is a changed man and so is Ben. This one is the victim of a recurrent nightmare involving Raymond Shaw and the soldiers which bring him to investigate on Raymond. Odd things make him see a connection between the dream and reality. When asked what is his opinion about Shaw, Ben and Allen (who has the same nightmare) answer that he is the best human being they’ve ever met. But, in reality, Ben knows that Shaw is a cold and not very sympathetic person.

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Their three mysterious days spent in Manchuria gave place to a literal brainwash which explains Ben’s behavior but, most of all, Shaw’s one, who has been turned in a killing machine by the communists. But they might not be the only ones involved in this whole sordid business.

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The Manchurian Candidate is a film that goes in a lot of directions, so it’s hard to resume it without revealing too much. Now, you might think, what does Janet Leigh has to do with it? The part was given to her after her monumental success in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Janet Leigh’s considered this role to be one of the most difficult she ever had to play. Difficult because, as she said “the character was plunked down in the middle of the script, with no apparent connection to anyone, transmitting non sequiturs while sending meaningful rays through her eyes.” Rosie, the character she plays, is a girl that Ben meets on a train. She becomes the love interest. Yes, the story technically wouldn’t have changed so much without her presence, but we’ll discover that it remains a usefully part. Despite her feeling towards the role, Janet Legh felt priviledged to work alongside Frank Sinatra and John Frankenheimer.

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Her performance in The Manchurian Candidate is very subtle and natural. In reality, I prefer it much more to her performance in Psycho. The utility of her character remains in the contrast that she creates with the other characters. Indeed, Rosie is probably one of the rare completely sane characters. Therefore, her presence creates an equilibrium and eases a little the constantly tense atmosphere of the film. Rosie is someone of great compassion who doesn’t judge and prefer to observe and support instead of falling in the trap of all the insanity that surrounds her. When she meets Ben in the train, he’s not at his most glorious form and she can obviously say he’s a tormented man. However, she doesn’t judge him but still decides to support him by making small talk and jokes instead of immediately trying to look for the problem. Ben will eventually share more with her and her role of the compassionate listener will probably provide him from going completely crazy, although he is not as much as his army colleague Raymond.

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She and Frank Sinatra have beautiful chemistry and bring the best in each other.  Their scenes together give place to moments of tranquility in this highly chaotic story.

Frank Sinatra proves, by his performance in this film, that he was far from only being the crooner who sang New York New York and Fly Me to the Moon. Don’t get me wrong, he was a gifted singer but his talent didn’t stop here. In my opinion, he was as great an actor, and his acting in The Manchurian Candidate is one of his best and darkest one (The Man With the Golden Arm would be another great example). He plays his role with an impressive strength. According to IMDB, Frank Sinatra considered to delivering his best work on the first take. John Frankenheimer took this into consideration and the takes you see in the film were Frank Sinatra’s first ones unless there was a technical problem. Therefore, it remains very authentic acting, nothing forced, and it shows. Janet Leigh said of him that he was “a caring, giving actor, willing to rehearse indefinitely, taking direction, contributing ideas to the whole.” which sort of goes against his diva reputation. Frankenheimer also enjoyed directing him. There’s a scene in this film that I always have to watch twice because Frank Sinatra’s acting is perfect in it. He and Laurence Harvey meet in a bar and, all of a sudden, Harvey goes away without any explanation. Frank Sinatra follows him. He is heading to central park. Laurence Harvey goes to the lake (it’s winter) and jumps into it. Frank Sinatra’s facial expression at that moment is just perfect.

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No one could have been better cast than Laurence Harvey for the role of Raymond Shaw. He, indeed, had this interesting face and this low voice that were great assets to play the “handsome psychopath” and a character that seems placid on the surface but his highly tormented in the inside. This is the first Laurence Harvey’s film I saw, and I only saw a second one since, BUtterfield 8, in which he stars opposite Elizabeth Taylor. I found him to be a very interesting and almost mysterious actor. I’d be tempted to discover more of his work. His character in The Manchurian Candidate is first seen has a terrifying one and a victim of the enemies’ shenanigans but we discover that it’s more complex than that. There was the Raymond before the war and the Raymond after the war. His scenes with Frank Sinatra are quite fascinating since both characters are very different and obviously each has their vision of the serious problem going on.

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But of all the actors, it’s probably Angela Lansbury’s performance that people will remember the most. Nominated for her third Best Supporting Actress Oscar after Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945), she doesn’t live us indifferent in The Manchurian Candidate. Frank Sinatra initially suggested Lucille Ball for the role which could have been an interesting exercise, far different from the beloved Lucy Ricardo from the famous sitcom I Love Lucy. However, Lansbury turned out to be perfect as Laurence Harvey’s abusive mother, so it’s hard to really imagine someone else in the role. John Frankenheimer judged she would be suitable for the part as he has directed her previously in All Fall Down (1962). Interestingly, Lansbury was 36 at the time, so only 3 years older than Harvey, but the hairdo and costumes make her look much older but elegantly older. Mrs. Iselin is that kind of villain that has a dangerous class and tactics of seductions which makes her in full possession of her means. Therefore, she totally fools us. She controls everything around her but eventually pushes Raymond’s limits.

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John Frankenheimer that bet a lot on the visual dimension to make his films interesting and add a lot of savor to them. The editing by Ferris Webster (Father of the Bride, Blackboard Jungle, Forbidden Planet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Great Escape, Seven Days in May, etc) was nominated for an Oscar. His work on The Manchurian Candidate contributes a lot to the reaction between the characters and the development of the story. Perhaps the most interesting sequence on the editing level is the nightmare one where two situations are presented as one. The editing in the final scene also gives a lot of tension to the situation and accentuates its suspense by moving from Ben to Raymond to Mr. and Mrs. Iselin.

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Dream/brainwash sequence

The cinematography of The Manchurian Candidate was done by Lionel Lindon and includes intriguing shots. For example, he and John Frankenheimer decided to use hand-held cameras in order to give a disoriented feel to some of the scenes. Some of my favourite shots are the one where [SPOILER] Raymond, just after having killed his stepfather Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) hears someone coming, Jordan’s daughter, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) and now Ray’s wife. Trained not to leave any witnesses, he kills her in a distance. [END OF SPOILER] I like how Lindon used a low angle shot for that scene which makes Raymond appears imposing but, at the same time, we seize a feeling of fear on his face.

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Another scene that I find very interestingly filmed is the one where Mrs. Iselin watches her husband Senator Iselin speaking to the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and to Ben, and accusing a good number of Americans to be part of the Communist party. Although he is just next to her, Mrs. Iselin watches him on a tv. And we, spectator, see that whole composition. So, we see Mr. Iselin from the tv point of view (he’s facing us) and, at the same time, in the background (in profile). I think this photo will help you understand:

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The Manchurian Candidate was based on Richard Condon’s book of the same name and adapted on-screen by George Axelrod who had previously worked on The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961). These are far more different from The Manchurian Candidate but I guess he was able to develop a script for complex characters as he proved it with Holly Golightly from Breakfast. Axelrod contributes to the intriguing weirdness of The Manchurian Candidate with inexplicable situations, some that could be deeply analysed, and some punctured with lines that, first, seem to be out of nowhere but that turn out to have an important signification, the most noticeable one probably being “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire? ” which is told to Laurence Harvey on various occasions by different characters. But playing solitaire happens to be a much more complex tool than just a way to “pass time”.

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The music is another element that makes me appreciate John Frankenheimer films and sort of gave them an “ahead of its time” dimension. The scores we hear in his films aren’t the usual orchestral ones that we hear in classics and focus more on the atmosphere rather than on sensationalism. David Amram often scored documentaries which could explain his ability to compose music that sticks us to reality and gives a lot of space to reflection and to the relevance of The Manchurian Candidate, even today. However, my favourite musical work on a Frankenheimer’s film would probably be Jerry Goldsmith one for Seven Days in May. He was a brilliant composer.

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With such a subject, The Manchurian Candidate wouldn’t leave people indifferent. On my side, and this is pretty much the same feeling I have whenever I watch a Frankenheimer’s film, I know I have watched something special and unique. But if we refer ourselves to the historical context in which this film was released, the Cold War, it sure gave place to controversy in 1962. Presenting a sensitive political subject, the film was banned in some countries of the Iron Curtain such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Polan, Romania and Bulgaria and some neutral countries like France and Sweden. The premiere for those films then took place in 1993 in these countries, after the end of the long conflict. The assassination of JFK in 1963 also made the subject of this film kind of touchy and risky. The film didn’t disappear from circulation right after the tragic event. It’s only in 1972 that it happened when the rights were reverted to Frank Sinatra. The film was later re-released in theatres in 1988.

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Film critic Roger Ebert said of The Manchurian Candidate that it 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.” And I think it’s pretty much a good way to sums up the impact of this controversial but brilliant picture.

On its released, The Manchurian Candidate received 7.7M$ for a budget of 2.2M$ making it the 16th highest grossing film of the year. As we said before, Angela Lansbury was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars and Ferris Webster, for Best Editing. Despite not winning the Oscar, Lansbury received a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe.

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The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004 in a Persian Gulf War context. Directed by Johnathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense), it stars Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber. I haven’t seen it (yet) but I’ve heard it wasn’t as good as the original. I’m guessing it probably didn’t have the same impact on its contemporary spectators.

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Writing about The Manchurian Candidate was a resourceful experience and I’m glad Michaela allowed me to do so. I agree that Janet Leigh was maybe not the major part of my writing but we’ve discovered that, in opposition to the first impression, her character is more important than we would think. If you haven’t seen this film yet, please do it as soon as possible. You’re in for something quite unique.

Many thanks to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting the Janet Leigh Blogathon! I invite you to check the other entries here.

See you!

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Sources:

“Annual Movie Chart- 1962.” The Numbers. nd. https://www.the-numbers.com/market/1962/top-grossing-movies. Accessed June 9, 2019.

“The Manchurian Candidate: Trivia.” IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056218/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed June 9, 2019.

“The Manchurian Candidate (1962 Film).” Wikipedia. 27 May 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Manchurian_Candidate_(1962_film). Accessed June 9, 2019.

 

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