Monday, April 19, 2010

Film Review: 'The Manchurian Candidate'

Steyn on Stage and Screen

By Mark Steyn
Friday, 16 April 2010

If you're in the United Kingdom this weekend, don't miss your chance to see The Manchurian Candidate on the big screen - in London, Glasgow, Belfast, couple of other places. If you're not in Britain, get it on DVD and treat yourself:

Frank Sinatra was frustrated by film. Making music, he was a true collaborator: he enjoyed pitching in on arrangements and orchestrations, and liked the give and take of a recording session. But, in film, collaboration means leaving your reputation in the hands of directors, editors, producers, marketing men and studio heads whose ratchet of small betrayals begins long after the film's wrapped and you're a thousand miles away. It's no coincidence that Sinatra's most satisfying screen work comes in films that he initiated and presided over: Suddenly (1954), a taut little thriller in which he gives the most intense performance of his career as a presidential assassin; and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a Cold War classic with Frank as a nightmare-haunted veteran. On both occasions, Sinatra invests his roles with the care he gives to a performance of 'Angel Eyes' or 'I've Got You Under My Skin'.

To direct the screen version of Richard Condon's novel, Sinatra turned to John Frankenheimer. Just to give you a sense of a now all but forgotten career, that year Frankenheimer directed All Fall Down, a steamy Southern melodrama with delicate bloom Eva-Marie Saint and slouchy punk Warren Beatty; The Birdman Of Alcatraz, with Burt Lancaster; and then rounded things out with The Manchurian Candidate. So what do you have to show for 1962? Those 12 months from Frankenheimer are better than half a century from most directors. Still The Manchurian Candidate is special, the all-time great conspiracy thriller. The plot is simple enough: It's presidential campaign season in America, but a foreign power has found a distinctive way of arranging events to its own satisfaction.

Doesn't sound much when you put it like that, but the finished film occupies a category all of its own in Frank Sinatra's career, and Laurence Harvey's, and Angela Lansbury's. The second-rank casting is perfect, too: James Gregory as blowhard Senator Iselin, John McGiver as his political opponent, Leslie Parrish as the all-American blonde who saves Harvey from a fatal snakebite and as a bonus removes her blouse to bandage the wound.

The detail is hugely enjoyable: Sinatra's platoon is sitting slumped and bored on a row of chairs in an hotel lobby, listening to a visiting speaker give a talk on hydrangeas to a ladies' luncheon club; as she speaks, Frankenheimer's camera rotates slowly round the room past the genteel spinsters and widows in hats and gloves and then begins a second circle, and we realise the women are really Communist scientists, and the palm court is really a laboratory, and the platoon has been brainwashed.

Because of its theme - a conspiracy to kill a presidential candidate - and then because of a dispute over the bookkeeping, Sinatra pulled it from release after Kennedy's assassination and kept it out of view for a quarter-century, until 1987 when those of us who'd never seen it had to agree that everything we'd heard about it was true. Watching it now, you're aware of how the political dynamic has changed in Hollywood. As United Artists boasted on the inititial home-video release, Candidate was one of the first films 'to attack the political witchhunts of the McCarthy era'. But it attacks them from a very particular perspective: it says the fever of the McCarthyite years helped discredit the cause of anti-Communism and thus enabled the Reds to pursue their agenda in the shadows unimpeded. That's a subtler argument than most of the dreary anti-McCarthy films since have managed to make, and one closer to the truth.

There's a great scene in which the pliant boob Iselin is demanding of his sinister wife (Lansbury) to be given a definitive number on just how many Commies are supposed to be working in the Department of Defense: she keeps feeding him inconsistent figures and he gets the feeling he's becoming a laughing-stock; bored and contemptuous, she looks at him thumping the Heinz bottle over his breakfast and tells him there are 57. He believes her.

And yet Candidate also has one of the best strangers-on-a-train scenes, after North By Northwest. Sinatra's a wreck - sweating, twitching, shaking so much he can't light his cigarette. So a perfect stranger, Janet Leigh, pulls out one of hers, lights up and gives it to him. 'Maryland's a beautiful state, ' she says. 'This is Delaware, ' he replies. (Even in his breakdown, he's very factual.) 'I know, ' she says. 'I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But, um, nevertheless, Maryland is a beautiful state.'

It's weird: a Hollywood meet-cute that, in the context of the film, sounds just as odd as any secret Red code, especially the Chinese bit. Very few directors could have made this cast mesh, but Frankenheimer pulls it off: Lansbury was only a couple of years older than Harvey, yet you never doubt for a moment she's his mother, and her final harrowing smothering scenes are like a political version of Gypsy. Amazing. Even more unlikely is the idea of Harvey and Sinatra in a movie together - as actors, they seem barely to belong in the same universe. Yet the casting works, brilliantly.

Forty years later, it was all more ordinary. The 2004 version stars Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber, Meryl Streep - all fine actors with nothing to play. There's barely a candidate, and no Manchurians - just the usual sinister megacorp. To be sure, if you were remaking the Condon novel or Sinatra film today, you'd do it differently: For one thing, we brainwash ourselves; who needs the Chinese? But the remake's failure goes beyond that to remind you of a very basic truth: Hollywood doesn't even understand its own successes.

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