Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) Directed by: John Frankenheimer.
Written by: George Axelrod based on the novel by Richard Condon..
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury.
Produced by: George Axelrod, Frank Sinatra, Howard W. Koch.
Music by: David Amram.

This is like the original paranoid political thriller... and it wasn't just an innovative screenplay and story, the direction is inventive and cool... and when you compare how the direction tells the story in this film as opposed to how some directors of current blockbusters seem to make choices which distract from the story, you wonder what the hell happened to film directors? So many amazing things in this film!

During the Korean War, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is a cold, unlovable, disciplinarian officer - hated by his men. Their Korean translator (Henry Silva) leads the platoon through the woods... where they are attacked by the enemy.

Later, Shaw gets a hero’s welcome home - he has won the Congressional Medal Of Honor for single-handedly overpowering their North Korean captors after three days and rescuing his platoon... only two men were lost in the escape. Shaw is met at the airport by his overbearing mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his hated step-father conservative Senator Iselin (James Gregory) - who try to use his heroism to help Iselin’s political career. Shaw tells them he won’t be part of their schemes, and is headed to New York to take a job as a journalist.

Meanwhile, Captain Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) who was in Shaw’s platoon and recommended him for the Medal Of Honor, is suffering from a recurring nightmare... and discovers that he isn’t the only member of the platoon who has this same nightmare. Weird! In the nightmare, he’s at a women’s gardening club meeting... where Sgt Shaw strangles one member of the platoon to death and then shoots another in the head. And some members of the women’s gardening club turn into Chinese and Russian military men. Weird. And the two platoon members Shaw kills in the dream happen to be the two who were killed in their escape. What does this dream mean?

I love how everyone who was in the platoon has the same dream, but all of the dreams are individualized and different. When they get to James Edwards (the Black guy)'s version of the dream - it's exactly the same, but every character's race is flipped. The old white ladies in the garden club become old Black ladies, and the Black servant becomes a white servant. This film has a great sense of sly humor (probably due to the tone of the source novel written by the clever Richard Condon).

Captain Marco, who *hated* Shaw, when asked what he thinks of him is *compelled* to answer, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.”... as are all of the other men. They all use the exact same words! What? “It's not that Raymond Shaw is hard to like. He's IMPOSSIBLE to like!” Marco digs around, uncovers the truth - the entire platoon was brainwashed over the three days they were captured, and Shaw - the war hero - has been programmed to kill! Oh, and his step-father Iselin claims there are 207 communist spies in the Department Of Defense, and that managed to catapult him into the headlines... and since this is an election year, Iselin ends up in the Vice President position on the ticket. One sniper shot away from becoming President! And Marco thinks that Shaw might be that sniper. But how can you prove any of this? With the Republican Convention only a few days away, and Iselin the expected Vice Presidential candidate, Marco must figure out a way to convince his commanding officer that he’s *not* crazy or suffering from “shell shock” (PTSD), but that there is a real assassination in only a few days!

One of the great things about this film is how *everyone* is programmed in one way or another. Characters are programmed to *think* in certain ways which help the plan, young attractive people are programmed to fall in love with the one person their parents disapprove of, liberals are programmed to hate conservatives and vice versa, people are programmed to judge a book by it’s cover - whether that is an actual book (Marco has read hundreds of them since coming home) or a figurative book like their Korean translator who asks Raymond Shaw for a job and Shaw says he doesn’t need a translator in New York City - everyone speaks the same language. Senator Iselin is programmed to say or do anything that will get him elected - he doesn’t believe any of it, he’s a puppet with his wife pulling the strings... and China and Russia pulling *her* strings! Marco’s superior is programmed to think that men returning from war can be a little paranoid... and the unmarried business woman Marco meets on the train (Rose, played by Janet Leigh) is programmed to mother an emotionally wounded man. Oh, and the voting public is programmed to fear and distrust anyone who doesn’t fear and distrust. The film looks at all kinds of “programming” in addition to Raymond Shaw’s brainwashing. One of the great things from Condon’s novel - he was a satirist who wrote thrillers that commented on society - and in this case the whole Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s, with McCarthy and Nixon seeing a communist in every pumpkin patch.

The story is also a nice retelling of Oedipus Rex - Raymond Shaw has a full-on tongues-down-throats kissing scene with his mother at one point, and (spoiler) shoots his stepfather. The thing I find fun about this movie is that the role Janet Leigh played just before this was Marion Crane in PSYCHO - another film about a man with some mommy issues. Heck, after this she played Rosie in BYE BYE BIRDIE who has serious problems with her fiance’s overly protective mother played by Maureen Stapleton. It’s like she was typecast as “the other woman” that comes between a boy and his mother!

I know this wasn’t the first American movie with a big martial arts fight scene (those MR MOTO films), but it has an *epic* hand to hand fight scene between Marco and the Translator when they bump into each other in Shaw’s apartment. That’s another bit of “programming”, by the way - each man recognizes the other as an enemy, even though they served together in the war. This hand to hand fight scene *destroys* the apartment, the way that Postal Carrier destroys Kathy Hale’s (Faye Dunaway) apartment when he fights Turner hand to hand in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. This is a *savage* fight, and we get to see a table karate chopped in half!

While we’re on how influential this film is, the Political Convention scene with a sniper waiting to kill the candidate gets lifted for THE PARALLAX VIEW (which, like CONDOR, also features character actor Walter McGinn). So much of MANCHURIAN ends up “homaged” in other movies that it’s like patient zero for political thrillers.

Hey, since I brought up McGinn (sleazy Parallax recruiter and Sam, Condor’s most trusted friend), let’s look at some of the amazing supporting cast in this film, beginning with James Edwards. This film and Kubrick’s THE KILLING is where I first became aware of him, and he is in my favorite scene from THE KILLING (playing the lonely parking lot attendant who befriends the crippled ex-soldier played by the great Tim Carey - and after really connecting as human beings, casting aside all prejudice that society programs into us concerning race and injuries, when it comes time for Carey to pull out his sniper gun and kill the lead horse, he can’t get rid of Edwards. He tries everything, eventually using the N word and really emotionally damaging Edwards’ character. It’s a three tissue scene). Once I’d realized that the same actor played both roles, I began noticing him in other movies - in Sam Fuller’s THE STEEL HELMET (awesome movie!), in PATTON, in Don Siegel’s COOGAN’S BLUFF, in Phil Karlson’s PHENIX CITY STORY, in Robert Wise’s THE SET UP, and in his big break out role HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949) as the only Black soldier in a white platoon going on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines on a Japanese held island. Edwards was one of the first black actors to play serious roles in Hollywood. He paved the way for Poitier.

Henry Silva is one of the most recognizable villains in film - he has that skull-like face that meant he would never play a romantic lead but never be without work. Between CODE OF SILENCE (Chuck Norris) and ABOVE THE LAW (Steven Seagal) he’s kicked all kinds of martial arts hero ass, and he’s one of those guys who played the villain at least once on every 70s and 80s TV show. He was in the original OCEANS 11 with Sinatra and the remake with Clooney. Plus, a ton of B movies where he played the villain and gave way more than he was paid. Though he was always cast in ethnic roles, he was born in New York... and is still with us.

The other villain, Chinese brain wash expert Dr. Yen Lo is played by Khigh Dhiegh, an incredibly charismatic actor who would also appear in John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS, but you probably know him as the recurring mega-villain in the original HAWAII 5-0 show, Wo Fat. He was the Ernst Stravro Blofeld to Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett for the run of that show.

Oh, and the Russian in the Korea flashback / Women’s Gardening Club scene is Reggie Nalder, who played the assassin in the Jimmy Stewart version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH - which we look at in the new HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE book.

Unlovable Raymond Shaw falls in love with a young woman from the other side of the political aisle - a real Romeo & Juliet romance - played by Leslie Parrish (who played cute young women for decades until she quit the business in the 70s), and her father - the extremely liberal Senator Thomas Jordan - was played by the great John McGiver. A pudgy character actor with a distinctive voice (always sounded as if he was out of breath) who is another one of those actors who has been in everything... including my favorite TV show as a kid, MR. TERRIFIC, as the head of the Government’s Bureau Of Special Projects, which turns a complete wimp into a superhero with a top secret power pill. You probably know him from MIDNIGHT COWBOY, where he plays the “pimp” who turns out to be ultra religious (and is what brings Joe and Ratso together). McGiver played judges and mayors and all sorts of politicians, and you always felt like he knew whatever power he had was fragile and eventually he’s be carted off. Of course, in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE he gets shot dead....

So, unlovable Raymond Shaw may be brainwashed to kill, and kind of an uncaring jerk, but he’s a profoundly lonely man... and when he meets Jocelyn Jordan (Parrish), she is his salvation. She loves him, even though he’s a jerk mama’s boy. She can see the goodness underneath all of those layers of armor. Shaw kind of is like Norman Bates, and Jocelyn breaks through to him and makes him a better man. They get engaged. Shaw stops being such a jerk. He is on a path to a normal life...

And then the phone rings.

“Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”

The trigger phrase that turns Shaw into a remote control assassin... and he is ordered to kill Senator Thomas Jordan.

The remake with Denzel Washington got some basic stuff wrong... Um, the reason why it's a game of solitaire is because no one ever asks you if you want to play solitaire - it’s a one person game! So it is the perfect "trigger phrase". The remake has Shaw’s *name* as the “trigger phrase” - which means a freakin’ telemarketer could accidentally turn him into an assassin! But who would call you up and ask you to play solitaire? Great “trigger phrase” because no one would ever say that...

But after the voice on the phone *does* say it, Shaw goes to Jordan’s house with a silenced pistol to kill him. Except Jordan isn’t alone - Jocelyn is there. So he doesn’t only kill his target, he kills the only woman who ever loved him. This is a huge, tragic, scene - where you actually feel sorry for this unlovable man. Like “Romeo & Juliet”, the star-crossed lovers don’t make it until the end credits. This scene, and the ones that follow, turn the film into an epic tragedy...

All of which leads to a great race against time ending where Marco discovers the plan - that Shaw is a remote control assassin for the Russians, and his mother and Senator Iselin may look like ultra-conservative communist haters... but they’re really Russian agents! And Shaw will assassinate the Presidential Candidate leaving Iselin as the Man Who Will Be President. A Russian spy in the White House! The Convention Scene is as tense and exciting as the Albert Hall scene in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, with some shocking violence and a great twist ending.

I mentioned earlier that novelist Richard Condon writes witty, satirical thrillers, and one of the basic elements of thrillers is *humor* - and this is something that seems lost on development executives in Hollywood these days. The remake was dry and dead serious, and when we think of thrillers - from Hitchcock to Roman Polanski to Brian DePalma - they all contain some form of humor, often in the form of irony, or the absurd, or comic relief characters. The idea of a dead serious thriller is as problematic as the idea of a dead serious superhero movie... which is a current problem. People go to the cinema to be entertained, and if we go back to those great 70s thrillers like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or MARATHON MAN or PARALLAX VIEW, those are amusing and entertaining films with a touch of humor to balance the gritty suspense. One of the most common reactions to the threat of serious bodily harm is humor... and that may be in the form of nervous laughter or using humor as a defense mechanism or in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. The *absence of humor* is unrealistic in a thriller. One of my favorite scenes in MARATHON MAN is when Dustin Hoffman’s character needs to enlist the help of the juvenile delinquents that live across the street from him, ring their door buzzer, and when he says his name they have no idea who he is... and he’s forced to say, “It’s *creepy* from across the street” - because they call him “creepy”. Then they know him! Hey, it’s creepy! Come on up! And after he gets these guys to break into his apartment and steal some clothes for him (and take his television and anything else they want as payment) a pair of badguys watching Hoffman’s apartment interrupt them - asking them what they’re doing. One of the badguys pulls a gun... and then *all* of the juvenile delinquents pull guns. Must be a dozen guns aimed at these two badguys! That always gets a big laugh... and the punchline is the one juvenile delinquent who *struts* into the apartment as if he owns the place (and owns those two badguy’s asses). That’s a great thriller scene! Richard Condon’s novels are wicked and dark and funny in a sick and twisted way.

This film was directed by one of my favorites, John Frankenheimer, who made a series of great films in the 50s and 60s and then hit a slump in the mid 70s... only to resurrect himself in the 80s with an awesome film version of an Elmore Leonard novel... which lead to some hit or miss films including RONIN - which probably introduced him to a new generation who never saw BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ. You’ll be seeing some of his other films featured in future Trailer Tuesday entries!

Voice over is by the great Paul Frees, a radio actor who had a very distinctive voice. You’ve heard his voice in a million different things, from Disneyland theme park rides to commercials to Saturday morning cartoons! He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and passed away 30 years ago... but his voice is still part of the Haunted Mansion!

MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is the prototype political thriller... and beautifully shot and acted. The film was co-produced by Frank Sinatra, who had it pulled from distribution when JFK was assassinated - so for many years it went unseen... along with SUDDENLY, another Presidential assassination movie co-produced and starring Sinatra where he played the assassin - a disgruntled ex-military sniper. I may do a Trailer Tuesday on that film sometime in the future. If you want to know the great thing about having Sinatra as co-producer, check out the Senator’s luxurious private plane... that’s Sinatra’s, loaned to the film for the scene! If you haven’t seen this one, check it out!

- Bill

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