Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#26 The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

"An all-around cool film"

Our film for today is the Manchurian Candidate. No, not that abomination. Rather, this is the original film, starring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh, and directed by John Frankenheimer. Unlike the last couple movies we’ve done, which are films that before the point that I watched them for the list, I had not seen all the way through, this is a film I actually have seen before. I watched this film my junior year in a US History class. Unfortunately I didn’t pay terribly good attention when it was shown; I was a cocky little bastard who didn’t have time for boring old movies and the showing of a film in class merely meant a day off from doing actual work. Unfortunately I gave this same treatment to North by Northwest in the same class. But anyway, having a very vague recollection of the plot of the film, I sojourned down to the library to give this one a shot.

Thankfully I was not disappointed. The film opens to a very abrupt scene in which, we are told, takes place in Korea in 1952, we see some soldiers in a brothel, and a man, one Raymond Shaw, comes in and breaks up the boozing of the rest of the soldiers in the brothel. The soldiers reveal that Raymond Shaw is unlikeable, and basically everyone hates him. Later, we are shown a Korean leading the same division of troopers through the Korean landscape, but it turns out they are betrayed and all the men are knocked out. The film then cuts to a large image of the Seal of the US imposed on a big bass drum. There is a parade being held, we are being told by a Narrator with one of the coolest voices ever, in honor of Raymond Shaw, who singlehandedly saved his entire regiment, save two men, and is basically a badass. In recognition of his exploits, he is being presented the Congressional Medal of Honor. We later find out that Raymond didn’t ask for any of the theatrics of the parade and celebration, and they were actually put on by Raymond’s mother and stepfather as a tool to garner support for the political campaign of Raymond’s stepfather, who is a US Senator. Irate over his mother’s meddling, Raymond breaks off communication with his mother and stepfather, fleeing to New York.

But all is not well elsewhere either, as many of the men Raymond reputedly saved are having vivid and terrifying dreams, every time the same. The leader of the contingent before Shaw’s daring rescue, Major Bennett Marco tries to organize an investigation, but the military drags its heels, eventually discrediting Marco and sending him on a forced sabbatical. Eventually these recurring nightmares become serious enough for the military to take notice, and the military begins an investigation into the source of these nightmares, which reveal, through the course of the film, that the nightmares are memories of the soldiers, who have been brainwashed by soviet elements as part of a grand conspiracy to set up Raymond Shaw as a sleeper agent to perform tasks unknown. Marco is sent to watch and guard Raymond and through the rest of the film the circle of the conspiracy grows wider and wider, leading to exciting plot twists, and a climax which, I must say is one of the most exciting and tense scenes I’ve ever seen. This is just a brief overview of the plot of the film which, being a political intrigue film, is infinitely more intricate than the summary I gave, but hopefully it will suffice.

The acting in this film is decent. I think the word I would use to describe it best would be “patchy”. For example, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, as well as Angela Lansbury, who plays Raymond’s mother both do an absolutely splendid job in their roles. James Gregory, who plays Raymond’s stepfather, also does a good job. On the other hand, I was not over the moon about Frank Sinatra’s performance; he played Major Cosmo. While he wasn’t terrible, he wasn’t particularly great either. One performance I really liked though was Khigh Dhiegh, who played Dr. Yen Lo, the man who programmed Raymond into a sleeper agent. He plays the devious, clever, arrogant villain with such relish that you can’t help but love him.

The movie was directed by John Frankenheimer, who has one other film on my list. I thought he did a very good job on this film. The cinematography especially was superb in this film. One of the decisions I most liked in the cinematography department was in the way in which Raymond’s stepfather, Senator John Iselin is presented. At the same time as the grand conspiracy of Raymond Shaw is going on, Senator Iselin is sort of a tertiary element in the story as his rise to political prominence is displayed. Senator Iselin is set up as a mockery of Senator McCarthy, the notorious Commie hunter of the 50s. Shortly after the return of Raymond Shaw from Korea, we are shown a scene in which Senator Iselin announces that there are no less than 80 (or some similar number) card carrying members of the Communist Party in the military. His story (including the number, and where they reside) change numerous times over the course of the film, and is presented as a farce of McCarthy’s attempts to cleanse the Government of Communists in the 50s, the result of which usually were little more than witch hunts. But Iselin is more than just a farce; he is an interesting character on the side, told mostly through cinematography. And what I mean, specifically is that there are 4 or 5 scenes in which Iselin is directly associated with President Lincoln. The most striking to me was when the reflection of Iselin’s face is imposed upon a portrait of Lincoln. This camera work reveals Iselin for what he is; a man of great ambition, a man who fancies himself a unifier, of great stature and charisma, a Lincoln, in other words. Instead though, he is a farce, a mere shadow of Lincoln, and is in reality controlled entirely by his wife, Mrs. Iselin, who, as we find in ever increasing degree, is completely controlling Iselin’s every move, and every word from behind the scenes.

The writing in this film is pretty good. The story is very intricate, but presented in a very understandable manner. I like the way in which the film starts with a completely closed circle in regards to how much we know, and that circle of conspiracy expands throughout the film, with more and more characters and elements presented to us early on becoming implicated as the film goes on. It sort of felt like a season of the show 24 (in that every time they think they have the mastermind, it just turns out to be another dragon). One thing I really did not like about this film at all however is the introduced romantic interest. In the film, when Cosmo is put on sabbatical, he meets a woman on the train, and there is a very very small romantic element to the story between the two of them. While I understand that this romantic interest, played by Janet Leigh serves as a steadying force for Cosmo, allowing him to focus on the conspiracy, I really thought it did little more than distract the plot of the film, and I just found it obnoxious.

Overall, this film was really great. I liked the cinematography, and it did a really good job of slowly letting on more and more of the story, building up a great deal of tension to the thrilling and dramatic conclusion. The twist at the end of the film is downright Hitchcockian in its sheer awesomeness. Overall I think this film is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly because of its great influence on the film genre of political thriller, a genre that this movie, if not created, at the least, established many of the leading tropes and themes presented therein. On the second, this film is on the list for the superb performances given by Laurence Harvey, and especially by Angela Lansbury. Finally, this film is probably on the list because of its sheer effectiveness in creating tension and stress and excitement. This is just a straight up cool film.

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