(This post is being published by me for the John Frankenheimer Blogathon, one of his best movies to date. One classic piece of movie making with a tight narration, some great writing and an outstanding performance by Angela Lansbury as the domineering mother).
Spoiler Alert: Some crucial scenes in the movie are discussed, readers please note.
It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.-Henry James
Quite often it is said that if even the average American had no enemy, he would have invented one. In a way same holds true for the Russians too, considering they rarely get along with any of their East European neighbors and vice versa. The Cold War, was essentially a battle between two paranoia, the Americans feeding on the fear of the “Soviets” who would take over America or it’s satellite nations, and turn them into one vast military camp, replete with gulags, psychiatric wards, KGB agents. Not to be outdone, the Soviets and it’s satellite nations, played upon the fear of “the Decadent Western world” corrupting the “pristine, ideology of the Revolution”. It was the Cold War, that gave rise to an industry of it’s own, the conspiracy theory industry, that found it’s way into novels and movies. The Cold War was a fertile ground for the conspiracy theory writers, and events like the Korean War, JFK’s assassination, Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro, Kim Philby, the spy ring in Britian, the arms and space race provided a ready fodder for the feverish imaginations of novelists, script writers and movie makers. It was the time of novelists like John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Graham Greene, who churned out some great thriller fiction, mostly built around conspiracy theories. The end of the Cold War, not only saw the demise of the Great Soviet Empire, but to writers who reveled in building conspiracy theories, the major enemy was not there any longer. Bereft of the great enemy, writers, movie makers did not really know where to point it. Where Moscow was the focal point, and all conspiracy theories seemed to emerge from there, now the enemy became more ambiguous. It ranged from Colombian drug cartels to Arab terrorists to East European rebels wanting to establish a Russian empire once more , basically which ever nation was not in the good books of Uncle Sam, became the enemy by default. For a major part of the 90′s, you could guess who was in Uncle Jee’s bad books, just by taking a look at the latest Hollywood blockbuster. In Stallone’s John Rambo, the baddies are not the evil Ruskies, it is the Burmese military junta, and apna Stallone Paaji aids the Karen tribes people in their fight against the junta. Of course i bet that it would be some time since Hollywood makes a movie, showing Stallone Paaji helping the Balochistan tribes fighting against the Pakistan Govt. Of late though in order to present a more friendly face to the world, Hollywood has found a new enemy, it is within, or the enemy inside. So the introspection has resulted in movies like Syriana, where the enemy is not some nasty Arabs, but more specifically the oil and energy companies, that seek to prop up dodgy regimes in the Middle East.
The major difference between the 2004 and the 1962 versions of The Manchurian Candidate , Richard Condon’s Cold war conspiracy thriller novel. Where the ’62 version was about a Korean war hero, who was actually captured and brainwashed by the Communists( the Russians and N.Koreans here) to act as a sleeper mole, the 2004 version has a Gulf War hero , and the evil agency here Manchurian Global, an international arms manufacturer, that brainwashes and programs the protagonist. I feel this is where the 1962 version has a definite edge over the 2004 version. The ’62 version has more believable villains and is more rooted in reality, the bad guys being the Russian-N.Korean agents, and also with the Bay of Pigs & JFK’s assassination taking place around the same time frame, it looks much more sinister. The Soviets trying to take over the White House using the sleeper mole looks much more believable, while the entire thing of a global Arms cartel, trying to control the White House, looks pretty much like one of those Robert Ludlum novels. Sure the notorious Arms Lobby in US, does influence Capitol Hill, but i really doubt how willing they would be to do a take over of the White House.
Director John Frankenheimer, had earlier helmed the biopic, Birdman of Alcatraz, about a real life prisoner at Alcatraz who makes friends with the birds to get over his loneliness. The Manchurian Candidate was his first shot at the dark and murky world of espionage and conspiracy, and later on he would also direct Seven Days in May, that starred his favorite actor Burt Lancaster, as a disgruntled US General, who tries to lead a coup against the President, with Kirk Douglas, playing a US Marine, who tries to foil the entire conspiracy, and later on Black Sunday about a Palestinian terrorist attempt to explode a bomb in a crowded US stadium. The opening scene, starts off with American troops stationed in Korea, grumbling about the fact that they are not allowed to enjoy at a local brothel bar in Korea, thanks to Sgt. Raymond Shaw( Laurence Harvey), who curtails their activities, the other person in the platoon is Cpt. Bennet Marco( Frank Sinatra). Shaw’s gruff , surly attitude, makes him unpopular among the platoon members, and later on during a night time operation, the platoon is ambushed, and taken away as captives to Manchuria.
As the credits play over a button having images of the Star and Stripes with Queen of Diamonds, the camera now slowly shifts to the image of a military band, beating a drum, having the image of the American eagle on it. I feel the recurring image of the Queen of Diamonds could be due to the legend about it being inspired by Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII of France, who exercised unlimited power at his court. Shaw who has now come back as a war hero, is dominated by his mother Mrs.Elanor Iselin( Angela Lansbury), who is power drunk and has high political ambitions. Shaw hates his domineering mother( shades of Pyscho here), as well as his step father, Sen. John Iselin( James Gregory), who is an onscreen version of Senator McCarthy, right wing in outlook, idiotic and paranoid, also standing for Vice President. If we take the particular shot introducing these 2 key players in the drama, the camera first pans to the Stars & Stripes, and then to the couple, pretty much an ironic metaphor, or as some one had stated, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. The juxtaposition of the American flag, the eagle symbol with that of the power hungry couple, their son, is a symbol that patriotism here has become the last refuge of many a scoundrel. And as stated earlier, the Queen of Diamonds, here shows how both the father and son, are being manipulated by Lady Iselin. Shaw is disgusted when he comes to know that the entire victory parade was organized by his mother.
Disgusting three-ring circus…Johnny’s up for re-election in November. You’ve got it all figured it out, haven’t you? Johnny Iselin’s Boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you one of the fifty thousand votes.
Pretty much sums up the way military operations have been used for politicians for their own benefits. Raymond further manages to infuriate his mother and dad, when he announces he will be going to New York to work for a publisher, Holborn Gaines, who has a liberal outloook, something that is anathema to his mother. Predictably she denounces Gaines as a communist, standard term during that time, for any person whose thoughts were on the more liberal side. Watch out for Angela Lansbury’s expression here, forceful, at the same time subduing her rage, quite chilling.
Marco is now serving in the Army intelligence, and a voracious reader. However his rather peaceful life, is being interrupted a recurring nightmare. For a movie that was shot in the 60′s and in B&W, the way director Frankenheimer, depicts the surrealistic symbolism is brilliant. The camera does a 360 degree shot, showing ladies present at some garden party in New Jersey, covering one of them speaking, and the rest taking in her lecture. As we wonder why the shot of the ladies party, the camera now cuts to the stage, and the lady speaking is now replaced with a communist doctor-spy Yen Lo, and the camera again pans to the audience. It has a smattering of Koreans, Soviets, Chinese, and most important, the platoon that was ambushed and captured in the opening scene. What we see here is the juxtaposition of the reality with the imaginary, using hypnosis. The Communist regimes were pretty much notorious for using psychological techniques to brainwash people or get the information out from dissidents. What we see here is the real and imaginary overlapping, the lady speaking and the other ladies listening is what the captured soldiers imagine, the reality is Yen Lo, is the lady in question, and the ladies listening to her are in fact, the captured soldiers.
Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.
That comes to fore , when in one of the best moments , Raymond is slowly brainwashed, by what he imagines to be the elderly lady Mrs. Whittaker, when in reality it is Yen Lo doing the job. The camera inter cuts between the 3 characters, Raymond, Ms. Whiitaker and Yen Lo. And now Shaw fully brain washed, into a killing machine, strangles one of the soldiers, Ed Mavole, on the instructions of his Communist masters. This surrealist dream sequence itself is one reason, why the ’62 version scores over it’s 2004 one. This entire dream sequence sets up the plot, the entire raison d etre. The ends in the plot are tied when it was revealed, that out of the entire platoon, that was supposedly “rescued” by the heroic Raymond Shaw, only 2 died, one of the was Ed Mavole. While Marco, sees Raymond, strangling Mavole to death in the dream, he is not convinced of his. The fact is he too has been brainwashed into believing Shaw indeed is the “hero” he has been made out to be.
Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.
The use of symbolism becomes more apparent later on, when Sen. Iselin, harangues the Secretary of Defense, claiming that the State Dept is teeming with communists, after he announces cuts in defense spending. Frankenheimer uses different perspectives of the same event, on one hand, you have the Senator taking on the Defense Secretary, at the same time, Ms. Iselin, is looking ecstatically at the event on TV, rocking back and forth, leaving no doubt in the minds of the viewer, where the real power lies.
The plot now gets thicker, when another member of the platoon, Corporal Al Melvin( James Edwards) begins to have the same nightmare. Another shocking scene, in the dream like sequence, when Raymond Shaw, shoots one of the most popular and the youngest member of the platoon, Bobby Tembeck, straight in the head. The blood spilling on to a large portrait of Stalin in the backdrop. Strangely Melvin too believes that Shaw indeed is a hero, and he parrots out the same line which Marco had done. But the main reference to the Queen of Diamonds follows, when playing a game of Solitaire, Raymond Shaw, gets a phone call right at the point when he gets the Queen of Diamonds, and hears a mysterious voice asking him to come to a sanatorium. The fact is that earlier on in the dream sequence, Raymond Shaw was actually motivated to turn into a killing machine, when the lady( who in reality is Yen Lo) brainwashes him using a game of Solitaire.
In another chilling scene, Raymond Shaw is now met at the sanatorium by a group of Communists, that includes Yen Lo and a communist inflitrator Zilkov. The brainwashing further proceeds, as Yen Lo impresses upon Shaw, his mission, his difference from the average American.
Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?…A normally-conditioned American, who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now Raymond will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.
Marco inspite of all the brainwashing is not convinced that Raymond is worthy of the Military Honor. The death of the publisher Gaines( actually assasinated by Shaw) as also Melvin, begins to convince him that something fishy is afoot. But the biggest motivation for him to suspect that Raymond Shaw, was not really the hero, who would save his own unit, is Shaw’s own character. He was the most hated men in his unit.
It isn’t as if Raymond’s hard to like. He’s IMPOSSIBLE to like. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever known in my whole – all of my life.
Marco, now on a leave, begins on his mission to get the whole truth about Raymond Shaw. A mission that sees him meet with a mysterious female Rosie Chaney( Janet Leigh), on the train. They have a pretty much random conversation about some of the states, a football team and her real name and nickname. On face of it, looks quite random, but considering that nothing is what it seems here, was the entire conversation some kind of cryptic message. Also consider this Rosie is the more dominating person here, putting across the conversation, while Marco is the passive person. Is Marco also being manipulated by Rosie here?
While by now we are pretty much sure about Raymond, who is manipulated by the Russians-N.Koreans, we are still not sure of the relation between Marco and Rosie. The plot gets thicker and thicker, when an “Asian” gentleman Chun Jin, is taken in as Shaw’s translator, something which Shaw can never make sense of. The Manchurian Candidate is the kind of pyschological conspiracy thriller that works on multiple levels. At one level, Raymond Shaw, is the Manchurian candidate, the helpless pawn in the entire chessboard, who is moved by his masters in the Communist establishment. But Shaw’s plight is even worse, not just being manipulated by the Russians, he also is manipulated at the other end by his own domineering mother. While his mother and the Communists are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, there is not much difference in the way both use him, for their own purposes. The threat to the nation, comes not just from the enemy outside, it is as much as the enemy inside, power hungry maniacs like Eleanor Iselin. In one way using the Queen of Diamonds card to brainwash Raymond into killing, is symbolic of how he has often been manipulated by his own mother from childhood, he hates it but is helpless.
The Manchurian Candidate is a movie that needs to be watched, for it’s rich symbolism, its metaphorical allegories, as also the deeply multi layered plot, that reveals a new angle every time another level is uncovered. There is not much of action, except for one karate fight scene( i believe the first of it’s kind in American cinema) between Frank Sinatra and the Asian valet. This is a movie that works entirely on its plotting and characters. Of the greyish tones it’s characters acquire, and a sinister world where nothing is what it seems. And add to it some great performances. Frank Sinatra is excellent as Marco, the protagonist who strives to dig deep into what seems a convoluted mystery. But the best performances would go to Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, brilliantly capturing the guilt, the agony, the ruthlessness of a person, who ultimately becomes a pawn in a deadly game, and above all Angela Lansbury, in a performance that is just awesome as the ruthless, domineering Ms.Iselin, cold, chilly, ruthless, she manages to terrify the audiences, just with her expressions.