The Manchurian Candidate: Dread Center

Manchurian Candidate essay

It’s the second year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Memories of bulbous Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, and the red scare are still alive in people’s minds, though they are doing their best to repress them—like a tumor that has shrunk away but may still come back. (The Hollywood blacklist is quietly winding down but hasn’t quite gone yet.) Kennedy’s vaunted Camelot is very much a work in halting progress, under siege in many ways, from many directions. Politics as usual, consensus and consolidation, are being challenged from the left and the right. A perilous new sense is arising of what Norman Mailer calls “the secret nature of the American reality.” Mailer’s reverie on and petition to Kennedy-as-existential-hero, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” refers to this as “the second American life.”

And as if arriving precisely on schedule, on October 24, 1962, smack in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the country is hanging at the DEFCON 2 brink of nuclear war with the Soviets, a desperately alarming, giddy-with-dread film premieres. A satirical thriller conjured out of the suppressed fears of that second life, The Manchurian Candidate is a flop-sweat fantasia on political conspiracies, right-wing nut jobs under the secret control of Communist handlers, and state-sponsored brainwashing and assassination as practical tools of realpolitik. An entire army platoon is ambushed, kidnapped, and brainwashed during the Korean War, all so Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), stepson of the grandstanding, McCarthy-like senator John Iselin (James Gregory), can be programmed as an assassin—an assassin whose operator is his mother, a Communist agent also controlling the hapless senator, like an organ grinder cracking down on a festooned monkey.

This was one Candidate equal to events around it: for a Cold War world on the verge of a nervous breakdown, here came the craziest, most unrepentantly topical, incestuously twisted picture that had ever played in American theaters. “That concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation,” to use Mailer’s equation, had surfaced with a vengeance. If a cabal of art-house experimentalists and intellectual provocateurs had banded together to mix up a cinematic Molotov cocktail out of the mise-en-scènes of Citizen Kane, Psycho, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sam Fuller’s gimlet-eyed Pickup on South Street, and Eisenstein’s mythically delirious Ivan the Terrible, Part I and II, they could hardly have devised a more perfect union of formalistic effects, ideological paradox, and
existential instability.

Yet the most startling thing about the concoction is that it was devised by Hollywood professionals, some maybe one step out of, or in front of, the mainstream—hotshot television-schooled director John Frankenheimer, gadfly screenwriter George Axelrod—but known commodities, secure in their industry reputations. Richard Condon’s novel had been a best seller (Kennedy himself was a fan and reputedly interceded with United Artists to get the film green-lighted). Frank Sinatra was a superstar; Laurence Harvey was a newly minted international matinee idol. Janet Leigh was at the post-Psycho pinnacle of her career, and Angela Lansbury was a classy veteran, though placed in the awkward position of playing mother to Harvey, only three years her junior.

In short, it was a hugely commercial enterprise that, through a combination of serendipity, headstrong ambition, and opportunistic abandon, managed to tap this mother lode of disquietude. At the same time, every actor looks to be having a blast, even while convincingly essaying the grimmest fates this side of the inferno. Everything about The Manchurian Candidate is continually, subtly shifting between brightly illuminated, diamond-edged spaces and fifty-seven darkening shades of gray. From sneaky satire to unbearable tragedy, fist-in-the-face bluntness to elusive, whispery insinuation, the entire movie is bathed in an acidic, wholehearted glow of contraction.

Instead of staking out one position or discourse and then pivoting to its opposite, Frankenheimer’s film dedicates itself to the sensation of American reality in a permanent state of flux (not to mention emergency). Placing the macabre in the service of the everyday, the director and Axelrod take the material—assorted eccentric speech patterns and aberrant behaviors and garroted plot twists—and render it as tough, mordant Americanized poetry. Here you can’t tell the difference between Joe Stalin and Joe McCarthy without a scorecard, or at least the playing cards from the movie’s “little game of solitaire.” (Or are they actually tarot cards in disguise?)

Caught in a reverie of implanted or recovered memories, the viewer is pulled into a vortex of devices that couples the utilitarian immediacy of live television with a range of dazzling cinematic tricks. Yet the overriding sense is not of artifice but of a multimedia verisimilitude—from a time before multimedia was even a concept. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is a tricky synthesis of Gregg Toland–style deep-focus shots, the immediacy of shallow-field television compositions, and, in the case of the hearings and the convention, raw video feeds to create a dizzying overlapping-overloading audiovisual effect. The Manchurian Candidate leaps into a new media world without making any fuss about it, as if Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone were merely a natural extension of Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now. This melding of movie grammar with early TV’s punched-up need to hook the audience plays into a two-pronged sense of collective anxiety: The Manchurian Candidate perfectly positioned itself to both instill and map dread. That Joe McCarthy couldn’t have done more harm to the country if he’d been a Communist agent was an idea that was already bubbling up into the public domain—Condon and then Axelrod and Frankenheimer simply devilishly elaborated and fully articulated it.

The plot uses the then popular myth of the Chinese brainwashing of U.S. POWs during the Korean War to spin its fanciful, lovingly detailed instant-mind-control scenario, featuring the Bond villain precursor Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) of the (wait for it) Pavlov Institute. As a cover for the now programmed assassin Sergeant Shaw, scion of a powerful East Coast political family—his mates will testify in lockstep to his valor and lifesaving heroism—we get a bald play on the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109. What emerges from this crucible of irony and desolation, this wrapping of the Kennedy mythos in McCarthy era and Korean War aftershock treatment, is the first authentically postnoir thriller. Or/and the first American New Wave film. It’s striking how much more supplely Brecht-inflected the speech-as-didactic/atonal-music of The Manchurian Candidate is than that coming out of the tin soldier and mock gangster mouthpieces of Godard (that celluloid-struck admirer of Sinatra and Vincente Minnelli, as well as Republic Pictures). However outwardly preposterous, outlandish, and unreal the preordained, sleepwalking actions in The Manchurian Candidate appear, on an interior, aesthetic plane they are a marvel of angular consistency, histrionic bravado, and totalitarianism-loathing coherence.

See each harshly stylish set piece locking into place, plot point by plot point, flourish by flourish. We’re thrust back into “Korea 1952” via a brusque survey of Shaw’s marionette efforts to round up his uncooperative platoon from a brothel, a jarring riot of unrelated, casually lewd, unkempt activity—a beehive assemblage of women in bras and, more shockingly, army shirts, washing clothes, cooking food, all in one open room, Shaw’s soldiers half undressed and jeering at him, the whole melting pot redolent of paid sex, beer, bleach, kimchi, hair spray, and PX perfume. Back home, Sinatra’s Major Ben Marco—an intelligence officer with a name that sounds like shortwave code—has nightmare flashbacks to the brainwashing sessions. Here the garden club conceit, where the prisoners are made to imagine their Communist captors as little old ladies talking about the care and feeding of hydrangeas, is literally mind-blowing (in the case of the platoon’s “mascot,” summarily executed by Shaw on orders from Dr. Lo).

With its showy, 360-degree tracking shot establishing a nauseous, Orson Welles–as–exterminating angel opulence, as we go from the club’s New Jersey chapter to the Communist operating amphitheater, adorned with giant agitprop art photos of Stalin and other madmen-dignitaries, this sequence is where the film bets everything. When Stalin’s monumental portrait is splattered with the blood and brains of the boyish soldier, it’s like a mnemonic device for calling up the thoughts and feelings that other Hollywood films, and American society, have taken massive pains to conceal. And from here on out, the censored thoughts just keep gushing: giant, masklike faces looming in menacing foregrounds, backgrounds strewn with irrational protocols (a trench-coated Janet Leigh enters a police station and, in the adjacent doorway, an officer is frantically trying to put his pants back on). The Pentagon press conference turns into a shouting match, with the secretary of defense’s furiously off-the-cuff comebacks to Senator Iselin’s anti-Commie rant (demanding the senator be thrown out like the unhinged camera hog he is). The fabulously dense brothel, the garden club/brainwashing symposium, and the televised press conference are in a sense characters unto themselves; the actual characters, meanwhile, function like posters in the vein of Warhol and Lichtenstein images—larger-than-life yet fragile, eminently breakable, built to be undone.

Manny Farber described the movie’s one-two combination of “pure sadism” and pictorial-verbal-gestural “jazz” in terms that could just as well describe a Dadaist cabaret act: “Sinatra’s romantic scenes with Miss Leigh are a Chinese torture: he, pinned against the Pullman door as though having been buried standing up, and she, nothing moving on her body, drilling holes with her eyes into his screw-on head.” That kind of language parallels the wild mash-up of improvisational tangents and rigid manners that gives the film its tension. Sex comes off as transactional, and politics become oedipal beds of murder and violated taboos. The narrative pushes forward through a parade of digressions and asides (“If kill we must for a better New York,” muses the Chinese doctor, sounding less like a spymaster than the manager of the Mailer-for-mayor campaign) with a nearly
unrelenting momentum.

The only hiccup in the film is the slack interlude around the costume party, where untoward hints of forced, hollow normalcy (a ration of love-and-marriage goo-goo talk) intrude like somebody switched reels with one of Sinatra’s many contractually wishy-washy star vehicles. Frankenheimer’s career itself took a somewhat similar detour toward conventionality after The Manchurian Candidate. Seven Days in May (1964) is virtually a square, boxed-up revision of this film. And though he reclaimed his mojo for a time with the impressively muscular The Train (1965) and the head-trippy Seconds (1966), after the 1968 murder of his friend Robert F. Kennedy (whether it was a factor or not), he settled into capable, nondisruptive journeyman mode.

For a little while, that’s what this movie seems to be backpedaling toward. Then Shaw’s awful murders of John McGiver’s uptight Senator Thomas Jordan and his daughter, Shaw’s oblivious new wife, bring the horror crashing back into the picture; this violence, as a desecration of every civilized norm, hasn’t lost its potency. It may even be that the detour into Blandsville intensifies its skin-crawling jolt, like the senator’s crumpled body lying in a pool of milk.

Inspired jokes are strewn throughout the film: most famously, Gregory’s blustery, emasculated Senator Iselin’s pleading with Lansbury’s wicked-witchy Eleanor Shaw Iselin to just settle on a “real simple number” of Communists in the State Department, and her condescendingly lifting “57” from the Heinz ketchup he slops on his steak. Or his buffoonish Lincoln costume, in contrast to the bust of Lincoln that is perched in the Iselins’ study like Poe’s raven, silently cautioning, “Nevermore.”

But others are subliminal, hard to even fathom: Eleanor Shaw Iselin (even the initials sound sinister, extraterrestrial) is Raymond’s nemesis, handler, and incestuous predator, but look closely enough and you may also see a weird sister to Leigh’s bizarre love-interest character. Leigh’s Rosie is anything but rosy: initially, she’s the one who seems like a foreign agent, talking to the perspiration-drenched, trembling Marco like a Hitchcock windup doll dispensing fortune-cookie non sequiturs. But Leigh naturalizes these qualities as if it were the most normal thing in the world to meet a borderline-psychotic stranger on a train and give him your phone number and address, then bail him out of jail after he’s gone on a tightly contained rampage. Lansbury sashays along like a concentrated, malevolent version of the garden club women in the brainwashing sequence, revealing ever greater depths of nihilism to complement Harvey’s patrician disgust and self-loathing, in a perfect mother-son circuit of weakness and arrogance, breeding and revulsion, trauma and perversion.

The joke was on everyone who believed in stage-managed appearances, media pundits, political machine operators, and Hollywood dream factotums. Remember, in 1962, no one would have dared suggest that the president of the United States was recklessly screwing women on a daily basis, as though they were delivered to him and then carried off on a conveyor belt. Included among them was the most famous movie star in the world, who would also become involved with his brother. Furthermore, JFK happened to be having an affair with one Judith Campbell, who was introduced to Kennedy by no less than Frank Sinatra, and simultaneously became mistress to the Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana. (She was also introduced to Giancana by that helpful matchmaker Sinatra.) J. Edgar Hoover, arguably the most powerful man in the country, was spying on and blackmailing who knows how many of these figures, a secretly cross-dressing maniac pulling strings and orchestrating baroque plots behind the scenes.

You can see just how skillfully The Manchurian Candidate captured the politics of paranoia, hidden agendas, conspiracies of silence. On the cusp of, first, JFK’s assassination, then Robert F. Kennedy’s (in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Frankenheimer was with RFK on the night of his murder), the old verities were cracking like flood-damaged plaster. The deluge had arrived, and everybody in this movie, on camera and behind it, seemed to come equipped with surfboards. Throwing a seditious beach party atop a tidal wave, The Manchurian Candidate discovered chaos was the backbone of the American experience and posited un chien andalou as our animal spirit.

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