Synchronicity: Criterion reissues The Manchurian Candidate ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 19, 2016)

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Would I block you? I would spend every cent I own, and all I could borrow, to block you. There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.

 –from The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

That’s Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), in response to Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), the wife and political handler of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who has just asked him if he would have any objection if her McCarthy-esque husband’s name were to be “put forward” at an upcoming political convention.

Thank god that’s from a movie, because, well…could you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue in this country if someone who is widely perceived as a “clown and buffoon” were somehow jockeyed into a position of high office…perhaps even the highest office? I mean, that’s purely something that could “only happen in the movies”, amirite? Anyone?

Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

-from Mitt Romney’s recent speech regarding Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency

Who said that? Mitt Romney? Really? He denounced his own party’s steamrolling frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nominee? I suppose I see some parallels between Donald Trump and the fictional Senator Iselin, but let’s keep this in mind…director John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller was made 54 years ago. And the story itself is set in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare.

Those were different times! Back then, the political climate was informed by fear and paranoia. You actually had politicians publicly calling each other commies, fergawdsakes. What is that line in the film, where Senator Jordan is explaining to Senator Iselin’s stepson Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) the chief reasons for the political enmity between himself and the insufferable tag team of Raymond’s Red-baiting stepfather and control freak mother…?

One of your mother’s more endearing traits is her tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a communist.

Yes, that was it. See? That was then, but this is now. Donald Trump doesn’t go that far.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Saturday blamed supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for protests that shut down his Chicago rally, calling the U.S. senator from Vermont “our communist friend”.

-from The Raw Story (March 12)

Oh. But, in the film, it’s the candidate’s wife who is described as a Red-baiter, so let’s not get carried away. Because if that were the case, this would be getting downright spooky.

[Bernie] Sanders is a communist. I was born in a communist country, so I know when I see them or hear them.

-Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana (from Page Six, March 15)

All right…now it’s getting downright spooky.

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Speaking of “spooky”, in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather wordy genre study.

In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What is to blame? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? Then, prompted by last year’s horrible Charleston church shooting, I felt compelled to republish a revised version of that piece.

In the intro to that revised posting, I noted an unsettling similarity between something Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said in his official campaign kickoff speech to what the Charleston shooter had allegedly said to his victims just one day later:

“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

 -from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

Was it coincidence, or was it cause-and-effect? I drew no conclusions then, nor do I now. At any rate, my point is…one of the films I analyzed in the post was The Manchurian Candidate, which is now available in a newly restored 4K Blu-ray edition from Criterion.

The story is set after the Korean War. Frank Sinatra stars as former POW Major Bennett Marco. Marco and his platoon were captured by the Soviets and transported to Manchuria for a period, then released. As a consequence, Marco suffers from (what we would now call) PTSD, in the form of recurring nightmares.

Marco’s memories of the captivity are hazy; but he suspects his dreams hold the key. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears from several fellow POWs, who all share very  specific and disconcerting details in their dreams involving the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw. As the mystery unfolds, a byzantine conspiracy is uncovered, involving brainwashing, subterfuge and assassination.

I’ve watched this film maybe 9 or 10 times over the years, and I must say that it’s held up remarkably well, despite a few dated trappings. It works on a number of levels; as a conspiracy thriller, political satire, and a perverse family melodrama. Interestingly, each time I revisit, it strikes me more and more as a black comedy; which could be attributable to its prescient nature (perhaps the political reality has finally caught up with its more far-fetched elements…which now makes it a closer cousin to Dr. Strangelove and Network).

Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at lines like “Yak dung…tastes good, like a cigarette should!” and “…having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms of guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away” (both delivered by scene-stealer Khigh Dhiegh, as the droll Manchurian brainwashing expert). Sinatra is assigned one of the most quotable lines: “Mr. Secretary-I’m kinda new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to talk that way to a United States senator…even if he is an idiot.” The intelligent screenplay was adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod.

Good performances abound, but Lansbury is the standout, with a magnificent turn as one of cinema’s greatest heavies. Harvey is heartbreaking as the tortured Raymond. Sinatra is, well, Sinatra (i.e. uneven). It’s been well-documented that he was never a fan of doing multiple takes; frankly it shows and works against him here, particularly whenever he lapses into that Rat Pack patois (he recounts a dream as “one swinger of a nightmare”). It’s not enough to sink the film, but those moments do take Sinatra out of his character.

As usual, Criterion packs in some worthwhile extras. They port over the 1997 commentary track by the director that was done for the original MGM DVD release, as well as an 8-minute round-table between Frankenheimer, screenwriter Axelrod and Sinatra that was recorded in 1987. New supplements exclusive to this edition include a recent 11-minute interview with Lansbury (engaging as ever at 89), a 21-minute interview with historian Susan Carruthers, and an enlightening 16-minute appreciation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who gleans a few subtexts I’ve never picked up on.

That’s one mark of a truly great film-the more times you watch it, the more you’ll see.

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