After a long COVID-19 hiatus, The News-Gazette Film Series returns to Virginia Theatre with John Frankenheimer’s 1962 black-and-white political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” at 1 and 7 p.m. Oct. 23.
Usually, the October offering in the series comprises one or more classic monster films programmed with Halloween in mind, but this year, it presents horror in the form of more realistic fears from the early 1960s — McCarthyism, Communism, brainwashing, the Cold War and conspiracies.
For contemporary audiences, the film’s anxiety level would have ratcheted up even more as it opened on Oct. 24, 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war with the Soviet Union was an imminent possibility.
The film begins in 1952 during the Korean War. An American platoon led by Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is ambushed and abducted by Soviet troops. On returning to America, Marco’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his platoon from a larger North Korean force. His mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury), and stepfather, Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), attempt to capitalize on his honor, but he has long despised them and goes to work for a newspaper that regularly attacks their political machinations.
Two years later, Marco, now serving in military intelligence, begins suffering repeated nightmares about a brainwashing session in Manchuria in which Shaw kills members of the platoon on command. The Army is ready to dismiss his nightmares as what would now be termed PTSD, but when he discovers another platoon member has been having similar nightmares, he realizes that something is very wrong with Shaw and with his own memories and that he has to find out what Shaw has been programmed to do.
Because of its political content, no studio wanted to make this film, but once writer George Axelrod and director Frankenheimer secured the participation of Frank Sinatra (who had actually been wanting to do the story) and the behind-the-scenes blessing of President John F. Kennedy (through Sinatra’s intercession), United Artists went ahead with the production.
Axelrod’s script streamlined but remained faithful to Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, and Frankenheimer employed techniques learned in directing more than 100 television dramas (as well as actors he’d worked with there) to deliver a film with a unique look for its time.
Stemming from that television work in particular is a repeated mise-en-scene that sets the film apart from standard Hollywood practice — a character’s face looming in the foreground while another character addresses him or her from the background.
And Frankenheimer’s direction and superb cast made the film’s multiple lengthy speeches move so briskly that their length and frequency do not slow down the action.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is famous for several iconic scenes. Best known and most striking are those in which Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) demonstrates the effectiveness of his brainwashing techniques to Russian and Chinese intelligence officers as the Americans sit next to him thinking they are listening to a ladies’ garden club speaker talking about hydrangeas.
The camera pans 360 degrees, military officers replace the ladies, and the hotel becomes an auditorium in Manchuria. Ferris Webster’s superb editing here shifts back and forth between reality and the Americans’ controlled perceptions, adding to the surreal feel of the scene.
Equally impressive, though, is a scene in which Iselin disrupts a press conference by the secretary of defense (Barry Kelley, a familiar character actor from TV) to claim that there are “card-carrying Communists” in the Defense Department.
Monitors dot the room, televising the news feed, which Frankenheimer was actually directing in real time from a remote TV van, and as Gregory and Kelley shout improvised imprecations at one another, we see them simultaneously live and on the monitors, closely observed by a calculating Lansbury.
Frankenheimer also makes Shaw’s assassinations particularly memorable without resorting to a lot of explicit gore, though one in which milk spurts out of a carton held by his victim can still shock (while also adding a touch of macabre humor).
The film featured a few Hollywood firsts, such as satirizing Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose attempts to further his career by investigating supposed Communist infiltration in the government and the film industry led to the blacklisting of many writers and actors. (Granted, it was five years after his death, but it was still a first.)
Marco’s assault on an enemy agent represents Hollywood’s first karate fight. (Sinatra broke his right little finger during the scene but could not bandage it because of his schedule, and it never healed properly.) And the film was one of the first to cast an African American actor in a role not specifically written as African American.
Lansbury was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Oscar and Ferris Webster for editing. It was an incredibly tough competition year for the Oscars, though, and Lansbury lost to Patty Duke playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” while Webster lost to Anne Coates for “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Rich in symbols (images of Lincoln and American eagles abound) and dark humor, “The Manchurian Candidate” delivers thrills and political barbs that still retain their impact (far more effectively than the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber).
In 2003, Roger Ebert noted the film “feels astonishingly contemporary,” and he’s still right today.
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