28 April, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate

          It’s interesting that, as I write this entry, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow is back in the news.  This is the little building that was his unofficial dressing room -- more a hideaway -- when he worked at Samuel Goldwyn in the fifties and sixties.  That studio is The Lot now;  if you live in Los Angeles, the studio across the street from The Formosa (yes, the bar in L.A. Confidential).  It’s been The Lot since the nineties.  Before that it was The Warner Annex, before that Samuel Goldwyn, before that United Artists, before that Pickford-Fairbanks (who bought it from Jesse Hampton in 1919).  Some of the movies shot there over the years?  Robin Hood (1922), Stagecoach (1939), Up In Arms (1944) which you can read about in my Danny Kaye Top 5, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Witness For The Prosecution (1957) which you can read about in my Tyrone PowerTop 5, Some Like It Hot, West Side Story, Apocalypse Now, Se7en (sparking a run of Fincher films) and, yes, L.A. Confidential.  In TV it hosted Sinatra and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (in her final series Life With Lucy) and True Blood and, in 2014, became home to Oprah’s OWN.  It's still a major studio space that few people know even exists.
           Without digressing too much from why we’re here today, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow was once part of the lot (whatever its iteration) until -- as happens to all lots -- its land was cut-up yet again and The Bungalow became part of The DWP next door.  And so its future is in question.  The space where Sinatra hid-away while shooting The Frank Sinatra Show (1957-1960), while recording The Concert Sinatra (1962) and while starring in two of his four-picture-deal with United Artists;  one of which is ours today.  Indeed, that little bungalow is very likely where he learned his now famous memory, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” 

            The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
            w George Axelrod 
                from the novel by Richard Condon
            d John Frankenheimer

            The 1959 Novel was a best-seller.  It was praised in The Times as “a wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange” and in The New Yorker as “a wild and exhilarating satire” and Time named it “one of the Ten Best Bad Novels” which, The New Yorker wrote in 2003, “from a publisher’s point of view, is far from the worst thing that might be said about a book.”  The novel allowed Condon to spend most of the rest of his life abroad, writing in similar themes:  Winter Kills about a Presidential Assassination (in which -- the movie version -- John Huston acted) and Prizzi’s Honor about a contract killer for The Mob (which -- the movie version -- John Huston directed).  Condon’s adapation of Prizzi’s Honor garnered him an Academy Award Nomination (lost to Kurt Luedtke for Out Of Africa while another Huston -- Angelica -- won for Best Supporting Actress).  That same 2003 New Yorker article (by Louis Menand) goes on to say --

Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe:  his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.  He learned that attitude in the finest school for it on earth, Hollywood.  Before he was a novelist, Condon was a movie publicist.  He began, in 1936, at Walt Disney Productions, where he promoted Fantasia and Dumbo, among other animated masterpieces, and moved on to a succession of studios, finishing up at United Artists, which he left in 1957.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do next;  he just wanted out.  “The only thing I knew how to do was spell,” he later explained, so he did the logical thing and became a writer.  Condon claimed that his work in Hollywood had given him three ulcers.  He also claimed that he had seen, during his years there, ten thousand movies, an experience that he believed gave him (his words) “an unconscious grounding in storytelling.”

            Books to movies change, of course, but one of the more interesting -- subtitle that salacious -- changes is with Raymond’s mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury in our version today).  The head of the Manchurian Brainwashing Project grants Raymond a happy side effect of using him:  Raymond becomes a lethario, very much in contrast to his meek persona beforehand where he hadn't even kissed the love of his life, Jocelyn Jordan (the darling Leslie Parrish today).  Is that the salacious bit?  Hardly.  Remember the little moment near the end of the film where Mrs. Iselin kisses her son right on the mouth;  lingering there?  It’s a little bit “If only we” and a little bit “Goodbye” and, yeah, a little bit uncomfortable.  Well, this is nothing compared to the novel where -- while the two are traveling abroad, she uses Raymond to kill various political figures and (it’s not specified but likely) Jocelyn Jordan's first husband -- things really begin to heat up between the two.  Mrs. Iselin was sexually abused by her father but fell in love with him and idolized him after his early death.  So in the novel (at about the same time plot-wise as the movie’s kiss), Raymond is hypnotized by The Queen of Diamonds, he reminds her of her father, and she sleeps with her son.

            This is shocking under any circumstances, and certainly was in 1959, but let’s also remember the weirdly hypnotic (no pun intended) pull The Naughty had on readers at that time (and any time, of course, but consider Popular American Literature in a given five years):  Condon couldn’t have helped but relish in another book that became the first blockbuster in American publishing, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956);  and only a year before that there’s Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita (1955) which, fairly or not, will go down in history (no pun intended) as ... well, what it is and isn’t.  But that’s for another blog.

           While we’re talking about the differences in the book (and, no, I’m not going to get into the infamous Plagiarism clouding it), this is a good to start talking about our leading lady.  Janet Leigh plays Rosie, Major Marco’s (Mr. Sinatra’s) love interest.  In the book, Rosie’s fiancé is one of the Associates handling the Shaw case for Army Intelligence.  Marco is of course aware of this and it causes some tension between their budding romance.  Fine and fair.  But it’s not half as interesting as when, in today’s movie version, she seems so willing to blow off said fiancé for this distraught Army Major she’s just met on the train:  who’s clearly troubled but if that didn’t bother her neither did hearing he’s in jail ‘cause she rushes right over to bail him out and, in the cab ride home, tells him she’s in love with him.  This is precisely the kind of thing that ought to bother an audience and yet, in this picture, fits so well that -- I think -- helps it.  In fact, it’s one of the things I particularly love about Leigh’s Rosie and how she plays her.
               Let’s look at that very train scene.  First, a few thoughts.  It’s her first scene in the film, at forty minutes in;  the first of only five scenes she has in the whole thing -- the last two she doesn’t even speak in -- their totaling twelve minutes (of a two-hour six-minute picture).  And the other four scenes are somewhat reassurances:  in the police station / cab says their meeting on the train meant more than two ships passing in the night;  in the apartment solidifies they now have a relationship (instead of a fling);  she's the one with whom Marco shares poor Jocelyn's and Senator Jordan's fate;  setting up --  her being there as an anchor -- the end telling us at least Marco still has a shot 'cause he has her.  All fine and fair again.  Point being the train is the scene.  And I believe this is the reason -- these six minutes (half the time she’s in the whole thing) -- someone as high-caliber as Miss Leigh was brought on for the role:  to give this moment the weight it needs to carry the character -- and thereafter Marco’s & Rosie’s relationship -- the rest of the picture.

            A train traveling from Washington D.C. to New York.  Marco, clearly distraught, is in the uncrowded Club Car, sitting next to Rosie as the landscape whizzes by the grand window behind her.  They almost get a meet-cute as he drops his cigarette into his drink then asks her if it’s okay to smoke.  She says yes, he tries again, but the distraught is too much for him and he barrels out into the vestibule between cars.  She follows, lighting a cigarette for him, and it’s in that tight space, the landscape now whizzing by the small window there, in which our scene plays.  There’s some light conversation, still a little uncomfortable for him but he’s relaxing, and I love the moment he decides to introduce himself -- maybe finally warming -- as A Porter walks through which moves her closer to him (just a nice piece of Staging).  And it’s here in what might finally be a warmer moment she turns a bit, and we get the odd dialogue of her address and phone number.  It could be an independent woman flirting but, given our subject matter of the last forty minutes, we can’t help but presume it’s something more.  He’s still distraught enough we can’t quite read his reaction and he tells her he’s going to New York to meet a friend (after he’s just told his Commanding Officer how much he can’t stand Shaw) and then -- abruptly -- we dissolve out and that’s it.  Those are the six minutes, Miss Leigh’s only real scene in the picture, and yet it may be one of her best.

                   Is it all Relevant?  Is it all Subtext?  Are there scenes left on The Cutting Room Floor that flesh this out, or is it all just a Red Herring (as her subsequent scenes seem to ignore this one completely)?  As deliciously melodramatic as the story is -- certainly the book was -- likely yes to all.  And let's take a look at these words from Roger Ebert:

Midway in his investigation, Sinatra meets and falls in love with a woman played by Janet Leigh, and their relationship provides the movie with what looks to me like a subtle, tantalizing suggestion of an additional level of intrigue.  What’s going on here?  My notion is that Sinatra’s character is a Manchurian killer, too;  one allowed to remember details of Harvey’s brainwashing because that would make him seem more credible.  And Leigh?  She is Sinatra’s controller.

                    I’ll let you be the judge as we move on to Judge, Jury & Executioner in Dame Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin. 

I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her but all signs point to Dame Lansbury being as kind and wonderful and “Jessica Fletcher” as we think and hope and believe.  But if you firstsaw her in this?  Yeah.  Wow.  (I mentioned in Rawhide Mrs. Iselin is one of theEvil Characters.  So wonderfully evil, it’s hard to imagine Lansbury was offered the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but turned it down because she didn't think she could handle it.)  Well, this role almost wasn’t hers either as Mr. Sinatra wanted -- ready for this? -- Lucille Ball for the role;  who, as much as I love Lansbury, would have really wow’d playing against part.  And Lansbury, only 37 here, is only three years older than Lawrence Harvey;  make-up and hair and posture doing wonders for both their “age.”  We already touched on theirrelationship but I did want to touch on one more, albeit in an odd way;  that of Eleanor and her husband John (the perfectly cast James Gregory).  Because -- referencing Joss Whedon again who said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” -- I do get a kick at the great deal of wit throughout this picture -- admittedly enjoyed more your second, even third viewing -- particularly Eleanor’s trying to get John to “remember” an exact number of Communists in The Defense Department … and he starts putting Heinz Ketchup on his food. Peter Rainer of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote in 1988, in part:

The film was way ahead of its time, a black comedy that mixed melodrama and slapstick … it was about McCarthyism and Momism … I can't imagine what audiences would have made of it in 1962.

Or, as well as it holds up, even today.

This is a tightrope of a picture to be sure, walking the line of playing Melodrama “Straight” while some potentially very loose threads -- Politics, Hypnotism, Incest, all part of a Romantic Thriller -- are intricately webbed.  How closely grounded can we keep the Realism while (quite obviously) pushing that Melodrama?  This is a walk that's easier to make in a Novel but I feel is accomplished quite well On Screen.  And -- I believe – The Picture holds up as well as it does – fifty-five years later -- because of the talent both in front of and behind the camera.

We touched briefly on Mr. Sinatra (and then only tangentially) and Dame Lansbury and our own Miss Leigh -- and I won’t due Laurence Harvey (whose understated power here is indeed something to appreciate) any justice in this write-up – but we must at least mention our Adapter, George Axelrod, and Director, John Frankenheimer.

Mr. Axelrod was a Novelist, Playwright and Screenwriter perhaps best known for (both the Play & Movie) The Seven Year Itch.  I say perhaps because, as a Screenwriter, he had something of a grand-slam when his Seven Year Itch (co-adapted by none other than Billy Wilder), Bus Stop (also with Ms. Monroe), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (based on the Truman Capote Novel) and our film today played right in a row (’55-’62).  And it’s perhaps not surprising that our film today is such a successful tightrope-walk of a Novel Adaptation since he’d just come off Tiffany’s;  that classic having another specific Tone by another specific Author.  (PS do yourself a favor and read both Capote’s Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood;  really different but both real treats.)

At the helm is, of course, John Frankenheimer who, if he needs an introduction, let me do so by saying it was during the making of our film today that he became a close friend of Robert Kennedy;  and, six years later, it was Frankenheimer who drove Kennedy from LAX to The Ambassador Hotel on the night The Senator was assassinated.  (And, if I may, let me also add that my Father-In-Law was working at The Ambassador that fateful night.  Indeed, far too small a world.)  Need more on Mr. Frankenheimer?  Take a look at Birdman Of Alcatraz and Seven Days In May (1964) and Grand Prix and Black Sunday (1977);  the latter, interestingly, being Thomas Harris’ only non-Hannibal Lecter Novel.  Frankenheimer's best work -- including as late as Ronin (1998) and HBO’s Path To War (which I had the honor to meet him on, just months before his passing) -- continued to include the weaving of Action & Suspense into Social Commentary.

To wrap it all up, here's Roger Ebert on the Movie once more:

Seen today, The Manchurian Candidate feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes … [It] is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released. "It may be," Pauline Kael wrote at the time, "the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood." Yes, because it satirizes no particular target -- left, right, foreign, domestic -- but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.

And Louis Menand on the Novel once more (and oh how I love this):

Some people like their bananas ripe to the point of blackness.  [This] is a very ripe banana and, for those who have the taste for it, delectable.

1 comment: