We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
4. The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.
Movies are time capsules.
We view a Hollywood production from, say, the 1930s and we get a series of messages—visual and verbal—that are instant snapshots of the culture from which the narrative was birthed. There are, of course, the fashions, the hairstyles, even the make up, that let us us know that we are in a particular time and place. And of course, the narratives are witnesses to how society viewed itself. The attitudes and values of American culture are on full display, in all their myriad forms, in the movies.
Some movies date better than others. The screwball comedies of the 1930s still play beautifully for contemporary audiences because the battle of the sexes is timeless. Sadly, the women’s weepies of the 40s—take a look at Now Voyager (’42), an amazing Bette Davis film—fare less well because they are seen by today’s women as regressive and misogynistic. Busby Berkeley musicals are fun, admired for their abstraction of the human form, but they are relics, kitch for the priests of high culture.
And this is one of the reasons why The Manchurian Candidate is such an astonishing movie. It is deeply contemporary, post-modernism before the term was invented.
Consider the plot: During the Korean War, a squad of American soldiers is captured by the North Koreans, brainwashed, and then one of the unfortunate soldiers, Laurence Harvey, is sent back to the United States as a sleeper agent, programmed to kill on command. The narrative spins even deeper as we discover that Harvey’s mother—brilliantly played by Angela Lansbury, the most evil mother in the history of motherhood—the wife of a drunken, buffoonish Senator, is plotting a take-over of the United States by assassinating a presidential candidate, and then blaming the assassination on a vast right wing conspiracy. Thus, anti-communism becomes a cover for a communist coup.
It is almost surrealistic. And, in truth, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod expertly switch from hyper-realism to fantasy, and manage to come up with a coherent narrative that contains mind-bending twists and turns. The brainwashing scenes are brilliant and chilling as the American soldiers cheerfully imagine attending a ladies garden party when, in truth, they are on display for communist officials. The razor sharp cutting between the two realities is disorienting, and only begins to make sense as the byzantine plot unfolds.
The movie is based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon that is even more twisted than the movie. In the film, Angela Lansbury’s incestuous feelings for Laurence Harvey—he keeps insisting that he is unlovable—are revealed in a truly shocking moment when she kisses him full on the mouth. In the book, they end up in bed together.
The Manchurian Candidate is often described as a satire, but this is inaccurate. Dr. Strangelove (’64) is satire, featuring outrageous characters who border on the cartoonish.
Manchurian Candidate is tortured realism.
Frankenheimer got his start in live television—he worked as an assistant director to my friend and colleague Sidney Lumet—and when I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Frankenheimer in 1977, he told hilarious stories of the crucible of live television. In Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer uses the intense visual vocabulary of live TV: tilt shots, wide angles, deep focus, and overlapping dialogue, to heighten the sense of reality. Axelrod’s near perfect screenplay matches the visual intensity with exchanges of dialogue that have all the logic of a dream world.
When Frank Sinatra—in the best performance of his career—first meets Janet Leigh, his hands tremble so badly he can’t light a cigarette. She lights it for him.
Leigh: “Maryland’s a beautiful state.”
Sinatra: “This is Delaware.”
Leigh: “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.”
And yet it works. The film overflows with such weird exchanges.
A rumor has circulated for years that after the assassination of JFK, Frank Sinatra pulled the film from distribution out of remorse, imagining that the movie was a blueprint for a presidential assassination.
In fact, Sinatra ended up hating the Kennedy brothers after they ruthlessly cut him from their circle because of his close association with mobsters. This, after Sinatra donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Kennedy campaign, and rallied his Hollywood friends to publicly support JFK.
The real reason the film was out of release from 1964 to 1988 was because of a financial dispute over profit participation between Sinatra and United Artists.
Frankenheimer, a devoted liberal, told me he was most proud that The Manchurian Candidate ridiculed the character who is modeled on Senator Joe McCarthy. I was a young film journalist at the time, certainly too star struck by Frankenheimer’s presence to point out that the beauty of the film is that it blames no specific American political party—the extreme left are as poisonous as the extreme right—except the truly evil communist party.
David Paulin has published a fine article in American Thinker about Somewhere In Time (’80) starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, a movie the critics hated, but which has become a cult classic. Yours truly is quoted throughout the article.