After a long hiatus from COVID-19, the News-Gazette film series returns to the Virginia Theater with John Frankenheimer’s 1962 black-and-white political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” at 1 and 7 p.m. on October 23.
Usually, the series’ October offering includes one or more classic monster movies scheduled with Halloween in mind, but this year it features horror in the form of more realistic early 1960s fears – McCarthyism , communism, brainwashing, cold war and conspiracies.
For contemporary audiences, the film‘s level of anxiety is said to have increased even more when it opened on October 24, 1962, in the midst 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 Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is ambushed and abducted by Soviet troops. Upon his return to America, Marco’s sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) receives the Medal of Honor for saving his platoon from a larger North Korean force. His mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), try 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 having repeated nightmares about a brainwashing session in Manchuria in which Shaw kills platoon members on command. The military is ready to dismiss its nightmares as what would now be called PTSD, but when he finds out that another platoon member has had similar nightmares, he realizes something is seriously wrong with Shaw. and with his own memories and that he has to find out. what Shaw was programmed to do.
Due to its political content, no studio wanted to make this film, but once writer George Axelrod and director Frankenheimer got Frank Sinatra (who actually wanted to make the story) involved and the behind-the-scenes blessing of President John F. Kennedy (through Sinatra’s intercession), United Artists continued production.
Axelrod’s screenplay was simplified but stayed true to Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, and Frankenheimer used techniques learned in the making of over 100 TV series (as well as actors he had worked with) to deliver a film with a unique look for its time.
Arising from this particular television work, there is a repeated directing that sets the film apart from standard Hollywood practice – one character’s face looms in the foreground while another character addresses them from there. ‘background.
And Frankenheimer’s direction and superb cast made the film’s multiple long speeches move so quickly that their length and frequency didn’t slow down the action.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is famous for several iconic scenes. The 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 in thinking they are listening to a speaker at a women’s garden club talk about hydrangeas.
The camera pans around 360 degrees, soldiers replace the ladies, and the hotel becomes an auditorium in Manchuria. Ferris Webster’s superb montage here oscillates between reality and controlled perceptions of Americans, adding to the surreal feel of the scene.
Equally impressive, however, is a scene in which Iselin disrupts a press conference by the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley, a familiar television actor) to assert that there are “card-carrying communists” in the ministry. defense.
Monitors dot the room, playing the News Feed, which Frankenheimer was actually running in real time from a remote TV van, and as Gregory and Kelley shout improvised curses at each other, we see them simultaneously live and on the monitors, observed closely by a Lansbury calculation.
Frankenheimer also makes Shaw’s assassinations particularly memorable without resorting to a lot of explicit gore, though the one in which milk spurts out of a carton held by its victim can still be shocking (while adding a touch of gruesome humor).
The film featured a few Hollywood premieres, such as the satire of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose attempts to advance his career by investigating the alleged infiltration of Communists into government and the film industry led to the blacklisting of many writers and actors. (Okay, that 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 couldn’t heal it due to his schedule, and he never healed properly.) And the movie was one of the first to give an African-American actor a role not specifically written as an African-American. .
Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Ferris Webster for Editing. It was an incredibly tough competitive year for the Oscars, however, 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 symbolism (images of Lincoln and American eagles abound) and dark humor, “The Manchurian Candidate” delivers political thrills and barbs that still retain their impact (far more effectively than the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber).
In 2003, Roger Ebert noted that the film âfeels surprisingly contemporary,â and he’s still right today.