Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Backfilling: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

Welcome to “Backfilling,” a regular feature in which I see classic and esteemed movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

John Frankenheimer’s paranoia-thriller-cum-political satire The Manchurian Candidate is, first and foremost, a great movie to just look at; Lionel Lindon’s black and white photography is clean, crisp, and gorgeous (I have a real affection for studio black-and-white pictures from the 1960s—directors like Stanley Kubrick, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols were making a deliberate choice when they shot Dr. Strangelove, In Cold Blood, and Virginia Woolf without color, and their cinematographers are really playing with the photography and the moods it can evoke). There is a scene around the one-quarter mark that is just magnificently shot (see image above)—Angela Lansbury’s senator husband is interrupting a press conference to scream about Communism, and Frankenheimer and Lindon show him in the background screaming and the video feed of him in the foreground, with Lansbury watching the television approvingly.

So much of the film’s modern reputation is centered on its parallels with the Kennedy assassination (particularly due to the debunked rumor that Sinatra’s production company pulled it from distribution after JFK was shot) that it’s surprising to see how many ballsy shots it takes at McCarthyism (“I think if John Eislen were a paid Soviet agent,” one character notes of the film’s McCarthyesque senator, “he couldn’t do more harm to this country than he’s doing now”). It’s also surprising to see how many liberties Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake took with the material (this is always the danger with seeing the reimagining first); that narrative was a little more active and less contemplative, neither better nor worse, merely different.

There’s much to recommend in The Manchurian Candidate, but it is a film whose reputation is a little better than the film itself; the score is bombastic, some of the supporting performances (particularly James Edwards as Cpt. Allen Melvin) are overwrought, Laurence Harvey is a bit too inert, and a long middle scene with he and Frank Sinatra drinking and babbling kind of stops the movie cold.

But overall, Frankenheimer brings the film off. It’s slyly funny (particularly Harvey’s hero’s welcome—and Lansbury’s exploitation of it—near the beginning of the film) and genuinely creepy, and he coaxes a terrific performance out of Sinatra, who creates a compelling portrait of a guy who goes to the brink of madness and back; his big reveal with Harvey (“All right, now let’s start unlocking a few doors) is a mighty good scene. And so is the ending, which is a real jaw-dropper.

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