Friday, July 30, 2004

Reflections on Originals - 1 -- Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Conversation Snips -- from Tacitus blog

Story by Nadezhda -- July 25, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate has come up several times recently on Tacitus. It was named frequently in the "favorite Cold War movies" thread. And with the current release of the remake with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, the original movie has reappeared in an open thread, garnering a strong con as well as an enthusiastic pro. My vivid impressions of the original will undoubtedly be altered by seeing the new version, regardless of whether I think the remake is great or awful. So here are my unsullied opinions of one of my all time favorite movies.

The original Manchurian Candidate is on my "must-see" shortlist not because of the plot (which is silly), or because the film is a great thriller that sells its story in spite of the plot, or because it resonates with a personal belief system of mine, or because it's powerful propaganda. If you want to see a great propaganda thriller, see Costa-Gavras' Z. Regardless of your political leanings, Z grabs a hold of you from the first moment of the opening credits, hauls you into its story, and doesn't let you go. Manchurian Candidate may also get under your skin, but more in the sense of making you squirm -- you're always aware that you're watching something from a distance even if you can't take your eyes off it.

Manchurian Candidate is the quintessence of a "style" movie, where the movie is propelled by its distinctive look and sound, acting technique, camera angles and rythmn. I've never come across another movie that is close to its peculiar style -- a bizarre blend of surrealism, noir and a "space invaders" B-movie with a touch of Hitchcock every once in a while. Although clearly the oeuvre of director John Frankenheimer, it's not a vision achieved in the editing room. The performances are of a piece with the director's vision and are uniformly outstanding.

The film is often over-the-top, its broad satire is almost cartoonish, yet as an experience, the film is disorienting and quite sinister. The dialogue and action in the entire film, until the climactic sequences, could have been a stage play. George Axlerod, the screenwriter who adapted Richard Condon'snovel (yes the Richard Condon of Prizzi's Honor), wrote for both stage and screen. His credits in the '50s and '60s are remarkably wide-ranging, from both the play and movie script for The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to screen adaptations of Bus Stop and Breakfast at Tiffany's ."

The actors' techniques match Axelrod's theatrical tone, using a broader style in speaking and moving than the usual less-is-more approach to movie acting. The physical arrangement of the actors feels as if they have been "blocked" by the director into stage positions with directions to 'move down stage left" or to use a prop as an action motive. The camera is not used to achieve a naturalistic movie style -- there is no sense that the camera is simply capturing the natural postures and motions of the characters it is observing. Given how distinctive the acting style is, it's a tour de force for the ensemble and the director that they achieved this collective "feel." When Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra occasionally use a more naturalistic style, the contrast with the rest of the movie is unsettling, as Frankenheimer undoubtedly intended.

When the film cuts to the totally surreal brainwashing scenes, they initially come as a sharp jolt. They're totally off-the-wall and humorous, but the audience's laughter is a bit nervous. As the actual content of the brainwashing scenes becomes more and more disturbing in action, however, the shifts to those scenes are less and less a jolt because the "real" parts of the movie have become increasingly disorienting. Frankenheimer reverses the typical cinematic contrast between a clear everyday consciousness and a blurred "lost memory." The memory is in its way more vivid, and Sinatra's mixed up and blurred character only comes into focus as memory is restored.

Over the course of the movie the zone of action gets narrower and narrower as the sense of claustrophobia builds. In the shots of the early crowd scenes, though crowded and unpleasantly raucous, the camera shows individuals and a sizeable portion of the crowd. By the time the film reaches the garden party, the crowd disappears visually; the sounds of its presence outside the room where Raymond is waiting underline his isolation. Raymond is most isolated in the biggest crowd scene of all, at the climax, where the crowd is just a wall of light and noise surrounding his narrow oblique field of vision. The techniques of a chase scene and a big crowd don't open the film up; they accentuate the tightening focus on Raymond and the sense of walls closing in.

Frankenheimer also plays masterfully with time to build tension through the climax. He doesn't just use the simple ticking clock -- will the hero get there in time. As the plot unfolds, the pace of events speeds up. Time between the episodes shown in the film shortens, and eventually the plot hurtles forward so rapidly that events overlap in time. Yet the tempo within each scene slows down. The early scenes are expository, and convey a great deal of background information and character introductions in short order. The middle scenes move the plot along fairly briskly. But toward the end, the "plot event" in each scene is no longer primary. It's the psychological events that are important to the camera, whether recording a character's solitary psychological moment or observing the dynamics of complex relationships. This contrast between an accelerating plot and a slowing internal tempo is one of Frankenheimer's key techniques to ratchet up the tension.

For those who have not seen the original movie, there is no particular reason to see it for its story or, to my way of thinking, for its "historical interest" as a satiric political commentary on the Cold War '50s. Apart from Frankenheimer's virtuosity (and my favorite performance by Sinatra), the compelling reason to see the original is Angela Lansbury. She was only 37 years old when she made The Manchurian Candidate, just 2 years older than her "son" Laurence Harvey. She was not made up to look very old, and he was not made up to look young. But from the moment they appear together, Lansbury's maternal dominance is so absolute, the viewer never questions their relative ages, and no further theatrical tricks or special effects are required. To quote AMG's online review:

[T]he film belongs to Lansbury. Her Mrs. Iselin remains one of the screen's most terrifying maternal presences, a queen bee intent on clearing the hive of anyone who stands in her way.

Once seen, never forgotten.

Comments by alk -- July 25, 2004

The dialogue and action in the entire film, until the climactic sequences, could have been a stage play.

David Mamet has the same signature style of theatricality. I just saw The Heist with Gene Hackman and even though I was unaware that this was another Mamet film, I recognized the staging and the dialogue and was not surprised when the credits rolled. Every movement, literally, is packed with intent. It is a very lean style. (John Sayles is an interesting contrast because he has an equally talented ear for dialogue, but his movies emerge without the theatricality, and yet there is no sense that something is missing.)

This contrast between an accelerating plot and a slowing internal tempo is one of Frankenheimer's key techniques to ratchet up the tension.

Not unlike real life. I was in an accident in which my car hydroplaned 540 degrees (1.5 full circles.) I remember vividly how slowly the car spun and I think my mind focused on the spinning to avoid thinking about what I would do if it ended up in the creek adjacent to the road. The endorphin response elicited by fear has multiple effects, I am supposing.

Angela Lansbury. For those who are honest enough to admit that they do not believe in the personal power of female personalities, I recommend her performance. Certainly her 'maternal dominance was absolute,' but I saw it as but one manifestation of an indomitable will worthy of Shakespeare.

Maternal not the only facet -- Nadezhda -- July 25, 2004

I quite agree about Angela Lansbury. I emphasized her absolute "maternal domination" because I was focusing on the viewer's immediate suspension of disbelief that Harvey is her son. But the other facets of her indominatable and overpowering intelligence are also on display as she uses one or another aspect of her immense femininity to manipulate everyone who comes near. Her will is like a force field that radiates from her, almost visible. Occasionally the viewer is given a glimpse of the gears at work as she shifts from one role to another, but that's only because she's started to get impatient with the weak reeds she's forced to use as tools. And you watch her impose her will on her self, regain her composure, and return to do battle. An awesome (in the old-fashioned sense) performance.

Your comments about Mamet's intent-laden dialogue got me thinking some more about the contrast between, on the one hand, what I called the cartoonishly broad satire and over-the-top plot and on the other, the collection of bravura performances. These characters, even the pathetic buffoonish Senator Iselin or the gushing ingenue Jocie, aren't cartoons or cardboard characters. The theatrical dialogue and staging, and of course the brilliant use of black and white, somehow intensifies them, so a short exchange of dialogue or a single gesture holds concentrated meaning -- though sometimes the meaning is a mystery or at least difficult to decipher (I'm thinking especially of Janet Leigh).

Though I'm an enormous fan of Sinatra the singer, I'm less taken with him as a movie star. The one exception is Manchurian Candidate. Again, it may be its very theatricality that suits him so well. His charisma isn't oversized, he doesn't have to dilute himself to fit on the screen, and the edgy intensity of his character plays against the internal energy of the other characters in the ensemble.

Although Lansbury owns the film, she doesn't blow the rest of the performances "off the stage." Her fire may burn hotter and brighter than the others, but the others have internal fires as well. Quite an accomplishment by Frankenheimer to get the actors to complement each others' performance tone, style and energy levels so extremely well.

Saw it again Saturday night -- JerseyCityJoan -- July 26, 2004>

It's everything you say and more.

Nadezhda, have you ever seen Frank Sinatra in 1954's Suddenly? It's no Manchurian Candidate, but it's another showcase for his acting talent, I think. An added pleasure is to see average people driving cars the size of Goodyear Blimps.

Thanks for the tip -- Nadezhda -- July 29, 2004

I'll have to find Suddenly. Looked it up on AMG, and it sounds very interesting, though a colorized ol' Brown Eyes would be disconcerting.

I was especially struck by one part of the AMG review:

While its confinement to one set and workmanlike direction give the project the feel of a photographed play, the principal characters are fleshed-out well enough to be compelling for the brief running time of the film.

Given the focus of both alk's and my comments on the theatrical qualities of The Manchurian Candidate, any thoughts as to whether that may be a common factor in both Sinatra performances you found especially strong?

Comparing the Candidates -- note to alk from Nadezhda -- July 29, 2004

Stole this post title from a nice review of the remake by Julian Sanchez in Reason Online. Given our shared admiration of Angela Lansbury, thought you'd find the intro para interesting:

Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of John Frankenheimer's paranoid 1962 classic, pulls off two cinematic miracles. First, it gives you reason to compare a performance by Meryl Streep unfavorably with one by the one-time star of Murder, She Wrote. Second, it manages to make you vaguely regret having seen the original. Not because the remake is bad, but because it's actually pretty good.

Still Sanchez makes it sound worth going to see, at least by comparison with most moviehouse summer fare.

It's on the DVD list -- alk-- July 29, 2004

I am not one of those who was allowed to grow old without getting, well, old, and quirky. I do not attend movies anymore because I am too crabby to tolerate the popcorn, slurping, and frantic whispering in the dark.

It will be interesting to see if Hollywood responds to the new international dynamic by remaking more Cold War movies. There was a brief flirtation for awhile with WWII themes, but my guess is that this was a temporary diversion driven more by nostalgia than an artistic awareness of Cold War deja vu.


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