PopWatch Rewind Week 12: 'The Manchurian Candidate'

vote-the-manchurian-candidateImage Credit: Everett CollectionElection Day is upon us. All you diligent lever-pullers out there will be exercising your civic duty today in an important midterm election, so we at PopWatch Rewind decided to make an unprecedented political statement by endorsing a candidate. The Manchurian Candidate, that is, starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey and directed by the madman/genius John Frankenheimer. As frightening for its current relevance as for its evil Angela Lansbury, it should be made a legal requirement that all prospective voters must watch the tragic, thrilling tale of Sergeant Raymond Shaw, the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being we’ve ever known in our lives.

Darren Franich: Laurence Harvey has so many great lines in this movie. “He’s not a communist, mother. As a matter of fact, he’s a Republican.” “I don’t think that Chunjin is a Buddhist. He smiles all the time!” “Twelve Days of Christmas? One day of Christmas is loathsome enough.” He’s literally Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and part of the genius of the story is how much you actually care about him by the end.

Keith Staskiewicz: Eh, kind of. What strikes me about Manchurian Candidate is that Harvey’s character is totally unlikable, unlovable even. He’s pretentious, he’s self-centered, he’s entitled, and all he does is whine. I love the fact that Harvey doesn’t even attempt to hide his accent. It totally adds to the Brahmin poor-little-rich-boy aura about him.

DF: You don’t care about him?

KS: I do, but only because, narratively speaking, I almost view all this terrible stuff that happened to him as good. Instead of living like a wimpy schmuck his whole life, complaining about his mom and summering in the country, he gets to die a hero.

This is your brain on communism.

DF: I disagree completely. Yes, he’s Mr. Petulant All-American. But you could argue that he would’ve gone on to be a crusading political journalist if his mom hadn’t commie-brainwashed him. Heck, he’s been programmed by his mother his entire life, long before the mind control, to be a presidential-perfect human being. So he hates her, he hates himself, he hates everyone. He’s like the missing Kennedy brother: good looks, perfect diction, utter misanthropy.

KS: I don’t necessarily buy that he was lovable once. I think that’s just him remembering a simpler time, when he sipped gin martinis by the lake with some New England hottie named Margot.

DF: For the movie’s first hour, I totally agree with you: everything Laurence Harvey does is hilariously rude and off-putting. Even the way he says casual things: “I never keep letters.” By comparison, Sinatra is the bedraggled-everyman hero. But once he figures out that his dreams are real, his story arc is mostly over. He becomes a recognizable type — the detective hero — and mostly falls out of the story. The entire second half of the movie completely belongs to Laurence Harvey.

Champagne wishes and caviar American dreams.

KS: That’s one of the things that I like about the movie: that there’s no clear cut protagonist. Splitting it between Sinatra and Harvey works surprisingly well.

DF: It’s hard for me to imagine watching Sinatra in this movie at a time when he was such a big star.

KS: Well, he’d already proven himself as an actor. He’d gotten his Oscar for From Here to Eternity, and played an even more messed up guy in The Man With the Golden Arm. But I will admit that during the mind-control scenes, I kept on hearing: “I’ve got you … under my skin.”

Frank Sinatra has a cold.

KS: Also, Janet Leigh in this movie is my ideal woman. She’s beautiful, and she makes terrible jokes constantly.

DF: Have you heard the theory, propagated by Roger Ebert, that the train sequence with all the bizarre dialogue — “Maryland is a beautiful state.” “This is Delaware.” — is actually Janet Leigh using codephrases, similar to  “Why don’t you play some Solitaire?”

KS: So she’s an agent keeping tabs on him? That’s interesting. She keeps repeating her phone number, and then as soon as he gets in jail he compulsively calls her. Speaking of the jail, there’s that little bit at the police station where that dude (a police officer?) is talking on the phone in Spanish. There’s no reason for that to be there, but it’s a great detail. That’s a small reason why 1960s John Frankenheimer is awesome.

DF: Frankenheimer might be my favorite director. He definitely has one of the all-time great run of movies. From ’62 through ’66: Birdman of Alcatraz, Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train, and Seconds. A quintet of bizarro political satire and psychological perversion, all the more noteworthy because he never really made another movie nearly as good.

This image sums up John Frankenheimer's entire career and philosophy.

KS: I’m not sure the relationship between Lansbury and the Communists is ever really defined exactly. What’s the quid pro quo?

DF: I dunno, world domination? I really love this movie, but I do find this aspect kind of problematic. The Manchurian Candidate has a million little wonderful touches — the cop speaking in Spanish, the way Raymond’s programming gets futzed because of a bartender complaining about his deadbeat brother-in-law, Janet Leigh’s entire role in the movie. But I can’t decide if it’s not just an expansively enjoyable, digressive take on an extremely basic James Bondian thriller.

KS: The other problem is that it’s simultaneously exploiting and satirizing this element of Cold War paranoia. Like a perpetual motion machine running on its own hot air, the thriller aspect is powered by the same wild and crazy theories the satire makes fun of. But for me, there’s more than enough subversive elements sprinkled throughout the story to make it a great movie.

"Great, now I'll have to go back to the store."

KS: As I was watching this, I kept thinking that this was actually a perfect choice for this election day. For obvious reasons, one of the first things my mind went to is the recent conservative book The Manchurian President. The book uses the title to refer to Obama’s supposed ties, social and ideological, to Communists, Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyites and Mikhail Baryshnikovians. But in the film, the “Manchurian Candidate” is Senator Iselin, a blatant McCarthy figure, who deflects criticism and gains frenzied media attention by accusing others of ties to the Reds. So, when you think about it, the actual Manchurian Candidate-type figure in this current scenario is the author himself.

DF: “I hold in my hand the name of 257 Communists and Stalinists who voted for Barack Obama!”

KS: In 1962, this movie was already satirizing that sort of scare tactic. You’d think that 48 years later, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, we’d be done with that. Naming your McCarthy-lite political book The Manchurian President is like earnestly quoting Howard Beale or starting a fight club. You’re kinda missing the point.

DF: I’m beginning to suspect that you’re a socialist, Keith. You do have a gigantic poster of Stalin hanging on your wall.

KS: Is that who that is? I thought it was Super Mario.

Comrade Staskiewicz, pictured here in the offices of Entertainment Weekly.

Next Week (Friday): Rachel McAdams stars in Morning Glory as a workaholic TV producer. In Broadcast News, Holly Hunter also played a workaholic TV producer, but since her film was rated R, she could swear!


Comments (3 total) Add your comment
  • Terry

    A great double feature is pairing this with Suddenly, a little known thriller with Sinatra as a would be presidential assassin.

  • laylagalise

    Great post! Can’t wait for next week- I love “Broadcast News” unconditionally (every Albert Brooks scene is perfect).

  • Glen

    Just a note of appreciation for PopWatch Rewind — I discovered it about 8 weeks in, and fervently caught up on the previous posts during the next hour, dropping all other work. My wife nearly fell out of her chair laughing at the article on My Cousin Vinny, one of her favorite semi-guilty pleasures. Thanks Darren and Keith!

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