We are still puzzled by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Even if you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President — and many don’t — then who was behind it? And who was behind the killing of Oswald?
In the case of The Manchurian Candidate, assassination is a way to co-opt the democratic process. Obviously, murder is not the only way of doing so. There is certainly a school of thought that an abundance of ill-gotten and secret financial support and the ability to cleverly manipulate the facts to deceive the public are also effective. Murder, by comparison, would seem to be more effective. And this is the subject of the evening.
The original film, based on Richard Condon’s book, was released in1962, not long before Kennedy died in a Dallas hospital of bullet wounds. Among the conspiracy theories about the real-life tragedy were scenarios that put the blame on various villains — Castro, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ, the Mob or union leaders. Conspiracy theories were all over the place. The Manchurian Candidate seemed to anticipate this kind of paranoia. And certainly, in 1962, post Eisenhower, shortly after the hearings held by the House of UnAmerican Activities, we weren’t far from the 1950s right wing hysteria that there was a Communist in every pot. Some things never change.
Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury are at their best in this daring film about an elaborate assassination and brainwashing plot to gain the presidency. Shot in black and white, the director, John Frankenheimer, took serious risks by using expressionistic cinematic devices to show the brainwashing techniques. The action is startling in its violence at times, controversial in its sexual portrayal of mother and son and ahead of its time in its cynical look at American politics, especially at the presidential level. Harvey is particularly convincing in a difficult role — a sympathetic but horrific victim turned villain. Sinatra was interviewed many years later and was asked why he hadn’t taken that pivotal and demanding role. “I couldn’t have done it,” Sinatra said.
Janet Leigh plays Sinatra’s girlfriend in this first version. Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. The film, now 50 years old, is as fresh today as it was when it was released.
Sometimes we wonder why a film is remade when the first is so good. And I was tempted merely to pair the original with a rerun of this year’s presidential debates, as suggested by my friend, Baby Dave. However I’m glad I didn’t listen to myself. The remake, released in 2004, effectively brings the same story into this century. And there are certainly enough twists and turns in the more recent film so that, even if you watch the original, you really don’t know what’s coming in this one.
In 2004, the world was more more technological, our enemies — and therefore our conspiracy theories — are refocused on current boogeymen. “Socialist” has replaced “communist,” and somehow “Muslims” and “Kenyans” are misappropriated in order to inspire hate and intolerance. And while I’m most impressed with the original, the remake is more believable. Directed by Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington plays the Sinatra role, Liev Schreiber plays the Harvey role, and Meryl Streep plays the Lansbury role. The Lansbury-Streep factor is a real face-off. Both were deservedly nominated for several awards for their stellar portrayals. But instead of the Communist threat and Russian and Chinese enemies, we have Middle Easterners and the largely ignored but immense threat posed by the increasingly powerful global corporations. I am fearful of the latter group as well.
John Voight, Vera Farmiga, Miguel Ferrer, Dean Stockwell are also in the cast. And there are cameos made by Gayle King and Al Franken.
I’m at a complete loss about what to recommend as drinks to accompany brainwashing or an election. I imagine that I will have a bottle of Cabernet or Zinfandel ready Tuesday night, November 6 as I watch the ultimate suspense drama. Polls suggest it may be a long night.