Posts Tagged ‘John Frankenheimer’

Movie Reviews 437 – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

June 4, 2020

We’ve been living in a political dark period for some time now. The growing presence of Internet social networking sites has transformed them into powerful political influence conduits that are not only vulnerable, but being actively exploited not only by political parties, but also foreign powers which are even a greater threat.

While some of the younger people may believe that this is a new phenomena that has come about because of online social networking, the manipulation of a voting public has been around since there have been politicians. Newspapers going back hundreds of years have been empires built and manipulated by controlling owners, often brazenly favoring candidates, parties or ideological stripes. When Television came along, it proved an even more powerful tool given the inherent audio and video capabilities.

One of the first presidential campaigns in which it is acknowledged television was a deciding factor was the John F. Kennedy win over Nixon in 1961. Charisma aside, even makeup and lighting during the televised debate proved to present remarkable differences between the men. Ironically president Kennedy plays a part in this review of The Manchurian Candidate, a classic thriller that hinges on the then nascent Cold War.

Former Korean War prisoner Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home to a hero’s welcome orchestrated by his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) who stages the event as a photo opportunity for her husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory) who is running for president. Shaw, despising his manipulative mother and buffoon step-father is being bestowed a congressional Medal of Honor, hailed for reputedly escaping his captors and single handedly saving a number of his battle comrades.

The only problem is that none of what he remembers actually happened. While he and the others have clouded recollections of the official story, they have lingering nightmares of an entirely different scenario. In their dreams they are seated onstage listening to a speech on horticulture delivered to a women’s auxiliary club. But those very memories waver and at times the women are actually Communist henchmen, and even worse, a brainwashed Shaw obediently chokes a fellow serviceman when asked. That dead serviceman is one who supposedly was killed in action.

These conflicting memories have a greater impact on Shaw’s former commanding officer, Maj. Marco (Frank Sinatra) who never got along with the loutish Shaw, and yet when asked what he thinks about him uncontrollably replies in a trancelike state “Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Marco’s persistence in flagging the authorities that something is wrong finally pays off, but while convinced Shaw has been brainwashed by the enemy, the purpose for his release and supposed mission remain unknown. That is until Marco figures out the psychological trigger, the appearance of the Queen of Hearts in a card deck, which makes Shaw submissive to following instructions.

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller with remarkable performances by the entire cast, but particularly by Lansbury as the ice-cold calculating pivotal figure. The unloved Shaw whose only redeeming quality is seeing his mother for what she is, has a brief tinge of humanity restored when he falls for the daughter (Leslie Parrish) of his step-father’s political nemesis (John McGiver), but even that interlude falls victim to his mother’s interference. The entire relationship is as interesting as the political intrigue and there are some not so subtle hints of an incestuous relationship. Less enjoyable is a shoehorned in love interest for Sinatra with Janet Leigh that just falls flat.

Front and center of course is the political maneuvering. While some may find the idea of simple brainwashing a bit much, as a plot element it remains effective even if only symbolically. The sequences in which the filming interleaves the old ladies transforming into a communist audience is mesmerizing. If the ending were not good enough after we find out what the endgame Shaw was being driven into, there is an added twist to make it all the better.

There was a longstanding myth that this film was pulled from theatres after JFK’s assasination due to the eerily similar aspects in the film but that has largely been dispelled over the years. What is true is that it was not promoted or marketed for a number of years following the incident and fell into obscurity for a long time until a revival in the late 80’s after which it gained praise and established itself as a classic film.

Richard Condon’s novel on which the film was based or perhaps the film itself seems to have been the inspiration for the episode The Hundred Days of the Dragon from the original Outer Limits television show. Shortly after this release director John Frankenheimer went on to helm 7 days in May which also shares elements of this story.  My MGM special edition DVD also had a nice featurette by fellow director William Friedkin as well as interviews with Frankenheimer, Sinatra and Screenplay writer George Axlerod.

I have to admit that while I have watched this film several times before, I find it all the more chilling in this political climate we find ourselves today. Foreign political interference is hardly even concealed and the effects of having a weak candidate in a position of power is all too evident.

We were warned.

Movie Reviews 405 – Seven Days in May (1963)

August 29, 2019

These are trying times when the president of the United States makes foreign policy changes on a whim, backs them up with preposterous untruths and delivers them incoherently on social media. More troubling is the evident pandering to a brutal Soviet dictator willing to openly exterminate any democratic challengers, and one who for all intents and purposes manipulated the election that delivered the US presidency via social media manipulation.

But what do you do? There are legal means that are not only available, but that have been used before to remove a president, if not by enacting impeachment, having them leave the post voluntarily before the inevitable (I’m looking at you “Tricky Dicky”!). But impeachment takes time and just like any other legal case require a substantial burden of proof. What happens when such a powerful figure puts the country and the world in actual danger and you don’t have the luxury of time to stop the threat?

Director John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, based on the best selling novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, came at the height of the cold war’s nuclear proliferation and pits a maniacal general with White House ambitions against a president about to sign a controversial disarmament treaty.

With mere days to go before the agreement is in place and believing that the erosion of the country’s nuclear deterrent will be followed by an inevitable Russian invasion, Air Force general Scott (Burt Lancaster) secretly aligns all the brass of the other defence agencies to stage a coup by assassinating the President (Fredric March). One of his aides, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) comes across some bizarre coded messages that appear to be innocent petty betting between Scott and all the other generals on the upcoming Preakness Stakes horse race which he laughs off at first. But when he brings up the betting eyebrows begin to raise and he subsequently learns that a newly created unit, ECOMCON, is non-existent as far as official channels are concerned. While he cannot prove beyond a doubt Scott and the generals plans for an overthrow, he presents his findings to the President and his aide (Martin Balsam) and hope that they believe him.

While I have seen Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, another film political thriller wherein the position of the President is manipulated by foreign influence, this was my first screening of this film, but certainly not my last. Scripted by none other than the brilliant Rod Serling the film wastes little time on such things as gauging who is on one side or the other and whether or not the threat is real. Instead it builds intense suspense on uncovering all the facets of the staging of the coup and how the treat can dealt with, which is hardly a simple matter. The only slightly ineffective plot device (a red herring really) was the inclusion of Scott’s mistress (Ava Gardner) being dragged into the affair. But even that angle, while unconvincing, is masterfully scripted by Serling (or perhaps the novel’s authors). The point of patriotism is front and center, especially by the fact that Casey himself disagrees with the President’s stance on the treaty.

Eerily John F. Kennedy, a fan of Frankenheimer’s Candidate and this novel, accommodated the filming of segments in front of the actual White House, only to be assassinated himself and never lived to see the film. If that weren’t enough, I have this film on a Burt Lancaster box set which includes three other films, one being Executive Action, a film with a plot about carrying out the JFK assassination.

Fantastic film with a stellar cast even beyond those I’ve mentioned. Now I’m not in any way condoning this plot as a means to get rid of a certain clown currently occupying the oval office but at least it’ll take your mind off the sad state of affairs for two hours.