The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don’t portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director’s commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.

From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy – a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film’s end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 – being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.

Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate.com sums it up:

There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who’s mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao’s China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.

It’s Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn’t state if the Iselin’s are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.

Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it’s clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, “not loveable” as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower – an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.

Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.

The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase “play a little solitaire” – a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film’s climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.

Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)

The Sweet Life

Two Weeks In Another Town is the spiritual successor to the previous filmmaking based melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Vincente Minnelli.  The Bad and the Beautiful even gets an appearance within Two Weeks In Another Town in which Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) gloats over the film during a screening not quite unlike Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard  (“Loved it, thought I was great!”). Ultimately, I have to rank Two Weeks In Another Town as a more interesting and far more re-watchable film than The Bad and the Beautiful.

It’s always interesting to watch such lavish Hollywood productions from this period in the early to mid-1960s knowing that the Hollywood and filmmaking landscape would be almost unrecognizable by the end of the decade. TWIAT, for example, makes widespread use of the classic rear car projection shot which so identified with Hollywood’s golden age but not for much longer. The film offers a behind the scenes look at the on-set filmmaking process and even the post-production side of things with a whole scene alone focusing on dubbing the fictional film within the film. TWIAT was filmed in Cinecitta Studios in Rome (Hollywood on the Tiber as it was referred to due to the large number of American productions shot there) which doubles as the movie’s setting.

Aside from his musicals Vincente Minelli could craft a fine, lush and riveting melodrama and had a unique touch and style he brought to his films despite being a studio-bound director. TWIAT has just the right mixture glamour, decadent escapism, camp and a hint of trash along with the beautiful scoring courtesy of David Raskin. What is a melodrama if it doesn’t begin in a mental hospital or contain obvious use of symbolism such as Jack driving into a waterfall to signify his rebirth? Camerawork, on the other hand, is something which tends to stick out in Minelli’s films and the camerawork here is no less fluid as it follows actors from one room to another. There is one particularly memorable shot in which Jack walks into the elevator and the camera somewhat metamorphosises into becoming his point of view.

Hollywood’s veteran directors would have been as old as Edward G. Robinson by 1962 in the role of Maurice Kruger. In 1962 Robinson had his two best roles in years, both in films about the industry itself. TWIAT was the third pairing of Robinson and Claire Trevor and their role as a married couple is tragic as it is evident there is still some resemblance of love between this frustrated filmmaker and his hysterical old hag of a wife. It’s almost comical in her introductory scene, as riveting as Trevor’s performance is as she screams and follows her husband around their hotel suite accusing him of adultery as he walks around paying zero attention to her – he’s just that used to it. Adding to the cast is also Cyd Charisse who gives an entertaining if albeit shallow performance as Jack’s gold-digging ex-wife. She isn’t given much to do in the film other than being a man-eater but it’s fun to watch none the less.

TWIAT also acts as a good travelogue for Rome at night and offers a look at the city’s nightlife with one of my favourite shots in the movie being Kirk Douglas and Daliah Lavi overlooking the city at twilight as the sky is blood red; absolutely gorgeous. Also, Italians seem to know what to wear as every bit player and extra on screen is dressed so dam well.

My Geisha (1962)

Land of the Rising Fun!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Oh man, these are the kinds of quirky film concepts I live for, definitely up there with films like The Major and the Minor, The Whole Town’s Talking or Sylvia Scarlett. I’ve never previously been a Shirley MacLaine fan but My Geisha may have converted me. Unlike many dual identity films, I actually found the premise here believable, in that Lucy’s husband Paul Robiax (Yves Montand) wouldn’t recognise her disguised as her alter ego geisha by the name of Yoko – At times I found myself MacLaine is pretending to be a Geisha. Ok, the illusion might not work for everyone but it did for this viewer. Also on a more superficial appraisal, omg Yoko is so cute! I was also surprised and delighted that Edward G. Robinson actually has almost as much screen time as MacLaine, making the two a great comedic pairing. I stated in my review of The Whole Towns Talking (1935) that Edward G. Robinson appeared in some very quirky comedies in his career but this film just furthers that statement, My Geisha is by far the quirkiest of them all.

However, it’s not just goofiness for the sake of goofiness, the dual identity set up actually allows for a deep and complex plot. For starters it examines the business of film by acknowledging the dilemma of casting white actors as non-white characters; you can’t get a large budget for a film unless it stars a big box office draw, most of who in the early 1960’s where white. The other surprising area of depth that comes out of the goofy plot is the examination of the husband’s ego, tired of being in the shadow of his wife’s success and desiring the more conservative nature of Japanese society, a nature which Robaix acknowledges is disappearing from Japan as the country becomes increasingly westernised. Another point of interest if the moment when Edward G. Robinson’s character receives the news that Lucy’s husband has discovered the truth about Yoko, Robinson asks to be taken to the fourth floor of the hotel. The Japanese tend to avoid the use of the number 4 due to superstitions regarding the number as unlucky.

My Geisha would unsurprisingly not be made today would be seen as politically incorrect with its use of so-called “yellowface”, not to mention Bob Cummings in the role of somewhat creepy adulterous movie star Bob Moore who doesn’t quite understand boundaries. Yet even a film of this manner was made today, you know the film world come to a halt for 20 minutes when Lucy’s secret is revealed (otherwise known as the dreaded cliché of the liar revealed) in which one character would tell the other about how they’ve been betrayed and they never want to see each other again even though they get back together at the end. Not here though, when Lucy’s husband discovers she is Yoko (which I should add is done a very clever manner) he quietly accepts that he was fooled and there’s no big pointless, drawn-out argument scene. Sorry, classic movie fanboy rant.

I wonder what the Japanese reaction to this was. I assume this is an idealised, tourist brochure version of Japan but either way this film sure looks beautiful. I believe this could likely be credited to the surprising choice of director, Jack Cardiff, normally more famous for his work as a cinematographer. The entire film is a feast for the eyes and ears with its eye-popping colour and score by Franz Waxman (even the film within a film looks incredible and is itself emotionally moving). Not to mention to the costume design by the great Edith Head, it’s clear in classic Hollywood films that costumes were no afterthought. My Geisha is another obscure, quirky gem which I adore.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.