Monday, November 18, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Manchurian Candidate

There has been much debate lately over the notion that television has overtaken cinema in terms of quality. Indeed, the rise of the cable networks has produced many acclaimed shows that have pushed boundaries and provided a weekly dose of excellence that you are unlikely to get from the multiplex. While the constant rewards of HBO and AMC shows certainly make a strong case for television, it's perhaps more useful to view this as a natural evolution of the medium. While TV was just gaining popularity around the 1950s, cinema was already emerging from the shadows of the Hays code, producing daring films like this week's top pick - "The Manchurian Candidate".
Much like the popular TV series "Scandal" and "House of Cards", this film focuses on political antiheroes. John Frankenheimer's 1962 film is an unflinching portrayal of high-level corruption and moral bankruptcy that continues to fascinate audiences to this day. The focal character is war hero Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) who is brainwashed in Manchuria, China to become an assassin for the Communists upon his return to the US. Under the influence of a psychological trigger (a Queen of Diamonds playing card), he is obliged to follow the murderous orders of Communist agents. However, his unwitting plan is hindered by fellow war survivor Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who was also brainwashed with false memories of Shaw's heroism. His hypnosis isn't as successful however, as recurrent nightmares slowly remind him of the truth. As Marco slowly comes to his senses, the film becomes a race against the clock as he must convince the authorities that Shaw isn't who he seems before it's too late.
As the plot unfolds, the first thing that strikes you is the director's style, or lack thereof. Specifically, there's a calm steadiness to the storytelling that really allows the viewer to focus on the script and the acting. With our modern obsession with distinct auteurist directing styles, it's quite refreshing to see a film where a director is fully able to divert the attention away from himself. This proves to be highly effective as it reinforces the sense of evil lurking within civility. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock's personal favourite of his own filmography - "Shadow of a Doubt". Of course, this film isn't set in picket fenced suburbia, but rather the more executive level setting of Washington and its associated social structure. It's not an obvious comparison, but expectations of politicians are quite the same (perfect families, baby-kissing etc.) as those of the quintessential American household.
While Hitchcock's film employs his creative techniques of varying camera angles (Joseph Cotten's fourth wall-breaking is legendary) and evocative score, the aforementioned plainness of direction on display here is equally impressive. Considering the macabre premise of the plot, the frank, almost banal visualizations of the heinous acts is deeply chilling. As a result, the film is both potently of its time (the Cold War was escalating) and seemingly ahead of its time with its bold cynicism.
With the screenplay's strong content and themes, this was already destined to be a fascinating film. However, it's the outstanding acting ensemble that completes the package to make "The Manchurian Candidate" must-see cinema. Namely, the trio of main performers (Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury) gave truly memorable performances. Working in different registers of acting technique (Sinatra's grounded steadfastness, Harvey's jaded fragility and Lansbury's chilly deviousnes), this is a prime example of inspired casting. The film may be a slow burn overall, but the dramatic peaks are handled with crackling brilliance by these fine actors.
In essence, "The Manchurian Candidate" captures many of the traits of today's dark political TV dramas (along with the steady stream of similarly themed films). Of course, production values have improved and our tolerance of antiheroes as protagonists has vastly increased. The message is still the same as it always was though. With power comes the threat of corruption. This is true whether the power is obtained in a communist or capitalist society. It's a constant battle that we need to be reminded of in order to strive to a better future. That's why I have a great appreciation for films like "The Manchurian Candidate", where the entertainment value goes hand in hand with its important social relevance. I implore you to seek out this film, even if you've seen the 2004 remake.

This film is part of my List of Shame.

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