Lawrence of Arabia (Directed by David Lean)
The Nominees: The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, To Kill a Mocking Bird
The Manchurian Candidate (Directed by John Frankenheimer)
My Nominees: To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean), Lolita (Stanley Kubrick), Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich)
I cannot, in good conscience, criticize anything about Lawrence of Arabia, a film so beautifully produced with such a grand canvas and intricate detail of story and character. David Lean is one of the rare men who can accurately be called a "cinema artist," a man who was an expert of telling a personal story within a very large canvas. Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films in which everything came together in a movie that was lucky to even get made. It was not an easy sell, it had no big name stars, no love story and only a handful of action scenes. Lean simply tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, a British Officer who leads the Arabs in their raids against the Turks during the First World War and assumes that this is enough. You know what? He was right!
The movie is a work of bold imagination, with great visuals and a focused center on a man who goes mad on the power of his own image. I enamored of the chutzpah that it took to make such a bold work of art but for 1962, there was another film that takes even bolder steps, John Frankenheimer's red scare epic, The Manchurian Candidate.
The Manchurian Candidate is one of those time stamp movies, a film that captures the attitudes of a particular moment in our history. A hundred years from now, this film will give future generations an impression of how frightening a time it was in the midst of the fear of Communist subversion.
The fear was that communism would not threaten our way of life with bombs and tanks but that it would infiltrate our society from within, that somehow the Reds could infect our brains and our way of life. That this film was made in 1962 is sort of chilling because this was a year before the Kennedy assassination gave rise to the public speculation that a political assassination might not be the act of one man. Also speculation was that it was a mass conspiracy brought on by our entire government. Whether you believe this theory or not, you can’t deny that such a foreshadowing exists in this film.
That foreshadowing has built up a sort of legend with The Manchurian Candidate. Co-star Frank Sinatra bought up the rights to keep the film out of release for reasons that have been speculated ever since. Director John Frankenheimer states that he was irritated because he didn’t get any profits from it. Sinatra’s reason was that he was so despondent over the death of President Kennedy that he couldn’t bare to put it in front of the public. So from 1963 until 1988 it sat on the shelf. When it was released, Sinatra praised the film and said that it was his best performance, however in an interview at the time he never mentioned why it was shelved for a quarter of a century.
The movie is based on a book that was written in 1959 and even though the Red Scare is gone, the film feels surprisingly contemporary. The threat of Communist subversion has withered and the cold war is now just a history lesson, but it has not dimmed the impact of The Manchurian Candidate, which at all times seems to vibrate with an uneasy tension just under the surface. Something is going on, there are strings being pulled, there are whispers that we don’t hear, promises that go unspoken and yet we only bear witness to the terrifying results of those machinations.
Laurence Harvey stars as Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, a Korean War veteran who has fragmented memories of an attack on his patrol. The bits and pieces of lost memory begin to come back to him in the form of nightmares from being brainwashed when he and his patrol were captured by the North Koreans. In one astonishing scene, a flashback establishes what happened. The POWs are hypnotized by their captors and think they are attending a flower show back home. In reality, they are attending a demonstration of the brainwashing technique by Communist officials. The camera pans around a circular lecture room, beginning with a group of older ladies and their flowers and slowly reveals the Communists and their mind control. From Harvey’s point of view, the film cuts back and forth to show the different realities. To show how deeply the suggestion has been implanted, Raymond is asked to shoot one of his buddies in the head. His buddy, unaware of what is really happening, simply smiles.
Two years later, back in the states, Raymond receives the Medal of Honor and, at his side, is his doting mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), who has just been remarried to Senator Iselan, a pathetic commie-bashing drunk not a million miles removed from Joe McCarthy. There is a bold, but not overstated, incestuous relationship between Mrs. Iselin and Raymond which, in the book, led to the bedroom, but here only led to an uncomfortable kiss. The casting of Angela Lansbury in the role of the incestuous mother is, I think, a masterstroke. Lansbury’s public persona is so warm, gentle and inoffensive that it’s a shock to see her in such a seething role. If you see her as the American voting public would have seen her and you understand how manipulating and misleading the character can be and how brilliant the casting of Lansbury was. She received an Oscar nomination for her performance and her character has become one of the most reviled villains in movie history. That is to Lansbury’s credit because nothing that she had done before or since suggested that she could pull off a character this complex.
The cracks in the Communist plot begin to unravel at the hands of Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who can’t stand the nightmares anymore and concludes that he and Raymond may have been under mind control. He is surprised that Raymond has received the Congressional Medal of Honor because neither he, nor any of the other men in the patrol, can remember what he did to get it. The reason is stated that he saved their lives but that doesn’t seem consistent with the memories they have.
Unfortunately, Marco makes a critical error by not bringing Raymond in for questioning because he believes that the love of a good woman will cure him. Raymond has just fallen in love with an old high school sweetheart who is the daughter of a left wing senator. What he doesn’t know is that Raymond’s mind has been programmed – with the Queen of Diamonds as a trigger - by the senator and Mrs. Iselin to commit political assassination so that the country will rally around its government in overthrowing the opposing powers. The assassination will line up Senator Iselin as leader of the free world.
What is striking in The Manchurian Candidate is the way in which it never falls into a formula thriller. The movie uses an inventive style that, at times, tricks the eye and plays with the expectations. It moves back and forth in time to build pieces of that memory so that we learn of the plot slowly. The film has such intriguing villains that even when we know every foul turn of the plot, we still sense that there is a lot left untold, that the conspiracy extends even further. There is a hypnotic feel to the film that is essential to the material. There are scenes that are almost surreal, like a dream.
The look of the film plays well off of George Axelrod’s screenplay which often speaks in code. Take for example the moment when Ben meets a woman named Rose (Janet Leigh) on a train. She makes a reference about Ohio that seems completely out of place. "Maryland's a beautiful state." She says. "This is Delaware," Marco corrects her. "I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter." The line makes no sense and I found that working it out, it makes even less sense. Is there a buried significance to the line? We’re never told what it is. Is Rose one of them? Is this a programming code? An anti-programming code? Is she a hallucination? The line makes no sense but it underlines a working manipulation just under the surface.
Revisiting the film recently, I was struck by director John Frankenheimer’s refusal to take sides. There is no party view, no right or left, no foreign or domestic point of view. We are invited to view the film as we see it, not to be manipulated by where the movie tells us to train our minds.