Going To The Candidate’s Debate

Watching THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (version original) with friends — Fiona had never seen it — and it was striking how, for a very good film (it IS a very good film) it’s full of very silly, awful things that would sink a lot of lesser movies. So in a way I feel I’m celebrating the flick’s real virtues by listing some of its more gaping dreadfulnesses.

1) Opening credits. A badly airbrushed THING — a bundled flag? Then it acquires a playing-card face. OK, that’s pertinent. Then it sort of STRETCHES in order to fit in more credits. How does it do that? WHAT IS IT?

David Amram’s music works quite well in the film, but when you hear it more or less by itself, as here, it kind of makes you want to slip quietly out of life and start decaying.

Korean? Right.

2) Henry Silva as a Korean. “Of Spanish-Sicilian descent?” someone must have said, “Close enough!” Or maybe they just wanted someone Sinatra could hang out with. I like Silva, he has the face of a clever shark, but he is nobody’s idea of oriental. And he has to do kung fu! They could have got Bruce Lee, surely. Not Korean, either, but you know, CLOSER. It is ASTONISHING that, in 1962, a filmmaker might voluntarily cast this way, especially in a small role where there would have been no real pressure to insert a big name star.

With one mighty chop! I think it’s the placement of the couch that makes this bit funny.

3) Kung fu. Sinatra is many things (he’s terrific in this) but he’s actually not the most graceful athlete. It’s particularly funny, the contrast between the feeble movements of the lumbering Caucasians onscreen, and the EFFECT they have, smashing through tabletops and doors with their mighty chops. It’s just mad. Several of Sinatra’s “moves” seem to have been borrowed from the classic “dirty fighting” scene in Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER, where, despite being some years older and having a bad back, Gary Cooper acquitted himself rather better in the action hero stakes than the bandy-legged crooner from Hoboken.

Send in the stunt men! If you watch the equence at regular speed, it is in no way obvious that it’s not Frank and Henry here. But it’s still funny.

The sequence is laughable partly because it seems to have served for the inspiration for all the wildly destructive martial arts combat in the later PINK PANTHER films, but only partly. Shouting “No, Cato, now is not the time!” at the screen doesn’t actually make the sequence funnier than it already is. It shares with Blake Edwards’ slapstick scenes the abrupt, unmotivated start, the massively elevated levels of destruction, and the unhealthy, unskilled posture and movement of the fighters (though Burt Kwouk and Henry Silva certainly have the edge on Peter Sellers and Frank Sinatra).

4) Janet Leigh. Now, I love Janet Leigh, but there is actually no reason for her to be in this picture save to assure us that the Frankie is heterosexual, in case we were for any reason worried. After all, shorn of love interest, he spends most of his time making puppy eyes at Laurence Harvey. Screenwriter George Axelrod (THE 7 YEAR ITCH) breaks out his best cutesy dialogue to try and give Janet something to SAY, at least, since she has nothing to do, and Sinatra suffers so effectively in these scenes that they kind of get away with it. Of course, a lot of women’s roles were created for this very reason, and still are, but usually they’re more thoroughly woven into the narrative, so that their presence actually achieves something else too.

5) Laurence Harvey going on about being “lovable”, a word he uses about 47 times in one speech. Overdone, maybe? However, L.H. is, if not exactly adorable, extremely effective and touching here. My old friend took a dislike to the Lithuanian Lothario after witnessing him urinate from the window of a moving car, but if wanton micturation were something that disqualified one from screen greatness, Lee Tracy and Robert Mitchum would both be disbarred from the Walk of Fame. As well as all those cockney actors who, by long tradition, use the dressing room sink rather than the toilet (Barbara Windsor, James Hayter and Jessie Matthews, I’m talking about you).

6) Not a flaw, but a definite TRAIT: Frankenheimer directs this with a great deal of invention but very little cohesion. While most of it uses wide-angle lens deep-focus photography in a way that draws upon CITIZEN KANE while looking ahead to Frankenheimer’s much more extreme SECONDS, the film uses just about every style yet invented. Mostly location-shot, the film has some bizarre process shots when Harvey and Sinatra are meant to be in Central Park, even though the wide shots show them actually there. Arriving at a political rally, we suddenly go handheld, in a pastiche of Pennebaker’s PRIMARY (see also THE BEST MAN and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY — this is obviously the default mode for filming political activity, pre-Zapruder). Ten minutes from the end, there are a couple of WIPES, for no readily explainable reason.

Winged victory.

The stylistic confusion could be said to apply to the film’s politics as well, except that I think both are intentional, and pretty clever. It’s obviously an anti-McCarthy fable, but at the same time the film confirms the Reds-under-the-beds paranoia by having its McCarthy character turn out to be a communist agent. Senator Jordan voices the film’s message, but when he’s assassinated the bullet passes through a carton of milk on its way to his heart, so he appears to bleed milk. Frankenheimer stated that this was a satirical swipe at the character’s milky liberalism.

But all that double-bluff and counter-espionage makes the movie smarter and more interesting than some piece of agit-prop.

Pretty much everything else seemed great, Angela Lansbury in particular. Let’s talk about HER sometime!

19 Responses to “Going To The Candidate’s Debate”

  1. I’ve always felt that Silva was cast for his very particular qualities as an actor (subtly sophsticated creepiness) and how well they would play off of Sinatra — one the cinema’s greatest “naturals.”

    Frankenheimer’s work is beyond praise, but at the end of the day the film’s real auteur is Axelrod — a fact made plain if The Manchurian Candidate were double-featured with Lord Love a Duck.

    You’re right that Janet Leigh is present to certify Sinatra’s straightness (as if it were ever needed), bringing to mind Selznick’s objection to The Third Man — that Joseph Cotton’s obsession with Welles’ Harry Lime
    was sexually suspect — hence the ratcheting up of Alida Valli’s role. Axelrod makes great sport of this in the dialgue, giving Janet Leigh one of my all-time favorite lines, when she asks Sinatra “Are you Arabic? Or let me put it another way — are you married?”

    The whole quesstion of how “loveable” Laurence Harvey may or not be certifies the genius of his casting.

    And then there’s Angela Lansbury in a performance NO ONE has ever been able to touch, though Bernadette Laffont in Noroit comes closer than most. In fact it is Lansbury that makes the film the modern equivalent of Jacobean Revenge Tragedy.

  2. Silva is a unique face, to say the least. Casting him as sinister always seemed rather obvious, but what else can you do? His presence in Cinderfella brings a bit of a chill to the proceedings.
    I’m very eager indeed to see Lord Love a Duck — and a copy is en route to me.
    But screening Seconds alongside Manchu shows where Frankenheimer fits into the picture. That’s another film where fairly flawed bits somehow fail to detract, in this case because the beginning and end are so absolutely stunning, with Rock Hudson transcending acting.
    Lansbury and Harvey (only 3 years apart) are sublime in TMC. Our little viewing group was trying to name a few more good Harvey movies, and we can up with Butterfield 8 (camp majesty), Expresso Bongo (pretty great), Darling (but it wasn’t our favourite), and, I suppose, The Magic Christian.
    Now if only Welles’ The Deep would surface!

  3. Well in Darling Laurence Harvey has my all-time favorite Laurence Harvey lines: “Put away oyur Penguin Freud, Diana.”

    And on a far more serious level, don’t forget Harvey in Room at the Top!

    Seconds is indeed wonderful, as everyone pretty much agrees today. But back in 66 it was just too scary. It’s easily one of Hudson’s very best performances, as fear of aging haunted him personally — and Seconds dramtized that fear backwards.

    It also marks the return of the long-blacklisted Will Geer, soon to settle into iconic comfort as “Grandpa Walton.” Quite a long ways away from his years as a communist, and Harry Hay’s lover.

  4. Considering that Henry Silva was cast as the lead in 1965’s Return of Mr. Moto, it seems that Frankenheimer (or whoever cast Manchurian Candidate) was simply ahead of the curve!

  5. Samuel J Dale MP Says:

    I’ve often wondered if the duff bits (or “CLANGERS” if you will,) in great films are actually what help to make them great in the first place… I’m not suggesting for a split second that THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is anything other than an excellent movie, (in fact it was the film that cured my younger brother of his irrational fear of black and white and what he refers to as “OLD-TIMEY-GOINGS-ON”) but it’s certainly true that putting something that’s just OK next to something that’s definitely CRAP make the OK thing look better… I’d be intrigued to see a version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE where the flaws listed above have been corrected, (and no, the God-awful remake doesn’t count.) … I suspect it would still be great, but can’t help feeling that the Janet Leigh moments (and so on,) might help to make one appreciate the rest of the film even more.

  6. I remember hearing that a sometimes-inspired and sometimes-annoying playwright by the name of Mac Wellman claims to have learned his sense continuity from the first “Manchurian Candidate” — a film which I adore.

    My sense is that, for large stretches, part of the strategy and humor of this film came from attempts to disorient the audience. This, to me, is part of the purpose — along with the “heterosexualizing” thing — of the Janet Leigh character and her dialogue with Sinatra. It’s the sheer strangeness of her appearing from nowhere and devoting herself to FS, which is both odd and funny. As well as offering a sop to genre conventions. What was that line of Joel McCrea’s in “Sullivan’s Travels” about how “There’s *always* a girl in the picture”? I also like the contrast between Amram’s romantic music and the images of Sinatra looking woebegone and incompetent on the train.

    [Interjection: the fim’s trailer talks about how “You won’t know what it’s all about!” In other words, disorientation.]

    I like what I can remember of Amram’s music — which, annoyingly, is not in most of what I can find on YouTube. It’s sorta post-Charles Ives “Americanische.” Complete with marches and ersatz hymn-tunes. Compare ‘n’ contrast: Herrmann’s music in the cemetary scene in “Day The Earth Stood Still,” the parade stuff in Mancini’s score for “The Great Race,” Alex North’s credits music in “Spartacus.” Somewhere between Ives and Paul Hindemith in his Yale years.

  7. 1) Jonathan Ross’s brother Paul, purveyor of low-quality television, once observed that the best bits in Hitchcock were often right next to the worst bits. Whether or not we think that’s tru, I like the idea that good art contains a certain amount of failure, and that makes it more exciting to watch. At any moment something could spoil the fun, as in a high-wire act. Of course, producers don’t like it when I talk this way…

    Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

    2) Of course, Room at the Top is another outstanding Harv. He’s one of the best things in I Am a Camera also, but that’s a shaky film.

    3) Have to write more about Seconds, it’s full of interest.

    4)I keep running into people who own that Henry Silva Moto, but have forsworn it until I’ve watched all the Peter Lorre originals.

    5) Our Siamese cat, Tasha, is nicknamed Moto.

  8. Make that “sense OF continuity,” as in literary construction, please.

  9. Chris, Alex North, and Kubrick’s man Gerald Friedman both did music that has a similar feel to the Manchurian score, and which likewise makes me feel kind of depressed. But it’s often very effective in context. And yet, I like Charles Ives a lot, find him very ENJOYABLE.

    Janet’s appearance reminds me very much of Eva Marie Saint’s in North by Northwest. Popping up on a train and taking an unexplained interest in a hero in trouble. An IMDb reviewer writes that Leigh “seems to be a Russian spy, but it’s not clear enough”! And maybe it’s part of that disorientation strategy (overt in the brainwashing/nightmare scenes) to have an unresolved suspicion about her that goes nowhere. In which case her near-functionlessness is a crucial part of her function, and I’ve been outsmarted again!

  10. Well if you’re counting the Magic Christian, why not his “supporting artist” appearence in Charge of the Light Brigade? It’s a good film with Harvey in it- his Russian Prince part was edited down to background role. Is it a good Harvey film though? I’ve heard many good things about the underseen, oddly titled spy thriller “Dandy in Aspic” co-directed by Harvey and Anthony Mann with Tom Courtney and Peter Cook(!). Cook and Harvey together-the possibilities!

  11. Oh, now you’re talking. Charge barely qualifies as a Harvey role, but it’s a fascinating film. Sad that screenwriter Charles Wood has been reduced to sharing credit on drab muck like Iris.

    A Dandy in Aspic is actually really enjoyable — there’s a British DVD. A spy movie where all the spies seem either guy or very ambiguous, just as in reality! And Mia Farrow as romantic interest does little to assuage one’s doubts. Peter Cook gives maybe his best movie performance, yet is still gloriously out of step with everything around him.

    I could make a case, based on this film and Heroes of Telemark’s best bits, that very late Anthony Mann is more interesting than the epic Mann of El Cid etc.

  12. Samuel J Dale MP Says:

    I think you might be over thinking this one DC, considering the fact we live in a world where Barry Norman can state in a review of Apollo 13 that “ITS A FILM ABOUT NASA’S 13TH SPACE FLIGHT” I wouldn’t put too much faith in someone’s wacky theory about Leigh’s character on IMDB… That being said, here’s my own wacky theory about Leigh in the Manchurian Candidate.


    If memory serves ,she never interacts with anyone else in the storey apart from Frank, (though I may well be wrong about this as I haven’t seen the film in a few years,) … And as you yourself observed, all she really seems to do is convince Frank that he’s not crazy and or gay. Sounds like the type of imaginary friend a brainwashed solider would have to me.

  13. Johnny Mandel’s score for Point Blank is another with much in common with Amram’s for The Manchurian Candidate. Very tense and coiled.

  14. Amram’s score is more sort of despondent and woozy, to me.

    Sam, you might be onto something! The IMDb person I was quoting is clearly just CONFUSED, but your theory stacks up beautifully. Janet never meets anybody else in the film. She’s a figment! Like Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind.

    How much of the rest of the film is Frank’s hallucination? I bet it’s Frank who kills the senator and his wife at the end, and laurence Harvey! “I’m a patsy, I’m just a pa–” BLAM!

  15. So there was Angela Lansbury in 1962. And just two years later she was on Broadway in the greatest cult-flop musical of all-time (Sondehim’s Anyone Can Whistle), singing —

    Everyone hates me-yes, yes-
    Being the Mayoress, yes.
    All of the peasants
    Throw rocks in my presence,
    Which causes me nervous distress, yes.

    Me and my town, battered about,
    Everyone in it would like to get out.
    But me and my town,
    We just wanna be loved!

    Stores are for rent, theatres are dark,
    Grass on the sidewalks, but not in the park,
    Me and my town,
    We just wanna be loved!

    The people are starving,
    So they sleep the day through.
    My poor little people,
    What can they do?


    Who asked you?

    Come on the train, come on the bus,
    Somebody please buy a ticket to us.
    Hurry on down-
    We need a little renown.
    Love me,
    Love my


    Hi there, Cora. What’s new?

    The bank went bust and I’m feeling blue.

    And who took over the bankruptcy?

    Me, boys, me!

    Si, si!

    Me, boys, me!

    Tell us, Cora, how you are.

    I just got back from the reservoir.

    And what’s the state of the water supply?

    Dry, boys, dry!

    My, my!

    Dry, boys, dry!

    Ay, ay!

    A lady has responsibilities…


    And civic pride!

    Civic pride!

    Well, I look around and what do I see? I see no crops.

    No crops.

    I see no business.

    No business

    To the North, to the South,
    Only hoof-and-mouth!

    To the East, to the West,
    No community chest

    I see a terrible depression all over the town-

    Oh, a terrible depression,
    Yes, a terrible depression.

    What a terrible depression
    And I’m so depressed
    I can hardly talk on the phone.
    I feel all alone.

    But a lady has responsibilities-


    To all my poor! Starving! Cold! Miserable!
    Dirty! Dreary! Depressing! Peasants!

    Peasants! Ick!

    A lady has responsibilities-


    To try to be
    Popular with the populace.

    She’s unpopular with the populace!

    Unpopular with the populace,
    Unpopular with the populace,
    Unpopular with the populace…

    Everyone here hates me at length,
    Probably lynch me if they had the strength.
    But me and my town,
    Me and my town,
    We just wanna be loved!

    We just want to be loved!
    We just want to be loved!

    Just loved!

    A friendship is lovely
    And a courtship sublime,
    But give her a township-

    Every time!

    What’ll we do, me and my town?
    Gotta do something or we’re gonna drown!
    Give me my coat,
    Give me my crown,
    Gimme, gimme your vote
    And hurry on down!

    Show how much you think


    Of me!

    Love me,
    Love my

  16. To think, in the only musical I ever wrote, I was inordinately proud of the lines, “My life is a failure / I’m off to Australia.”

  17. To butt into a conversation more than three years too late, I just wanted to correct something that probably means very little. Neither Frankenheimer nor Axelrod can be blamed or credited for most of what goes on in the film, except the second to last point about shooting style. The film is a practically word for word adaptation of Richard Condon’s book, including all the Janet Leigh scenes. Remembering the novel, the most major piece cut out was a flashback with Angela Lansbury’s character being raped by her father and liking it.

    Anyway, working my way through your archives, I’ll catch you on the flip.

  18. Thanks!

    I guess we can still credit them for being faithful to the source, but that’s not the same thing as rewarding them for original creativity.

  19. […] you’d expect from this pair of liberals. If you removed the McCarthy-bashing subplot from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and displaced the balance, you’d have a sense of what to expect. I imagine from […]

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