Commie Dearest

**Please note: This article contains spoilers for 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read this post.  Of course, that begs a question: Why haven’t you seen it yet?


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Manchurian Candidate, which started the political thriller genre.  But the movie almost didn’t get made.  The bestselling book by Richard Condon had already been rejected by every studio when George Axelrod suggested to John Frankenheimer that it might be a project they could work on together.  (The two had been lined up to do, of all things, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but then Frankenheimer was replaced by Blake Edwards.)  They read the book together in an afternoon and then contacted their Hollywood agent about securing the rights.  Within three hours they had them, at a discounted price because the studios had already passed on the project.  It wasn’t surprising it happened so fast, since their agent was Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the prototypical power agent.  He received his nickname from Humphrey Bogart after Lazar put together a three-picture deal for him.

One way to overcome reluctant studios was to attach a name star to the project.  Frankenheimer and Axelrod had heard that Frank Sinatra liked the book, so they flew to Miami where he was performing to try to get him on board.  He met them at the door of his hotel room and said, “I’m really excited about doing this movie.”  He was given his choice of parts, and chose to play Major Marco.  Part of Sinatra’s deal was to receive the rights to the film after 10 years.  United Artists agreed to release the picture, though the head of the studio, a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party, was concerned about the subject matter.  Sinatra, though, had seen the president and mentioned he was doing Manchurian Candidate.  Kennedy’s first question was, “Who’s playing the mother?”  As a favor to Sinatra, Kennedy called the studio head and gave his okay to the picture.


Lawrence Harvey was at first thought to be an odd choice for Raymond Shaw, since he was British, but he did a passible American accent that sounded similar to President Kennedy’s Harvard tones.  He nailed the role, perfectly embodying Raymond’s repressed, tragic nature.

One interesting piece of potential casting was the pivotal role of Raymond’s mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin.  Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball to play her, but Frankenheimer had another idea.  He invited Sinatra to view a rough cut of the movie he’d just finished, All Fall Down, and see the performance of Angela Lansbury.  Afterwards, Sinatra agreed she would be perfect, even though she was only 3 years older than Harvey.

The opening sequence of the squad in Korea was filmed in Southern California, just like the TV series M*A*S*H ten years later.  Frankenheimer had planned to add the credits over the sequence of the squad being captured, but when he tested that version, the audience didn’t understand what had happened.  So he inserted a credit sequence after the scene.  With its iconic image of a campaign button featuring the Queen of Diamonds, along with the wonderful theme music, it fit the movie perfectly.

The music was done by David Amram, a classical composer who moonlighted in films.  He had worked with Frankenheimer on The Young Savages a year earlier, and also did the theme for Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.  The score is a tone poem with its semi-discordant blend of individual instruments, and matches the psychological element of the movie.

After the credits, the movie jumps to Raymond returning to Washington, DC, having won the Congressional Medal of Honor.  (The scene was actually filmed at Santa Monica airport.)  Voice-over narration gives some background for the medal, including one perk of receiving the award.  In the military, it’s always the lower rank that salutes first, except for a Medal of Honor winner.  They always receive the salute, even if they’re a private and they encounter a General.  The voice-over was provided by Paul Frees, a prolific voice performer with over 330 credits in his career.

Frankenheimer wanted to give Lansbury a dramatic entrance, so he focused on the American flag in the honor guard welcoming Raymond home and then panned down to Eleanor Iselin rushing through the ranks with Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and flunkies in tow to set up a campaign picture.  Later, in a limo while leaving the airport, we get a taste of Raymond’s relationship with his mother.  Throughout the film, Frankenheimer uses a wide-angle lens with great depth of focus.  In this scene, Raymond’s in the jump seat, close to the camera, while Eleanor’s haranguing him over his shoulder, and both are in focus.  This style of shot is repeated often.

James Gregory was an excellent supporting actor who appeared in over 175 movies and television shows.  He’d given up a career as a stockbroker in the 1940s to go onto the New York stage.  In a way he was a good luck charm for Frankenheimer.  They’d worked together often in television, and when the director did his first motion picture, he used Gregory in it.  This time Frankenheimer was both directing and producing, and he brought Gregory in to do Iselin, one of the actor’s best roles.  Interestingly, for the scene where the Iselins bring Raymond on board their campaign plane, the filmmakers used Frank Sinatra’s private plane.

The nightmare sequences that plague both Major Marco and Corporal Allen Melvin were a tour de force of filming, especially the opening sequence where the soldiers think they’re sitting on the platform at the meeting of a garden club in New Jersey.  (Axelrod cribbed the woman’s speech from a seed catalogue.)  The camera pans 360 degrees, showing the ladies in the audience, but when it comes back to the stage it’s now a platform in a medical theater in Manchuria.  The scene was done without a cut by having the platform on rails.  While the camera focused on the audience, the grips pushed the other platform into position and all the actors quickly took their positions.  The constant shifts in focus highlights their nightmarish nature.  This was accomplished by filming the full scene about six different ways and cutting between them.  Frankenheimer asked Axelrod to work with the editor to create the scene.  Axelrod didn’t know how to edit film, so instead he scripted the changes of perspective and handed that script to the editor, who followed it.  The doctor in charge of the brainwashing, Dr. Yen Lo, was played by Khigh Dhiegh.  He later played the Chinese spymaster Wo Fat who battled Steve McGarrett off and on over the 12 year run of the original Hawaii Five-0.

Corporal Allen was played by James Edwards, who was a pioneer in portraying blacks with dignity and depth, predating Sidney Poitier.  Frankenheimer had wanted to work with him for years.  Sadly, Edwards died of a heart attack in 1970 at age 51, before the heyday of black cinema in the 1970s.  The movie also cast Joe Adams as a psychiatrist working with the military.  That marked the first time a black actor took a role that wasn’t specifically written as a black man.  (The director also included a small jab at the racial sensibilities of the day.  For Corporal Allen’s nightmare, he redid the scene with black women in the ladies meeting.  Hardly noticeable in the background is a waiter, who’s white.)

Janet Leigh’s first appearance on the screen, on the train with Marco, was the first scene that she shot.  She’d worked with several great directors by then, including Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but was unprepared for Frankenheimer.  They shot the scene, Frankenheimer said print it, and then moved on to the next shot.  She asked the director if they were going to do more takes, as was normal, and his response was, “Why?  I’ll just use this take.”

Much of the movie was done in single takes, which helped with its 41 day shooting schedule.  An interesting scene blended film and television.  Senator Iselin interrupts the Secretary of Defense’s news conference to make claims about communists in the Defense Department.  The scene takes place in the background while in the foreground Eleanor Iselin watches the television monitors showing their perspective.  Frankenheimer, an old TV hand, shot it in one take, with him in the television broadcast truck directing the TV cameras.  The end of the scene with the Secretary and Iselin shouting at each other was totally ad libbed by the actors.

The Iselins deciding on a set number of communists is one of the priceless scenes in the movie.  It should be remembered, though, that this was only 8 years after the McCarthy/Army hearings, and the blacklist was still active.  Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, had only gotten his name back on films two years earlier, with Spartacus.  Until then, he’d had to use a front man to hide his work.  Others still couldn’t work in the industry.

The production spent a week in New York City, doing exterior shots as well as filming the set up for the climax in Madison Square Gardens.  It happened to be during the coldest winter in years.  When Raymond follows a suggestion of taking a taxi to Central Park and jumping into the lake, the film crew had had to have heavy equipment break through a foot of ice to expose the water.  After his plunge, Lawrence Harvey quickly returned to his room at the Plaza to get out of his soaking clothes.  There’s also a scene later in the movie of women delegates to the convention dancing in sun dresses outside the Gardens.  It was good the movie was black and white, or we might have seen a bluish tint to their skin because of the cold weather.

For the scenes at the convention, Frankenhiemer used stock footage and interspersed shots done in Southern California.  The film’s budget couldn’t afford to fill the actual Gardens with extras.  The production designer used the 1960 Democratic convention as a template for the scenes.

The reveal of Eleanor as the communist agent, jockeying Iselin into the Vice Presidential spot on the ticket, is one of the most chilling in the history of film.  When Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) tells Eleanor that Iselin and she could not have done more damage to the country if they were paid communist agents, it has a wonderful resonance.  The Queen of Diamonds costume that Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) wears when she meets Raymond during the party was actually a retread.  Frankenheimer had used the costume in a TV production a year earlier, and brought it back because if fit the movie (and the actress) perfectly.

The Manchurian Candidate was a remarkably violent film for 1962, with a high body count.  It featured the first Hollywood martial arts fight, between Sinatra and Henry Silva.  Sinatra carried a permanent reminder of the scene.  He broke his pinky finger doing the chop to the table, and because he didn’t want to wear a splint while he continued filming, it healed wrong, causing him problems for the rest of his life.  When Raymond shoots the young BobbyLembeck (Tom Lowell), Frankenheimer had wires attached to the actor’s chair.  The grips yanked the wires as hard as they could, to send Lowell flying backwards.  The splattering of Stalin’s picture with blood was an afterthought.

Frankenheimer was concerned about the violence, and had the murder of Raymond’s employer occur off camera.  But for the deaths of the Jordans, he pulled out the stops, having Raymond shoot Jordan through a quart of milk.  There’s a technical goof in the scene.  Raymond shoots the Jordans with a revolver that has a silencer mounted on it.  You can’t silence a revolver; it should have been an automatic.

The movie followed the book closely, including using Condon’s idiosyncratic dialogue.  But there were two major changes that Frankenheimer and Axelrod made.  The first change was the suggestion of incest.  In the book, there’s no suggestion – Eleanor takes Raymond into her bed – but the producers knew that wouldn’t get by the production code people.  Instead, Eleanor ends her instructions to Raymond on when to shoot the presidential candidate by giving him a kiss directly on the lips.  She hides it with her hands, but that moment implies all that is in the book.

The second change created a problem for Frankenheimer and Axelrod.  In the book, Marco orders Raymond to shoot the Iselins.  Again, that wasn’t acceptable to the production code.  So the scene where Marco tries to “rip out the wires” in Raymond is interrupted by a call.  Listening to Raymond on the phone, Marco realizes then that Eleanor is his handler.  Marco lets Raymond go to meet his mother with the provision that he calls as soon as he knows the plan.  Something you may notice is that Marco is slightly out of focus when he’s holding the push deck.  It was the first take, and Sinatra nailed it, but when the film was developed Frankenheimer saw it would need to be reshot.  They tried several times, but Sinatra could never again match his performance.  In the end, Frankenheimer simply put the first take in the movie – and received compliments in reviews for the special effect of having Raymond see Marco out of focus.

But that plot change left the problem of how to have Marco find Raymond in Madison Square Gardens.  In the end Frankenheimer stole a trick from Hitchcock.  In Foreign Correspondent, the Nazi hideout in a windmill is revealed by the blade turning in the wrong direction.  Frankenheimer had the lights in the Gardens dim, and then Marco sees light where it should not have been, coming from the booth below the ceiling where Raymond’s hiding.

Sinatra reads two Medal of Honor citations during the final coda before giving his own citation for Raymond.  Those two are actual citations for two Medal of Honor recipients.  Frankenheimer felt that would increase the veracity of the moment.

One enduring myth about the movie is that it was removed from circulation after Kennedy’s death.  It was actually shown on TV four times between 1965 and 1975, but wasn’t seen again until Sinatra, who’d received the rights in 1972, agreed to re-release it in theaters in 1988.

While the remake with Denzel Washington in 2004 was an effective thriller, it couldn’t match the timeliness of the original.  It appears now that we’ve circled back to that time.  Last week, Florida Representative Allen West, speaking at a town meeting, said there were between 78 and 81 Democrats in congress who were secretly members of the Communist Party.  Later, Sarah Palin suggest West would be a good choice for the vice presidential spot on the Republican 2012 ticket.  Film fans everywhere are waiting for him to change the number of communists to 57.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s