Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

In 1962 the world was at war.  It was not a traditional war but one just as syphilitic.  Communism was spreading in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and many Americans were gripped by fear – some of it irrational.  Some of it…  It was in this environment that the novelist Richard Condon created THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  When film director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod adapted the book into a film, some felt its more extreme elements smacked of paranoia.  Left wing critics were appalled at the suggestion that the extreme left was as dangerous as the extreme right, and particularly offended by the notion that reactionary movements could be used by radical anti-American forces to take over the United States. 

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from the Korean war as a medal of honor recipient.  His mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) are caricatures of extreme right wing zealots – the Senator being clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy.  Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), a friend of Shaw’s and a member of his unit in Korea, is haunted by nightmares of their war experiences.  These dreams depict brainwashing sessions at the hands of the Chinese and Soviets.  The procedures are conducted in a garden party milieu attended by elderly American women and are observed by military personnel from the communist countries.  The brainwashing is conducted by the rotund Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) who frequently transforms into an older white woman.  He/she is, at first discussing horticulture.  Seated next to the speaker are Shaw and Marco as well as several other soldiers.  The speech grows menacing as Shaw is commanded to strangle a fellow soldier and shoot another.  Blood splatters on a picture of Joseph Stalin, Frankenheimer making his statement about the Soviet dictator’s bloody reign.  In this weird spectacle the Communists use a quintessentially American event (the garden party) to burrow into the mind of Shaw and the filmmakers equate the fragility of flowers with the delicate, sensitive human mind, which can be pulled apart petal by petal.  At the blast of the gun, Marco wakes up screaming. 

Soon other members of the squad are having the same dream, including an African American, Al Melvin (James Edwards).  America’s deficiency as a society are not glossed over by Frankenheimer and his team.  In Melvin’s version of the dream, all the woman are black, reflecting the country’s racial segregation of the time.  But there is a hopeful note: The Psychiatrist who helps Marco sort things out is a black man. 

The vices of capitalism and American consumerism are satirized right from the start of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, as we first meet members of Shaw’s unit as they carouse in a Korean brothel.  Prostitution is often used in Communist countries as an example of the supposed ugliness of pure capitalism.  The digs continue:  Shaw is taken (in a brainwashed state) to a secret Soviet facility in the U.S. that is housed in a rest home for wealthy alcoholics.  The connection between the rich and excess is inescapable.  Yen Lo himself makes several references to stateside advertising campaigns of the time:  “Tastes good like a cigarette should” he says with a sinister grin while offering a comrade a smoke.  And he remarks while leaving the scene, “I have an afternoon at Macy’s ahead of me.”  As Senator Iselin tries to decide on the exact number of communists in the Department of Defense, he comes upon “57” while pounding the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle!  Later at a costume ball held by “Mother”, a large American flag made of caviar, is greedily devoured by party goers.  Even American political idols take their licks:  Everywhere in Iselin’s home we see pictures and statues of Abraham Lincoln.  At the party Iselin is dressed as Lincoln.  There is a lamp made from a bust of “the great emancipator”, the shade doubling as an outsized stove pipe hat!  Could this be Frankenheimer’s statement about America’s own Soviet style “cult of personality”, and the overinfation of “Honest Abe’s” reputation? 

In a controversial twist Iselin and “Mother” are revealed to be Soviet spies involved in the brainwashing.  They order Shaw to assassinate the liberal Senator Jordan ( John McGiver), who stands in the way of their plans.  When he shoots Jordan, the Senator is holding a carton of milk which the bullet passes through.  Milk pulses out like a geyser of blood and this is indeed a wonderfully cheeky way for a milquetoast liberal to die.  There is an interesting aside concerning Jordan who has a inordinate dislike for snakes, a metaphor for his attitude toward the political establishment. 

There is also a fascinating treatment of the female characters in the film: The three are blond all American girl (or housewife) types.  Marco’s girlfriend “Rosie” (Janet Leigh) and Shaw’s new bride “Jocie” Jordan, (the Senator’s daughter –  Leslie Parrish) are given rhyming names.  Rosie (although she prefers “Jennie” for Eugenie Rose) is linked by name to the fragility of flowers referenced in the brainwashing scenes.  And “Mother” is as romantically inclined as Rosie and Jocie – in a kinky disturbing way: When she reveals the ultimate plan to her son, she closes her polemic by giving him a passionate, oedipal kiss on the lips!

In THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE the theme of memory and its importance in the lives of human beings is beautifully developed by Frankenheimer.  Particularly during flashbacks, the director utilizes very lengthy dissolves to express the lingering effects of broken relationships on the mind and spirit.  Along with the brainwashing scenes, these moments demonstrate John Frankenheimer’s ability to traverse the intracacies of the human mind.    

CREDITS: Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Produced by Howard W. Koch.  Written by George Axelrod.  Based on the novel by Richard Condon.  Photographed by Lionel Lindon.  Music by David Amram.  Edited by Ferris Webster.  With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh. 

      

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March 19, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, John Frankenheimer, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCHCOCK’S MARNIE (1964)

With his 1964 production of MARNIE, Alfred Hitchcock was treading on dangerous ground.  He had just come off a string of masterpieces beginning with STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) and culminating with THE BIRDS (1963).  He and the world wondered:  Would he follow these films with a worthy successor?  Hitchcock answered this question by creating a film that confused many and disappointed most.  It seemed he had wasted his time with what was regarded as an insipid and ersatz soap opera.  Insipid because of a general lack of suspense in comparison to his recent work.  Ersatz considering the awful painted backdrops and fuzzy rear projections scattered throughout the film.  Partly because of contradictory statements by Hitchcock himself, critics years after the initial release began debating the director’s symbolic intent if any, behind these backdrops and process shots.  Needless to say, a cottage industry has sprung up analyzing the film, with critics bending over backwards to make excuses for the film’s shortcomings.   Undeniably,  many of these interpretations have merit, while others may be examples of wishful thinking by some of Hitch’s more ardent admirers.

In MARNIE, Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen explore the life of a compulsive thief: The gorgeous though hopelessly frigid Marnie Edgar (“Tippi” Hedren).  Her mode of operation is as follows: She steals large sums of money from her employers, changes her identity and moves onto the next job (and theft) in another city.  When Marnie takes a job in the office of a publishing company, she does not realize that her new employer, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) remembers her from a past stint working for a tax consultant firm, where he was a client.  After she robs his company, Mark blackmails her into marriage in an attempt to play psychiatrist, and uncover the reason for her compulsion.  In the process he discovers her pathological fear of sex and its connection to her obsession with theft.  Indeed the theme of theft as sex and sex as theft is one frequently explored by Hitchcock, most elegantly in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955).  In MARNIE the theme is seized upon by Hitchcock with a relish that is almost gleeful, as Marnie certainly experiences a sexual rush from her crimes.  Added to this is the honeymoon rape of Marnie by Mark, a man who is not used to sexual rejection.  He literally steals her virginity and Hitchcock’s own sexual kinks are on display, much to a psychologically inclined critic’s fascination.  This troubling scene, as concocted by Winston Graham, the author of the original novel on which the film is based, led to original screenwriter Evan Hunter leaving the project in a state of dismay.

Also intensely explored is Mark’s fascination with zoology and his view of Marnie as a “wild thing” that needs to be tamed.  “I’ve caught a wild one this time!” he says, practically smacking his lips.  Of course, she is certainly not sexually wild, but is viewed as “wild” in that she is beyond the control of a man.   Frankly, Marnie is referred to by men in animalistic terms, several times throughout the film.  Beside Mark’s statements, her first employer, Mr. Strutt (Martin Gabel) describes her to the police as having “good teeth”, a term often used in describing race horses.  There is also a hilarious moment at a racetrack, as a former employer (Milton Selzer) spies on Marnie through a rolled up newspaper.  A crowd of men behind him, looking in the same direction, and ostensibly enjoying the race, jump to their feet, shouting excitedly.  It is almost as though they are cheering for the gorgeous Marnie as well as the horses.  And Marnie loves horses.  She is frequently shown riding her horse “Forio” and  a fox hunt  features prominently as both a metaphor for the central situation and as a catalyst for the film’s denouement.  The unfettered sexuality of a beautiful woman on horseback is compared to the thrill Marnie experiences in her thefts.  After she robs Mark’s safe, she removes her shoes to avoid detection.  When Mark surprises her with Forio, the beloved stallion Marnie has not seen in months, she once again removes her shoes before mounting the horse.  It is here that we encounter the problematic rear projections.  Some critics maintain that the out of focus process shots used for Marnie’s riding scenes (and a similarly phony looking painted backdrop outside her Mother’s home) are symbolic of the young woman’s ultimate lack of fulfilment in pursuits that are meant to offer her peace and resolution.  In other words, the pleasures they offer are unreal.   Such interpretations should be left to the individual viewer.  As for me, I remain unconvinced.  As for Hitchcock, he has offered conflicting statements about this film and his work in general: “It was just a crummy piece of scene painting.” and “We must get deeper into things.”

In the final scene, we discover that Marnies’s Mother (Louise Latham) was a prostitute and that, as a child, Marnie killed one of the visiting Johns, precipitating a life long hatred of sex for both women.  The thefts, supposedly, were a replacement for Marnie’s sexual energies (the theft of sex?) and the journey for the troubled couple is just beginning.  Since he is as sick as Marnie (“A man wants to sleep with a thief because she’s a thief”, says Hitchcock, and there is that disturbing rape, of course) the singing of the children outside the mother’s house of “Mother, Mother, I am ill, send for the Doctor over the hill” applies as much to Mark as to his wife.  There will have to be much healing ahead for both, as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most open-ended films fades to black.

CREDITS: Directed and Produced by Alfred Hitchcock.  Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen.  Based on the novel by Winston Graham.  Photographed by Robert Burks.  Edited by George Tomasini.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  With “Tippi” Hedren, Sean Connery, Dianne Baker, Martin Gable, Louise Latham, Milton Selzer, Mariette Hartley and Alan Napier.

March 11, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, film directors, JAY PRESSON ALLEN, suspense films | , , , , , , | Leave a comment