The Noir File:‘The Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 memorably captures the contradictions of the Kennedy era

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer). Thursday, July 18: 9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.)

In John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 movie thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” we will be plunged into one of the greatest nightmare sequences in American cinema.

After the “Korea, 1952” opening title, we see a squad of U. S. Army soldiers, led by their good-guy Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and brusque Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). They go out on a mission but are betrayed by turncoat guide Chunjin (Henry Silva), then handed over to Russian officers and helicoptered off. It’s a bit like a Sam Fuller scene.

Playing “war hero” Raymond was one of Laurence Harvey’s career highlights.

Next, we see a U. S. Air Force plane landing at a Washington airport, and a bustle of reporters and photographers swarming over it. A portentous narrator informs us that Sgt. Shaw has won the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Korea.

We also see that Raymond has an imperious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), and a knuckleheaded sap of a stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who also happens to be a U.S. senator and a well-financed presidential candidate – and that Raymond hates them both.

Now comes the nightmare. We are in Major Marco’s hotel room, and we see him tossing and sweating. Why the cold sweat? He’s remembering/dreaming, noir-style, both the days of the Korean War and one of the strangest club meetings ever seen. It’s a scene that probably only John Frankenheimer could have executed and shot.

Angela Lansbury as Raymond’s malevolent mother is one of many superb performances in this classic film.

The soldiers we met – some now shaggy and unshaven – are sitting on stage at a gathering of a New Jersey women’s horticultural society in a hotel lobby full of plants and flowers. The chairlady and speaker, a know-it-all named Mrs. Henry Whittaker (Helen Kleeb), is delivering a stupefyingly boring lecture on hydrangeas.

Suddenly the setting changes to an ominous bare stage in a medical theater; the walls are decorated with posters of Stalin and Mao. The speaker is a smiling Chinese doctor named Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who is delivering a lecture on brainwashing the enemy to an audience of Chinese, Russian and probably Korean military and political people. We are in Manchuria.

The scene shifts from the New Jersey hotel lobby to the Manchurian theater and back again. That revolving camera track before the scene splits into eerie, jarring fragments is still an all-time stylistic movie coup.

Frank Sinatra shines as Bennett Marco, a tormented good guy who reads, plays cards and courts love interest Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh).

As for the plot, “war hero” Raymond has been programmed by the Red Chinese to be the triggerman in a scheme to destabilize the American government by putting an idiot into the U.S. presidency. The candidate: Raymond’s addle-brained Commie-hunting stepfather.

Frankenheimer lent his terrific neo-noir vision to a fantastic cast: Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, an obligatory love interest, Laurence Harvey in the finest hour of a peculiar career, Henry Silva as one of the main traitors of a movie saturated with treachery and James Gregory a hoot as the reactionary U.S. Senator who can’t keep track of the number of Communists he’s exposing (he finally settles on the easy-to-remember Heinz Ketchup figure of 57). And, as one of the most evil mothers in the history of movies, giving one of the most darkly magnificent performances, Angela Lansbury, long may she reign.

All this is at the service of one of the most hypnotic, blood-chilling yarns ever to be put, mostly uncompromised, on screen: a movie whose twists and turns are brilliantly calculated, largely unexpected and beautifully anxiety-inducing. Few films reflect the Kennedy era, and all its contradictions so memorably and so well.

Frankenheimer was the key. In the 1950s he’d become famous as the enfant terrible of a great generation of TV drama directors – a generation that included Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer was the leader of that group: an instinctive master of live performance and especially, of camera movement.

An ace at left wing social and psychological drama, he went on to make “All Fall Down,” “The Young Savages,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Train,” “Seconds,” “Grand Prix” and “The Fixer.” But “The Manchurian Candidate” was the project where he was able to work his virtuosity into the very texture of the film itself, where TV and the way it records real life becomes part of the drama, in this case, a hybrid of theatre and politics.

With “The Manchurian Candidate,” Frankenheimer created a style that was almost as original and exciting and unique as the young Orson Welles,’ and he remained one of the great American moviemakers throughout most of the ’60s. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: As time goes by, ‘Casablanca’ remains sublime

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the movies listed below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz) Wednesday, Aug. 29, 10 p.m. (7 p.m.) On the Warner Brothers back lot, in an exotic city that hums with intrigue, we watch one of the movies’ immortal affairs and grandest pictures: “Casablanca” is, in some respects, the perfect Hollywood Golden Age studio movie.

Stuck in the middle: Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) is torn between duty (Paul Henreid) and love (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca,” one of the best Hollywood Golden Age studio movies.

We see the frustrated and tormented but finally sublime passion of gloomy hard-case cabaret owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart, in his most popular role) for scared, on-the-run Ilse (Ingrid Bergman, in hers). Ilse is the emotionally torn woman of mystery whom Rick loved and lost, the angel who won his heart and left him in Paris. She now belongs body and soul, it seems, to the idealistic underground anti-Fascist leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Around them swirl the ideological storms of Nazi-ravaged Europe, at least as Warners saw them.

Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson

And backing them up is one of the all-time great Hollywood supporting casts: Claude Rains as the suave and lecherous Vichy police head Renault; Conrad Veidt as the elegant, murderous Nazi commander Strasser; Sydney Greenstreet as the vaguely sinister rival cabaret owner; Peter Lorre as Ugati, the rat with the papers; S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the lovable fat busybody; Marcel Dalio as the nimble croupier; Curt Bois as the ferret-like pickpocket (“Vultures everywhere!”); and of course that indefatigable piano man Sam (Dooley Wilson) – the fellow who plays (or doesn’t) “As Time Goes By.”

“Casablanca,” which expertly melds several key ’40s Hollywood genres (drama, comedy, noir, spy thriller, love story) was adapted from a truly lousy play “Everybody Goes to Rick’s,” reworked by the Epstein brothers (Julius and Philip) and Howard Koch, and directed by that sometimes underrated master, Michael Curtiz. A big hit in its day and also a multiple Oscar winner, this picture has never stopped pleasing and rousing audiences. It probably never will. (Also available in Warners’ three-disc 70th anniversary edition DVD and Blu-ray.)

Saturday, Aug. 25: Tyrone Power Day

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957, Billy Wilder) From the famous Agatha Christie short story, Billy Wilder expertly fashions one of the screen’s trickiest trial-drama/murder mysteries – with Charles Laughton as the wily, wheelchair-bound barrister, his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester as his long-suffering nurse, and Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich as the incendiary couple caught up in a legendary triple-reverse surprise ending.

Ava Gardner co-stars with Robert Taylor in “The Bribe.”

Tuesday, Aug. 28: Ava Gardner Day

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “The Bribe” (1949, Robert Z. Leonard) Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton and Vincent Price in the smoky noir tale of a federal guy and a femme fatale. A lot of it wound up in the 1982 Steve Martin-Carl Reiner film noir parody “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Ingrid Bergman Day

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor) Set in foggy Victorian gas-lit London, this is the best of all the melodramas and noirs where a bad husband tries to drive his wife insane (or vice versa). Here, Charles Boyer gives the treatment to Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman. Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and teenage Angela Lansbury are among the bystanders. Based on the Patrick Hamilton stage play (and film) “Angel Street.”

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On the radar: TCM Classic Film Festival starts next Thursday in Hollywood; big cats on the big screen; crime does play

One week from tonight is the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs from April 28 to May 1 in Hollywood. There will be more than 70 screenings, as well as special introductions, guest appearances, panel discussions and other events. The red-carpet gala screening on Thursday is “An American in Paris.”

Marlene Dietrich

But naturally I’m more excited to see the 10:15 p.m. screening of Josef von Sternberg’s “The Devil is a Woman” from 1935 with Marlene Dietrich. Katie Trainor, film collection manager for the Museum of Modern Art, will introduce the film.

TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne is the official host of the festival. Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Caron, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Warren Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Richard Roundtree and Roger Corman are just a few of the notables slated to appear. Can’t wait!

Big cats: The nature doc “African Cats” opens Friday (Earth Day). For the first week, a portion of every ticket sold will go to the African Wildlife Foundation. Disney and Jordin Sparks, who did the movie’s end-title song “The World I Knew,” are also donating to the foundation.

Score hard: The “L.A. Noire” video game, featuring “Mad Men” star Aaron Staton’s voice and vibe, launches May 17. “L.A. Noire” will screen Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival, the first video game to snag that honor. Brendan McNamara is the writer/director.

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