Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Movies: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Every once and a while, an old movie is so weirdly contemporary that it knocks my socks off. For all of its Cold War obsessions with the Reds and its wooden handling of the possibility of mind control, I found this movie to be, somehow, relevant. (I've yet to see the 21st Century remake, so no comments on that yet.)

Raymond Shaw isn't a particularly likable guy (there's something incredibly elitist and anti-social about him), but he's just come back from the Korean War, and he's been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of nine fellow soldiers. The problem is, though, that he didn't save them at all—in fact, he killed two others, and is about to kill some more civilians—he just doesn't know it. Meanwhile, two of those "rescued" men, including Major Marco (Frank Sinatra), are having terrible dreams at night, in which they sit in a hotel lobby listening to a woman talk about hydrangeas. Except then the woman morphs into a round-faced Asiatic with a long mustache lecturing to a group of Russian and Chinese communists who take notes while Shaw strangles one American soldier to death, and then shoots another one through the head, following the lecturer's directions with a dream-like "Yes, Ma'am."

We quickly find out that these dreams are the repressed memories of something that really happened; the Reds have programmed (hypnotized) Shaw to follow their directives, and they control him via the (random and inconvenient) mechanism of the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds face card in a game of solitaire. They have trained him in cahoots with his own conniving mother (a brilliantly evil Angela Lansbury), who is pushing to make her senator husband, Iselin (Shaw's step-father), President via a Vice-Presidential nomination (Shaw's final task is to assassinate the Presidential nominee during his acceptance speech). Ironically enough, Senator Iselin is rising to power thanks to his accusations that Congress is full of Reds who must be rooted out. Meanwhile, there are two romantic subplots: one in which Shaw revives a courtship with another Senator's (Jordan, Iselin's enemy in the Senate) daughter (his mother quashed the initial courtship) and which ends tragically when, under the Queen of Diamonds' spell, he murders both Senator Jordan and his daughter. (The other romantic subplot, between Sinatra and Psycho's Janet Leigh (she'll never be anyone else to me than Marion Crane), is basically unnecessary, if a bit delightfully odd). Luckily for the home team, Marco manages to decipher his dreams and the solitaire/Queen of Diamonds key to the puzzle, and free Shaw from the trap of his mind with a a deck of cards containing 52 Queens of Diamonds and a (somewhat hokey) speech.

So what, in all that, is relevant? Don't make me figure it out. Instead, let me tell you that the best part is when cold, weird, unhappy Shaw rekindles his affair with (marries, actually) Miss Jordan, and is in such high spirits that he makes a joke, thereby shocking himself: "I just made a joke! Not a very good joke, I admit, but a joke! . . . Me! Ha! Big day! Mark that down in your book. Raymond Shaw got married and he made a joke!" It's a rarity that I make direct quotations here, so you know that this one's really really good. Other excellent moments include the different versions of the hydrangea fantasy, populated, in the white soldier's dream, with old white women, and, in the black soldier's dream, with old black women. Trippy. Hysterical. Brilliant.

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