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The Return of 'The Manchurian Candidate' : Classic Re-Released After Long Disputes

February 12, 1988|RODERICK MANN | Times Staff Writer

Twenty-six years after it first opened, the suspense thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, is being re-released today by United Artists.

This is the movie, based on the novel by Richard Condon, about a Korean War veteran brainwashed by the Chinese to kill a U.S. presidential candidate. The film was pulled from the theaters after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Since then it has rarely been seen.

"After that, it became subject to all kinds of litigation," said George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay of the movie and co-produced it with director John Frankenheimer. "The picture is half-owned by Frank Sinatra, and for a time everybody was suing everybody else. But now it's all been ironed out."

Condon's story revolves around the members of an American Army patrol, led by Harvey and Sinatra, who are captured by the communists and brainwashed so that the others can verify Harvey as a hero and he can receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Once back to civilian life, and above suspicion, Harvey is ordered to assassinate political targets.

"It is, of course, black comedy," Axelrod said the other day. "But in those days, black comedy wasn't fully understood, and people didn't realize it was OK to laugh. But when I saw it at last year's New York Film Festival, it was a smash.

"So I have high hopes for it. It's Condon's best book, probably my best screenplay and certainly John's best direction. And I think it's Frank's best performance."

When it was first released, many critics seemed to agree.

"Frankenheimer's direction is exciting in the style of Orson Welles when he was making 'Citizen Kane,' " said the New York Times.

The now-defunct New York Herald Tribune called Axelrod's screenplay "a delight."

"Unfortunately, it was not only black comedy but highly prophetic," said Axelrod. "And when Kennedy was assassinated a few months after we opened, it was obviously not a good idea to keep the picture in the theaters, so we pulled it. Remember, Frank had been very close to Kennedy. Afterward the picture never regained its momentum."

The movie cost $2.5 million to make. Sinatra, Frankenheimer and Axelrod formed a partnership, M.C. Productions, to make it, with 50% of the film's revenues going to Sinatra, 25% each to Frankenheimer and Axelrod.

"In addition," said Axelrod, "Frank was paid $750,000, Larry Harvey got $250,000 and Janet Leigh (who plays Sinatra's love interest) got $25,000. Because of the joint ownership, the movie has since become a sort of tap dance for accountants, and that's been the problem getting it re-released."

According to Axelrod, shortly before filming was to begin, United Artists became very nervous about making the movie.

"I got a call one Friday," said Axelrod, "a month before shooting was to start, and this executive in New York said, 'We can't make this movie. It's too anti-communist. A year from now, President Kennedy will be on the verge of making a deal with the Russians and to have this film showing will be highly embarrassing to him.'

"I said: 'Do nothing. I'll find Frank and we'll be in your office Monday morning.' When Frank and I showed up, this executive started the whole thing about embarrassing Kennedy.

"Then Frank said, 'Oh, I don't know. I was in Hyannis (Mass.) for the weekend with the President, and he asked what I was doing next and I said, " 'The Manchurian Candidate.' " He said, "That's great. Great! Who's going to play the mother?" ' (Angela Lansbury plays Harvey's mother, the power behind the redbaiting campaign of his McCarthy-like stepfather.) Hearing this, the (studio) executive promptly backed down, and we went ahead with the picture."

When the movie was released in November, 1962, Sinatra took the--for him--unusual step of taking out an advertisement thanking everyone connected with the movie for their contribution.

Reached by telephone, Frankenheimer (who is about to start a new movie for Lorimar, "Dead Bang," with Don Johnson) said: "It's great news that 'The Manchurian Candidate' is being re-released. We all got such good reviews for it. Let's just hope people now go to see it."

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