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The Return of 'The Manchurian Candidate' : Political Thriller Still Has Keen Edge

February 12, 1988|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

It's interesting and ironic that the most dizzyingly memorable movie to open this week--it's tempting to say this year--was made in 1962, in sumptuous black and white. A check against vivid memories of the John Frankenheimer-directed classic "The Manchurian Candidate" proves that its fascination is intact and its influence has been seepingly pervasive. (It's at the Westside Pavilion Cinemas.)

George Axelrod's adaptation of the Richard Condon novel becomes an outrageous peregrination on brainwashing and political assassination, McCarthyism and liberalism, and those who are and are not deeply lovable. Part mystery, part Grand Guignol kitsch, part straight-faced satire and part filmic free-fall, it has taken root deep in our movie psyches and has flowered.

"The Parallax View," and "Winter Kills" are only two among dozens of "The Manchurian Candidate's" offspring, but tap almost anywhere in the canon of political assassination movies and you hit some reference to this one. There's even a thread stretching down through the years to "Prizzi's Honor," although it's a delicate one, mostly tone and attitude, traceable to Condon, who wrote both original novels and the "Prizzi's" screenplay.

"The Manchurian Candidate" is the hardy godfather of them all--although something about the tensile strength of Angela Lansbury's performance makes it feel better to say godmother.

It's been years, of course, since the film was available for theatrical showing and there has been wild speculation as to why. It was not until last year's New York Film Festival that it was shown publicly, after a hiatus of 15 years.

What is plain is that the movie, back now in a mint-beautiful print, is amazing, astonishing fun on every level. Come to it as a lover of acting and you get Angela Lansbury's great centerpiece as the virulent, right-wing Mrs. Iselin--possibly her best film performance and something of a feat for the actress who, at age 37, was playing mother to the adult Laurence Harvey, with only her willpower to age her.

Connoisseurs of acting will also have the performance of the deeply lamented John McGiver to savor. Playing a liberal senator, Thomas Jordan, father of the girl Laurence Harvey falls in love with and the nemesis and antithesis of the Iselin-ites (read, McCarthyites), McGiver's deep-voiced, patented drollery never had freer rein nor a more affectionate setting.

It's also the very best and most relaxed of all of Laurence Harvey's cool, reptilian screen appearances, possibly the only one that dealt with his inherent clamminess overtly and even managed to have a little fun with it.

Those who believed, on the evidence of the dozens of indifferent films that followed "The Manchurian Candidate," that Frank Sinatra was overrated an actor can come to have the scales removed from their eyes, too. Sinatra is genuinely touching as Bennett Marco, a career Army man haunted by a bizarre and terrifying recurring nightmare in the wake of his return from Korea. And the pairing of him with Janet Leigh, prescient beneath her cuckoo banter, was brilliant.

An outline of the story is about as helpful as a chalk tracing of a fallen body: Everything unique about the subject is missing. Besides, another part of this film's joy is its unfolding outrageousness, so best leave that to its audiences.

It is safe to say that this is director Frankenheimer working at peak pitch. The year 1962 was also the year he made "Birdman of Alcatraz" as well as "All Fall Down," an incredible feat even then and somewhat more jaw-dropping today, when it takes years for most directors to move from one project to another.

But Frankenheimer, with George Axelrod as his co-producer and screenwriter, also moved with the best team around him: Richard Sylbert as his production designer, Ferris Webster his editor, Moss Mabry the costume designer, David Amram as composer-conductor, his usual cinematographer, Lionel Linden, doing the inky-beautiful, deep-focus camera work, and Howard W. Koch as executive producer. (For those who savor irony and longevity, Sylbert, who began with Elia Kazan and "Baby Doll," also did the production design for this week's other major release, "Shoot to Kill.")

The results are a lush, sensuous production, offset by dialogue that veers from the deliberately whimsical to the deeply satiric. For a film that came as close in time to the McCarthy villainy and the Hollywood blacklist fallout as this one did, its political edge is keen, and time has not dulled it one whit. If anything, its spectacle of the militant right hiding (literally) behind the beard and the omnipresent image of Abraham Lincoln is comforting: So little has changed in 26 years.

As you contemplate the depths to which on-screen violence has come, it's interesting to see that the murders that were so deeply memorable then were accomplished with an elegant minimum of explicitness. Using only a carton of milk and a homey kitchen setting, Frankenheimer created a classic film image of murder and surprise.

And when you consider the bankrupt state of most screenplays in such matters as wit, invention, economy and buoyancy, for that alone, "The Manchurian Candidate" stands as required fare for the movie literate and as a shaming example to the detritus around us.

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