Friday, Feb. 22, 2008

The Manchurian Movie Director

By David Luhrssen
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In the 1960s directors from the still new medium of television began migrating to the movies. One of them, John Frankenheimer, made several films characteristic of that decade’s uneasy shadow side. His masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), is included in a new four-disc DVD set, the “John Frankenheimer Collection.”

The other three movies seem chosen at random from the director’s lengthy backlog of less remembered projects. The Young Savages (1961), starring one of Frankenheimer’s favorite actors, Burt Lancaster, is an urban problem picture tackling complicated issues of racism, class tension, media frenzy and the political manipulation of justice. Shot in stark black and white, The Young Savages explores the murder of a blind Puerto Rican boy by a trio of Italian teens on the streets of New York. As the investigating assistant district attorney (Lancaster) learns, nothing is exactly as it appears. Black and white blends into gray. More straightforward as a morality play is The Train (1964), also starring Lancaster, an intricately plotted World War II thriller.

The inclusion of Ronin (1998), Frankenheimer’s second last movie, is the oddest choice. The story of post-Cold War intrigue played out by freelance operatives working for unknown paymasters is modestly intriguing. Robert De Niro dominates the proceedings with a low simmer performance against a backdrop that begins to slide into contemporary action flick cliches. A better entry for this collection would have been SevenDays in May (1964), a political thriller about a military coup in the U.S. that would have complemented the high strung yet cogently expressed paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate.

Starring Frank Sinatra as a Korean War veteran plagued by strange nightmares, The Manchurian Candidate concerns a mind control experiment conducted by Chinese intelligence on American POWs. Like all of Frankenheimer’s best films, The Manchurian Candidate is visually dynamic and composed of small but meaningful gestures. When the camera zooms on a face early on, we can be certain we’ll meet that character again.

Although the plot was grounded in fears that Communist interrogators experimented with “brainwashing” American prisoners in Korea, the story remains compelling decades later as a dynamic narrative that examines, a little like a Phillip K. Dick story, the nature of memory and identity. The movie was withdrawn from circulation for many years because it reminded Sinatra, one of its producers, of the Kennedy assassination. The Manchurian Candidate’s connection to real life politics continues in 2008 with conspiracy wing nuts wondering if John McCain wasn’t subjected to brainwashing during his term of imprisonment in North Vietnam.

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