Dry-Cleaned

Tom Vanderbilt

  • The Manchurian Candidate: BFI Film Classics by Greil Marcus
    BFI, 75 pp, £8.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 85170 931 1

There is no evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald saw The Manchurian Candidate, which was released in 1962, a year before Kennedy’s assassination. A more plausible cinematic influence on him is Suddenly (1954), in which Frank Sinatra plays a President’s assassin who acquired his taste for killing in the Second World War. Yet the idea was there in The Manchurian Candidate: an emotionally unstable man returns from a mysterious stay in a Communist country to shoot the President-to-be with a rifle. It’s not surprising, then, that the film acquired its own myth – that it was too sensitive to be screened, at least until the late 1980s (in fact its disappearance had more to do with a falling out between the producers and United Artists). As with everything to do with the Cold War, it mutated in the imagination. As Greil Marcus suggests in his short study, the film ‘prefigured the sense that the events that shape our lives take place in a world we cannot see, to which we have no access, that we will never be able to explain. If a dream is a memory of the future, this is the future The Manchurian Candidate remembered.’

I first saw The Manchurian Candidate when it was re-released in 1988, at the Majestic Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. I was 20, and it should have been easy for me to regard the film simply as a piece of Cold War kitsch, yet after decades of exile in the darkest corners of the post-Zapruder national imagination, it breathed with a forbidden vitality, reanimating familiar fears. Why didn’t the film feel safely trapped in history? Part of the answer is to do with its still shimmering quality. The film was an alchemical success: Frank Sinatra, John Frankenheimer, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey would never better their performances here. ‘Something in the story, something in the times,’ Marcus writes, ‘that had to have been sensed, felt, but never thought out, never shaped into a theory or a belief or even a notion, propelled these people out of themselves, past their limits as artists or actors or technicians, and made them propel their material, Richard Condon’s cheaply paranoid fantasy, past its limits.’ And part of the answer is to do with the power of that fantasy, the way in which The Manchurian Candidate links into the enduring pattern of paranoid politics in America.

Despite its talk of Communists, The Manchurian Candidate is not a properly political film. In it, being a Communist means having thick moustaches and tinted monocles and prancing about in a Sino-Soviet spectacle designed as if Rodchenko were in exile in Hollywood and working for Busby Berkeley. Being an anti-Communist means wearing a robe, drinking a Scotch and genuflecting before a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Yet no film gets closer to the way politics was felt during the Cold War: the miasma of repression (political, sexual and otherwise), the tension between American affluence and creeping insecurity – the ‘hour of maximum danger’ of Kennedy’s inaugural speech. The movie’s labyrinthine plot – ‘If you come in five minutes after this picture begins,’ the trailer said, ‘you won’t know what it’s all about’ – produced more meaning than it ever intended, or could hope to contain. The plot at its simplest: Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Harvey) is a Korean War veteran, winner of a Medal of Honor, who, along with his soldiers, is brainwashed by a Communist cabal into becoming the perfect assassin (‘without those uniquely American traits of guilt and remorse’, his handlers declare). Guided by his American operator – actually his mother (played by Lansbury), the wife of the McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) – Shaw is set to assassinate the Presidential appointee at Madison Square Garden, clearing the way for her husband’s ascendancy. The film doesn’t give much of an explanation – the book is no better – for the Lansbury character’s embrace of Communism. In the novel, Condon has her as ‘not being naturally lustful herself except for power’. Whatever non-sectarian lust she does possess seems reserved, in the film, for her son.

In 1962, what happened to Raymond Shaw and his men may have seemed fantastic, but perhaps no more so than the news that had emerged five years earlier that American POWs in Korea had made false confessions, and, shockingly, that some had decided against repatriation. As a 1957 New York Times story put it: ‘For the first time in history Americans – 21 of them – swallowed the enemy’s propaganda line and declined to return to their own people.’ It was unfathomable that these soldiers wanted to abandon the US’s freedom and high living standards – what Fortune magazine had called the ‘postwar dream world’ – for grey collectivism. Why, after sitting in Panmunjon for three months with time to think about it, did they choose to go to China?

The journalist (and alleged CIA operative) Edward Hunter had already provided a convenient answer in his 1951 book Brainwashing in Red China, in which he introduced the word hsi-nao, roughly translated as ‘to cleanse the mind’. Brainwashing, or ‘mind control’, would become the cause célèbre of the decade, going from neologism to nightmare before the term had been fully understood. ‘Communist Brainwashing: Are We Prepared?’ the New Republic wanted to know. Brainwashing appeared to account for many things: not merely the behaviour of the Korean POWs, but also the deluded confession to treason of the Hungarian anti-Communist Cardinal Mindszenty (‘We saw the fine brain of Cardinal Mindszenty cracked in open court,’ Hunter told the House Un-American Activities Committee), and even the behaviour of entire nations. Chinese ‘struggle meetings’ and ‘campaigns for the suppression of counter-revolutionaries’ haunted the pages of Time, while in Battle for the Mind (1957), the British psychologist William Sargent noted the Third Reich’s penchant for mass brainwashing: ‘Hitler never concealed his method, which included deliberately producing such phenomena by organised excitement and mass hypnotism, and even boasted how easy it was to impose “the lie of genius” on his victims.’

Containment, the watchword of the 1950s, now extended to the mind: how to resist Pavlov’s ‘conditioned reflex’, a phenomenon hi-jacked by the Soviet high command? There was little hope of resisting the mystical techniques and soothing mass palliatives emanating from the East, although you could try, like Kipling’s Kim clinging to his multiplication tables in the face of non-Western hypnotism or the boys in the POW camp reciting favourite films by heart to ward off the fragrant inducements of Hanoi Hannah. ‘No man, however highly civilised,’ Aldous Huxley wrote in The Devils of Loudun (1952), ‘can listen for very long to African drumming, or Indian chanting, or Welsh hymn singing, and retain intact his critical and self-conscious personality. All we can safely predict is that, if exposed long enough to the tom-toms and the singing, every one of our philosophers would end by capering and howling with the savages.’

In The Manchurian Candidate it takes the diabolical Yen Lo (played winningly by Khigh Dheigh), the wisecracking savant of the Pavlov Institute, only one weekend to break Shaw and his men – Shaw’s brain, in Lo’s quip, ‘not only washed, as they say, but dry-cleaned’. This was ludicrous, but it made clear an inflated fear of and respect for the technique: brainwashing came to stand in for any kind of prison-camp abuse (sensory deprivation, hunger, whipping), and was viewed both as a moral outrage perpetrated by godless Communists and as a crisis for Western science, an imminent ‘mind-control gap’. According to John Marks in The Search for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ (1979), the CIA set up various programmes in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to create a brainwashed subject who could be controlled. An official, speaking in 1963, described the problem: ‘All experiments beyond a certain point always failed . . . because the subject jerked himself back for some reason or got amnesiac or catatonic.’

However jokily the film conjured its villains – brainwashers or McCarthyites – the jokes weren’t empty ones. I.F. Stone, in an essay called ‘The Cost of Anti-Communism’, noted the dilemma engendered by chronic demonology:

If Communists are some supernatural breed of men, led by diabolic master minds in that distant Kremlin, engaged in a Satanic conspiracy to take over the world and enslave all mankind – and this is the thesis endlessly propounded by American liberals and conservatives alike, echoed day and night by every radio state and in every newspaper, the thesis no American dare any longer challenge without himself becoming suspect – then how to fight McCarthy?

The Manchurian Candidate implied that McCarthyism and Stalinism were opposed, but equivalent. The right-wing Lansbury as Communist mole fits the connection made by Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’:

The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through ‘front’ groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.

Similarly, what lay beneath the fear of brainwashing was an anxiety that the corruption might be coming not from enemy ‘aliens’ but from within, from the doubt and casual self-deception required in a society that enjoyed unprecedented affluence but was faced with the novel threat of mass annihilation. The country was desperate for an answer as to why the ‘21 who stayed’ failed to be loyal to America. Troubled backgrounds, lack of intelligence, emotional problems? Few though the defectors were (and most of them eventually returned), the episode was a window onto larger anxieties. Was Communist brainwashing the main threat, or the subliminal exhortations warned of in Vance Packard’s 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders, which drew attention to the use of mass psychology in advertising, public relations and political campaigning? The fear that returning Korean War POWs had been mentally compromised (many were sent to an Army facility in Valley Forge for an extensive series of interviews) spoke to a fear of rot from within, as well as to a host of competing social theories raised in The Manchurian Candidate – the smothering ‘momism’ lambasted by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers, the conformist ‘other directed’ man described by David Riesman, the ever distancing nature of reality in the age of Daniel Boorstin’s ‘pseudo-event’, and the seemingly hypnotic new mass medium of television. The Manchurian Candidate was the first film to film television, in a scene in which Lansbury watches her husband make accusations at a press conference, not by watching him, but watching how he performs on the screen.

Greil Marcus first saw The Manchurian Candidate at the Varsity Theater in Palo Alto, California, in 1962: ‘We saw – as anyone can see today – too many rules broken.’ The film-makers, ‘working over their heads’, succumbed to a conspiracy themselves: ‘What can we get away with? What will people catch? What’s going to go right past them? Do we really care?’ Of the film’s famous ‘dream sequence’, which executed a one-shot 360° take which required a mobile stage on tracks to be removed while the camera was looking the other way, and also presented a hallucinatory editing sequence that mixed garden-club ladies with Communist brass, Frankenheimer said that he did it ‘just to be weird’ – an explanation that might have served for the film as a whole.

Roland Barthes used the word ‘punctum’ to describe that unintended element of a photograph that, as he put it, ‘rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’. It is a ‘something’, something that ‘has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock’, which is often ‘only revealed after the fact’. There are many of those somethings in The Manchurian Candidate, a string of half-remembered events and gestures. There’s the sweat, for example, more sweat than in Raging Bull. It pools on the pockmarked face of the Soviet security chief Zilkov; it drenches Sinatra as he tries to light a cigarette under the arched-eyebrowed gaze of Janet Leigh. It’s the night sweat of a bad dream from which everyone is trying to awake. There’s the strange out-of-focus shot of Sinatra confronting Shaw at the end (what critics thought was Frankenheimer depicting Shaw’s clouded consciousness was actually a cameraman unable to get it right as Sinatra, in an unrepeatable performance, announced that he was ‘busting up the joint, tearing out all the wires’). There’s the equally odd moment when Sinatra has to explain to the highly refined Shaw who Orestes and Clytemnestra are (just ‘a couple of Greeks in a play’): this to the man who will become the most powerful newspaper columnist in America. There’s Sinatra just being Sinatra, throwing out words like ‘magilla’ and ‘swing’, stopping by the bar of his real-life pal Jilly Rizzo. There’s the incongruous fact that the detective in the background of the New York City police station where Leigh bails out Sinatra is speaking Spanish. There’s the curious trigger phrase that ‘activates’ Shaw: ‘Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?’ Useful for getting to the Red Queen (Lansbury), yes, but how often has anyone invited anyone to play solitaire?

Then there’s the fact, commented on by Marcus, that the Army psychiatrist is played by Joe Adams, a black actor.

Here we are, in 1962, and a black man is playing a professional, a thinker, and it’s not commented on, it’s not an issue, but it’s still a shock . . . How many other American movies use a black actor to play what audiences expect to be a white character without even bothering to point it out, to pat themselves on the back, to congratulate themselves?

Another of these punctum moments is the karate fight, the first seen in a Hollywood film (Sinatra broke his finger on a table) – karate, as much as brainwashing, is an Asian black art. Another is Lansbury’s fatal kiss on Shaw’s lips (though she played his mother, Lansbury was just a year older than Laurence Harvey). In Condon’s novel, the pair sleep together; Frankenheimer knew he couldn’t show that in 1962 (he probably couldn’t in 2003), but the inference is clear. The plot is also, Marcus notes, ‘an excuse for the pleasure of its violence’ – it was the film’s seven murders, as much as its Soviet-conspiracy burlesque, that got it banned in Finland, where the joke was perhaps too close to home.

There are incipient stirrings of a remake. Jonathan Demme’s name hovers as director; Denzel Washington, it is said, will play Major Bennett Marco, the character made famous by Frank Sinatra; Meryl Streep is slated to play the mother; Sinatra’s daughter, Tina, is a producer. ‘He believed, as we do,’ she told Daily Variety, ‘that premises can be brought into the future.’ A remake is unnecessary, not merely because the original works so well as a reflection of the decade that produced it, but because it still speaks to the nightmarish elements of the American republic. It still points to those places we cannot see. ‘When a movie has become part of the folklore of a nation,’ Marcus writes, ‘the borders between the movie and the nation cease to exist. The movie becomes a fable; then it becomes a metaphor. Then it becomes a catchphrase, a joke, a shortcut.’

The Manchurian Candidate never really went away, despite its supposed censoring (it was shown on television several times in the 1970s). There is a need to believe it was withdrawn, as if that would somehow lend more sense to the events of the following year (or to 1968, when Bobby Kennedy, whose campaign Frankenheimer was filming, was shot). There was a feeling that it was contagious and could be contended with only once the world had been inoculated, once America had ‘lost its innocence’, as Janet Leigh later noted. The film, freed from the Cold War, did not die; instead, it entered an even murkier realm, the Internet-driven, illuminati-haunted half-light of the conspiracy theorist, a place of endless linkage and secret history. John McCain, legendary POW of the North Vietnamese, making his run for President, was branded by the MIA activist Ted Sampley as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’. (One of the reasons McCain’s father resisted his son’s early release from the camp was, according to a high-level diplomatic telegram, President Johnson’s fear that ‘people will wonder if McCain had been brainwashed.’)

Who could abandon the world’s highest standard of living for life in a poor, repressive country? The mother of John Walker Lindh, the ‘American Taliban’, looked, as the country did, for an answer: ‘If he got involved with the Taliban,’ she said, ‘he must have been brainwashed.’ Meanwhile, CNN had decided not to broadcast unedited tapes of Osama bin Laden’s missives, for fear that they were transmitting coded instructions. Brainwashing provided a digestible script for explaining the Beltway snipers, too: a father figure, Gulf War veteran drifter and his teenage protégé, killing with the randomness of a well-shuffled deck of cards. ‘You have indicated that you want us to do and say certain things,’ said the Montgomery County Police Chief, Charles Moose, an instant celebrity of sorts. ‘You’ve asked us to say: “We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.” We understand that hearing us say this is important to you.’ There is something amiss in that line, something off-kilter. It did not come across as things are supposed to on live television. A man was using a mass medium to speak to another man. Somewhere out there, in the new, weird America, some thought they were hearing a trigger phrase.