Tag: Frank Sinatra

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Frank Sinatra (Major Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Cheyney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Shaw Iselin), James Gregory (Senator John Yerkes Iselin), Henry Silva (Chun-jin), Leslie Parish (Jocelyn Jordan), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Dr Yen Lo), James Edwards (Cpl Allen Melvin)

Spoilers: Herein the biggest twist in The Manchurian Candidate is revealed

Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is cold, uncommunicative, reserved and difficult. So why, when asked, does everyone in his platoon say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”? Welcome to the world of sinister brainwashing and mind-control. Welcome to The Manchurian Candidate.

Shaw returns from the war in Korea as a Medal of Honour winner. He saved his entire platoon – with the exception of two casualties – under heavy fire and is America’s blue-eyed-boy, already being hijacked by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) as a prop for the Presidential campaign of her second husband, her McCarthy-like puppet Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). But if things are fine and dandy, why does Shaw’s commanding officer Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) keep having a recurring nightmare of a hypnotised Shaw calmly murdering those two casualties in front of an audience of Russian and Chinese officers? Can Shaw be all he seems – or is he the new secret weapon in a deadly Cold War?

A film born at the heart of the paranoia of the sixties – it premiered shortly after the Cuban Missile and would be followed a year later by the assassination of JFK by the Shaw-esque Lee Harvey Oswald – The Manchurian Candidate captures the mood of its time in a way few other films have done. On top of which, it’s a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat ride, crammed with complex psychology and chillingly cold-hearted violence, directed with a more than a splash of cinema verité and plenty of panache by John Frankenheimer at the top-of-his-game. Touches of satire on politics and the media, are mixed with a terrifying fantasia on the powers of mind control. There is no other film that drips with as much sweat as this one (just look at some of those faces!) or plays more brilliantly into our own fevered nightmares of how we can be turned against ourselves.

The action in the film is dealt with all the expertise of a card sharp. The opening scene already tips us the wink about the lies in the memories of our heroes: not only do the soldiers clearly despise Shaw, as he plucks them out of a seedy bar in Korea, but we later see them bundled up by Commie soldiers into waiting helicopters. So, we’ve already got a pretty good idea why Sinatra’s Major Marco is as twitchy and sweaty as he is – and we’re immediately suspicious of just how Shaw managed to get his hands on the Medal of Honour (and why, perhaps, he doesn’t seem that happy about it – as if he already subconsciously knows he doesn’t deserve it).

The truth is revealed to us in an extended sequence that’s a tour-de-force or imaginative visual technique, that Frankenheimer doesn’t get enough credit for. Marco’s dream starts in a genteel hotel in America’s South, with a polite middle-class lady giving a talk about flowers on stage, surrounded by the platoon. The camera moves from the stage in a smoothly uninterrupted 360 turn looking at the audience of similarly middle-class, middle-age belles, before returning to the stage where the hotel backdrop has been replaced by huge banners of Stalin and Mao and our genteel lady has turned into a sinisterly jovial Chinese scientist.

During the sequence that follows, the camera shifts constantly from the subjective (Marco’s false memory of the hotel and ladies) and the objective (a surgical observatory pit with watching Communist apparatchiks), while never interrupting the chilling scientific explanation from Khigh Dhiegh’s (brilliant in every way) scientist. During this inspired barrage of false and true memories, spliced with alarming moments of violence, we witness just how far Shaw’s brainwashing programming has gone as, with complete politeness, he goes about shooting one soldier in the head and quietly strangling another. No wonder Marco – and the other soldiers who all share versions of the same nightmare – wakes up screaming every morning.

And why did they pick Shaw? Well obviously, his mother-fixation already makes him more than susceptible to external control (under hypnosis he describes Marco as his best friend – something that, Dr Lo points out, speaks volumes for his inclination to prostrate himself to authority). Played with an austere distance by Laurence Harvey – the film expertly uses Harvey’s prickly air of patrician woodenness – Shaw is desperately weak-willed and a natural follower, who has never escaped his mother’s influence. He’s already a lonely man, nursing heart-break, loathing the brashness around him with an elitist hauteur, but lacking the force of character to do anything about it. No wonder he’s ready to be reprogrammed.

And of course, there is no controller he is more likely to follow than his mother. Angela Lansbury excels in her finest, most iconic screen role, as Shaw’s ambitious, deadly, controlling and manipulative mother. Is there a finest reveal, than her sudden invitation at a fancy-dress party for Shaw to “pass the time by playing a little Solitaire”? The film skilfully suggests that it is power rather than ideology that motivates Eleanor – even before the reveal she’s clearly the brains in the marriage with her dull husband, and a forceful, overbearing presence to her son. It’s revealed she’s already wrecked poor Shaw’s life – forcing him to jilt his true love Jocelyn (Leslie Parish), because marriage to the daughter of a political rival ain’t part of the plan. Maybe as well she’s motivated by the unsettling air of incest between the two of them.

No wonder Marco starts to feel sorry for him. Sinatra is very good in this film, striking a perfect balance between twitchy unease and a growing fatherly concern for Shaw. Notoriously a one-take actor (a key scene where Sinatra appears slightly out-of-focus – an effect that suggests we are seeing him from the screwed up Shaw’s perspective – was in fact because Sinatra was most effective in the first take, but the camera was incorrectly set-up), Frankenheimer uses his presence extremely well. He has a brutal fight scene that uses every inch of his energy, while he’s not afraid to add a touch of vulnerability into his burgeoning relationship with Janet Leigh’s stranger on a train (despite an initial scene that suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities, this is a rather thankless part for Leigh, which she still performs expertly). Like Harvey, his face is frequently studied dripping with sweat.

It’s all shot with a brilliantly immediacy. A press conference – where Iselin (the McCarthy satire is hilariously wicked) rants about Commies in the State Department – is shot with such observatory skill, it feels alarmingly real. Moments of lightness – the slightly dreamy flashbacks of Shaw and Jocelyn running playfully together near the sea – are immediately punctured by terrifying moments of unsensational suddenness, none more so than when a programmed Shaw assassinates Jocelyn and her father (the bullet passing through a carton of milk in his hand, which pours out across the floor). It culminates in a race-against time that’s played out with a hair-raising tension.

The Manchurian Candidate combines skilful acting with real cinematic force and invention from Frankenheimer. It creeps into the darkest corners of our mind and invites our nightmares to come out to play. Dark, at times even blackly comic, it’s possibly the finest and most influential conspiracy thriller ever made.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity’s most famous moment

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Burt Lancaster (First Sergeant Milton Warden), Montgomery Clift (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt), Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes), Donna Reed (Alma Burke/Lorene), Frank Sinatra (Private Angelo Maggio), Philip Ober (Captain Dana Holmes), Mickey Shaughnessy (Sergeant Leva), Harry Bellaver (Private Mazzioli), Ernest Borgnine (Staff Sergeant James “Fatso” Judson), Jack Warden (Corporal Buckley)

Dominating the 1953 Oscars, From Here to Eternity is exactly the sort of sweeping, highly-professional studio epic Hollywood at its best produced in its Golden Years. Everything turned out pretty much right, with iconic imagery and characters, and skilled production and acting turning a soapy story into something quite profound. From Here to Eternity is entertainment-as-art, a sharply intelligent film that sails along smoothly. It feels like a generational progression from Casablanca – it may not quite hit those heights, but it deserves to be in the same conversation.

It’s 1941 at Pearl Harbour and three soldiers discover going their own way, rather than conforming to rules and expectations, causes no end of trouble. Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is repeatedly hazed by his comrades (with the support of his CO) for refusing to join the boxing team. A champion boxer, Prewitt retired after accidentally blinding an opponent and nothing will persuade him to go back. His only comfort is with local social club ‘hostess’ Lorene (Donna Reed). First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) is persuaded to try for officer – because otherwise he risks prison for his love affair with the CO’s unloved wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), Prewitt’s only friend, is a loyal wild-card who can’t stick to the rules and is targeted by brutal stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

From Here to Eternity sounds like a great big soap, a sort of 1980s glossy TV mini-series made before its time (it was later remade exactly as that). It’s got that in its DNA, but is made with such luscious, professional, old-school Hollywood excellence it becomes something special. Superb craftsmen work in every position to produce a classic melodrama with touches of romance, thriller, war drama and tragedy. With excellent performances across the board (Sinatra and Reed both won Oscars, while Lancaster, Clift and Kerr were all nominated), FHtE tells emotive, empathetic stories about genuine characters trapped in situations beyond their control.

The film is a masterclass in adaptation. The original novel – a popular tome of its day – tells a story crammed full of sex, STDs, homosexuality, bad language and violence across its 800+ pages. No wonder it was a hit – and no wonder, under the Production Code, it was thought impossible to adapt it into a film. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash carefully reworked and ‘hinted’ at several things that could not be explicitly said (for example, no one calls Lorene a prostitute, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to realise she is doing more than pouring drinks in that bar). Restraint, as it often did, demanded invention and bought out the best (and subtle work) in people. The film’s requirement to focus on dialogue and character rather than controversy hugely works to its benefit.

Zinnemann was the perfect director for the material. Drawing wonderful performances from the actors, he also keep the film intimate, drawing us closer to the characters over scale, despite the temptations of the film’s location shooting in Hawaii (Zinnemann pushed strongly against shooting in technicolour and widescreen). The film also fits perfectly with one of Zinnemann’s key pre-occupations: the struggle of principled men (most strikingly Prewitt) in a society that demands them to say or do something against those principles. Just as the townspeople wanted Marshal to run and the Tudor court wanted More to swear allegiance, so our characters buck against conforming with the roles they are expected to play.

You can see why the military – after supporting the project – were less happy when they saw the film. The individual is championed at the cost of the machine. Prewitt’s principles are praised, while his regiment is hopelessly corrupted by his incompetent and careerist commander. The hazing is endemic, and supported from above – and no one even notices or cares that Fatso is also abusing his position to brutalize Maggio. The CO is so useless – as well as ruining his wife’s life, rendering her infertile and cheating on her all over town – that the company is effectively run by First Sergeant Warden, the only NCO with the courage of his principles. Under pressure from their army sponsors, the film does see the chain of command cashier the CO (a scene Zinnemann hated) – but the sympathy is with the individual rather than the system.

From Here to Eternity is also a highly effective romance. Its most famous image will always be the clinch between Lancaster and Kerr, kissing and embracing while the turf washes up around them. But the film is also realistic – its why it remains so effective. Warden and Karen are made as miserable by their growing love as they are happy (they even comment on this). Relationships are never an easy ride, and demand constant dedication. Lorene and Prewitt’s relationship is far from rose-tinted, with the two of them constantly forced apart by their own mistakes and choices.

It’s melodrama told with emotional intelligence and realism – and Zinnemann gets great performances from great actors. Lancaster brings immense strength and purpose to Warden, but also a concealed vulnerability and decency. Kerr – revitalising her career after a string of “good wives” – brilliantly conveys Karen’s desperation and misery, along with her wary hope her life could change. That moment on the beach, the surf washing around them as they make-out is a rare moment of relaxed happiness. Other than that, its one tough conversation after another – stolen moments in bars or cars, where the two of them confront the difficulty of their situation, but also their need for each other. That’s old school romance for you – unavoidable, but never-endingly difficult and even a little painful.

Sinatra (in the role that changed his career – and the debate around how he got the role inspired that horse’s head in The Godfather) brings charm, cheek and tragedy to Maggio. How did Maggio end up in this man’s army? He’s quietly fun loving, but bucks the rules like almost no other character in the film. Sure he’s an upstanding guy – the only one who sticks by Prewit and defends him – but he can’t follow a simple order. Mostly because he’s not really disciplined enough. Plus he makes enemies – worst of all Borgnine’s bruising sergeant. He’d be so much happier running a bar for soldiers than he ever is being a soldier himself.

This makes him very different from Clift’s Prewit. Clift gives one of his finest performances as this fully-realised tragic hero. Prewit is a man of principle who, for the best reasons, makes choices that have a terrible impact on him. He’ll stand by his decision not to box, even though it opens up a bucket load of unpleasantness for him and Maggio. If that leaves him with one friend and no supporters, so be it. He may not look like a boxer (the studio wanted a more muscular lead), but he is every inch the emotionally conflicted, guilt-plagued and confused GI, stubborn but profoundly sincere, with the strength of character to stand alone, but the vulnerability to need affection from Lorene (and respond like a lovesick kid when he thinks she has spurned him). It’s a complex, mature and excellent performance.

All these events are eventually dwarfed by the outbreak of war. If there is one thing that Zinnemann will accept is bigger than the individual, it’s world war. The film quietly counts down to the attack on Pearl Harbor (without the characters realising it), sneaking us peaks at calendars and reports to let us know how close we are to the fateful day. When it comes, it reveals the characters of the people we’ve been following. Warden takes command in a way his CO never could. Prewit, hiding out with Lorene (Reed by the way is marvellous, her investing Lorene with a real world-weary sadness), decides its his mission to return from AWOL, despite the dangers this will cause him. The attack is grippingly but simply filmed.

From Here to Eternity is a complex film, made with real professional skill, and a rewarding character study. Zinnemann gets the tone right at almost every single point and draws out brilliant performances from a very strong cast. As an example of Hollywood Studio film making, it’s hard to beat.