Tag: Janet Leigh

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.

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas has a whale of a time as one of The Vikings

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Einar), Tony Curtiz (Eric), Ernest Borgnine (Ragnar Lodbrok), Janet Leigh (Morgana), James Donald (Egbert), Alexander Knox (Father Godwin), Maxine Audley (Enid), Frank Thring (Aella of Northumbria), Eileen Way (Kitala), Dandy Nichols (Bridget), Edric Conner (Sandpiper), Orson Welles (Narrator)

There’s a big market for stories about Vikings. Perhaps there is something attractive in our more staid world for a “noble savage” culture, with warriors romantically travelling far and wide. Perhaps a race of brave warriors just seems rather cool. Either way, despite their reputation for ravishing and raiding, Vikings often get a decent deal from films, usually positioned as a race of anti-heroes. That’s definitely what we get from Richard Fleischer’s enjoyable swashbuckler, which has a nodding acquaintance with history.

After the King of Northumbria is killed by fearsome Viking Ragnar Lodbrok (Ernest Borgnine), his queen is raped by Ragnar. Northumbria name a new King, the corrupt Aella (Frank Thring), while the queen sends her baby son (who she knows is Ragnar’s son) to Italy for his protection. Jump forward twenty odd years and, wouldn’t you know it, that young boy turns up as Eric (Tony Curtis) a slave of Ragnar’s, loathed by his unknown half-brother Einar (Kirk Doouglas), Ragnar’s son. The only person who knows who Eric is, is exiled Northumbrian load Egbert (James Donald). Things get even more complex when Aella’s intended Morgana (Janet Leigh) is kidnapped in a raid, and both Eric and Einar fall in love with her….

The Vikings is a great deal of fun, its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. The plot veers from scene-to-scene from being too dense (various complexities around the rightful king of Northumbria get so confusing the film eventually abandons them) too being shunted off to the sides in favour of the action. But then it’s more about broad, brightly coloured action (very handsomely filmed by Jack Cardiff) with its stars having a good time fighting and shouting.

It’s interesting watching the film as almost a dry run for Spartacus, where Douglas and Curtis would re-unite. Here the film revolves around a rivalry between the two that turns into an alliance of mutual self-interest. Douglas clearly has a whale of a time playing a semi-baddie with depth, his Einar a typical “Viking’s Viking” who drinks hard, fights hard and wants a life of adventure on the high seas. But he’s also got a strange sense of nobility about home and – even though he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape her – he seems to fall genuinely in love with Morgana. Even his eventual comeuppance comes from a moment of decency. It makes for a villain more complex than normal, while Douglas roars through the movie.

Curtis is left with the duller part as the noble son-of-a-king. Looking rather too pampered for a life of serfdom, Curtis feels like a slightly too modern, New Yorkish presence for period pieces (Spartacus would use his pampered prissiness to better effect) but he charges into the sword swinging, high romance of the story with relish, while also shining during Eric’s several moments of brave principle. Morgana, very well played by his real-life wife Janet Leigh, sees a character who could have been a victimised love-interest turn into an independent and strong-minded woman, brave enough to take a stand on the things she believes in.

But the film’s real interest is in the world of the Vikings. There has been some very impressive historical research into their culture and shipping, while the battles and scenes of drunken merriment are well staged and carry a lot of boozy buzz. Most of the cast enter into relish, following Douglas and Ernest Borgnine’s lead (Borgnine, playing Douglas’ father, was at best a few months older) with plenty of shouting, ale swallowing and axe throwing. While the film’s score makes a number of odd choices – this really needed a Goldsmith or Morricone rather than the odd mix we get here – Fleischer’s direction is crisp and adept and keeps things charging forward.

The politics at the Northumbrian court gets a bit forgotten about, with Alan Thring turning Aella into a sneering, unprincipled villain who barely gets much of a look-in. However, the savage punishments that Aella meets out to his rivals – and his ruthless condemnation of anyone seen as being against him – makes a neat contrast with the Vikings who, for all their blood-curdling violence, do at least have some sort of nominal sense of justice and some willingness to compromise.

But the film’s heart is in the action. Douglas, acting as producer, jumped at the chance to take on as many of the stunts as possible – including famously walking across the oars of a Viking longboat while it is at sea (he nearly falls in twice, but it has the sort of excitement of seeing the star doing something for real that you still get with Tom Cruise). He and Curtis eagerly take part in assorted sword battles, while balancing a love/hate relationship (well probably mostly hate) that keeps the film powering forward. All in it makes for some really enjoyable B-movie shenanigans.

Psycho (1960)

Janet Leigh takes an unwise shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s disturbing slasher-noir Psycho

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Martin Balsam (Detective Milton Arbogast), John McIntire (Sheriff Al Chambers), Simon Oakland (Dr Fred Richman)

Psycho is so famous it’s almost impossible to watch it as Hitchcock intended. When it was released, the old showman made a huge amount of play from literally banning people from entering the cinema after it had started, with huge billboards in theatres urging people on no account to tell anyone what happens. It was the first major anti-spoiler campaign – and it worked a treat, because the film became a sensation. Such a sensation, that I don’t think there can be many people alive who aren’t familiar with the basic intricacies of its plot, whether you’ve seen it not.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, in order to marry her love Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Fleeing New York, she drives through two nights, changes her car, frets about being caught – and finally rests for the night at the Bates Motel, run by shy Mummy’s-boy (“A mother is a boy’s best friend!”) Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Exhausted by two days of stress, Marian thinks it’s time to have a shower – and so we suddenly switch genres completely….

Psycho is a masterpiece of mis-direction. If you didn’t know what the film was about, you would expect, from the first act, you are in for some sort of mix between Double Indemnity and a documentary true-crime thriller. The entire first act is essentially a brilliant Hitchcock MacGuffin – both the money and Marion Crane turn out to be things of immense importance to the characters, but essentially less so to the audience. Hitchcock pulls one of his best con tricks by presenting Janet Leigh as the main character, only to dispatch her brutally less than halfway through the film. 

Which is of course during one of the most famous scenes in film history: the shower scene. It’s a masterclass of unsettling, suggestive editing, disturbing imagery (you never see the knife plunging into flesh, but you certainly feel like you do, with constant cuts from knife, to body, to movement, to blood in the bathtub – but no links between them on screen), and of course Bernard Herrmann’s jagged strings scoring it all. For no other reason, this scene would cement the film in cinema history. It’s a slasher scene filmed by a master of cinema, a clear and simple statement for everyone else to come that this was how it was done – and no other director of slasher horror has come anywhere near Hitchcock’s skill here. It’s a phenomenal, terrifying, powerful piece of cinema.

It works so well because Marion Crane is not a faceless victim. Unwittingly, we’ve carefully followed her through the last few days of her life. We’ve seen her love affair with Loomis, we’ve felt her despair at their only being able to meet in motels, felt her temptation and then shared her paranoia and anxiety as she flees with the money. Leigh is barely off-screen for the entire opening third of the movie – and we’ve completely invested in her by the time the water is flowing. Leigh is excellent as Crane – and an overlooked coda to the shower scene is Hitchcock’s tight closeup on her eye immediately after the attack – Leigh pulls off the hugely difficult trick of letting her eye seem like the life is fading away from her in that second. 

It’s one of many outstanding directing feats in the film. Hitchcock slowly builds the uneasy atmosphere of the Bates motel from the moment Marian arrives there, using increasingly unsettling, gothic angles to capture Norman and to suggest that all is not what it seems. As our characters explore the Bates motel, jump cuts to innocuous objects make them carry great peril and uncertainty. Everything at the Bates motel is unnerving, unusual and every shot is not quite right. The Bates motel itself looks like the most nightmarish gothic mansion (seriously who would want to stay there?!).

The identity of the murderer is pretty well known. Anthony Perkins is twitchy and fidgety, a softly-spoken peeping tom who is unable to meet anybody’s eyes and is obsessed with taxidermy – is it any great surprise? Perkins is perfect as Bates, and Hitchcock expertly inverts his boyish good looks to masterful effect. Could someone so shy, quiet and innocent-looking be a killer? As the final scenes show us mother’s disturbed voice in Bates’ mind (while the camera slowly tracks in on his increasingly unhinged, grinning face) we not only get some more Hitchcock tricks (a subliminal imposing of the mother’s decayed face over Bates) but also another wonderful scene, of iconic acting and simple but powerful camera work. Hitchcock could do it all.

Mother – oh yuck. It’s brilliant misdirection again. Who is mother? Where is she? Who is the woman we keep seeing? Who is the female murderer? Even when we are told categorically that mother died years ago, that information itself is immediately questioned (“If she wasn’t buried then who was?”). When we do find the truth it’s another horror moment – the greatest ever turn-the-body-around-to-see-the-horror moment you’re going to see in the movies. Lila’s scream and raised arms knock a lightbulb, which swings casting alarming light and shade over the scene.

So Psycho is a masterpiece of film, because it is such an unsettling clash of genres. It’s a film noir whose main character accidentally stumbles into a slasher film. Investigating the disappearance of Marion, Loomis and her sister Lila keep returning again and again to the money that has gone missing, assuming it is the motive of the crime – but they couldn’t be more wrong. 

As is explained to them at the end by the film’s psychiatrist character. This is the weakest mis-step in the film: a psychiatrist explains in a dull lecture exactly what has happened, what was wrong with Norman blah-blah-blah. Maybe we are just much more familiar with things like that, but this scene surely always had a “let me tell you all the answers” flatness to it. Sam Loomis and Lila Crane are not exactly the most interesting characters you are ever going to see – Loomis in particularly seems at first he is going to be a slight rogue, but the character quickly settles into being a bore (what does Marion see in him?). After the first 45 minutes have gone by, most of the scenes outside of the Bates Motel are (whisper it) dull – probably because they focus on a lot of discussion about the money, an issue the audience has long since lost interest in. Did Hitchcock deliberately make these scenes flatter, knowing we needed the rest from the horrors of the Bates Motel?

Psycho, though, is a classic and it will always be a classic. A slasher film and psycho-thriller, directed by an absolute master filmmaker at the top of his game. When Hitchcock made this film – on a low budget, using a TV crew, in black-and-white – people wondered why he was slumming it, why he was wasting his talent. They weren’t asking that after the film was released. Psycho is one of his purest, most unsettling thrill-rides, as horrifying, compelling and unsettling now as it was when it was first released.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles investigates (though the real mystery is probably Charlton Heston’s Mexican heritage)

Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Police Captain Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Joanna Cook Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Mort Mills (Al Schwartz), Dennis Weaver (Night Manager)

Has any director ever cast himself in such a physically unflattering role as Welles takes on here? Hank Quinlan is a grotesque, sweaty, grossly obese, lame, mumbling copper with a hinterland of loneliness in his past and a background of missed chances. Yet despite this, it’s Quinlan’s film and despite the terrible things he does in the film (kidnap, two murders, suspect framing) it’s very hard not to feel empathy and sorrow for him. Welles’ immense charisma as a performer is a large part of this, but I think he also recognises the sadness of being the genius who has surrounded himself with mediocrities, the man who knows he could have achieved more in life but for whatever reason never did. If that’s not Welles’ career, what is?

Of course Quinlan isn’t actually the lead. Charlton Heston, curry-coloured but otherwise actually pretty good, plays Vargas, a Mexican law agent (“He don’t look like a Mexican” Quinlan correctly observes) with a new American wife, caught up in an investigation into a bombing of an American citizen in a US-Mexico border-town. Quinlan investigates, finds his culprit quickly and produces evidence – evidence Vargas knows for a fact wasn’t there minutes ago. Accusations of corruption fly and, before you know it, Quinlan (a man flirting with corruption) is forced into alliance with a jumped-up Mexican gang leader to frame Vargas for corruption via implicating his wife in drugs and murder.

The plot, however, largely takes second place to Welles’ virtuoso film-making. The opening sequence of the film – an extended three and a half minute single take that tracks in and out of streets, from close-ups to crane shots – has an astonishing “how did they do that?” quality. But it’s matched by Welles’ brilliance with both actors and camera placement during the equally long continuous takes set in bomb suspect Sanchez’s apartment. He’s adept at jinglingly unsettling imagery, with the murder scene 2/3rd of the way through the film almost queasily twitchy in its fragmented shooting style. The final sequence of the film, as Vargas tracks Quinlan through a filthy oil yard, should be silly but is completely compelling.

Welles of course dominates the film as Quinlan. I love the half smile on his face as his praises are sung by besotted partner Menzies early in the film – the “aw shucks, are you talking about me?” non-modesty – but I also adore the unspoken sadness of his early scene with Dietrich, where he sadly attempts to flirt with this (presumably) lost love (we are never told for certain) only for her to literally not recognise him. Quinlan in many ways is a good copper – he frames the guilty, he doesn’t take bribes, he is reasonably loyal – but he’s also selfish, egotistical and needs the adoration of his position to fill the void in his life. He’s a man who’s corrupt almost without realising it, who sinks into bemused maudlin depression when accused without even recognising that he is in fact guilty.

There are some other equally strong performances in the film. Heston of course looks ridiculous – but look past that and this is one of his best performances, Vargas demonstrating the stand-up, straight-shooting honesty of many of Heston’s roles, combined with arrogant short sightedness and narrow minded determination. Janet Leigh is also absolutely terrific as his wife, despite being saddled with a bizarre subplot of being terrorised in a motel. A note for trivia fans – Leigh actually broke her arm before shooting and it’s in a cast throughout the movie bar one shot (where she doesn’t move her arm) – you can’t spot it until you know.

I was particularly enthralled by a beautiful performance of hero-worship from Joseph Calleia as Menzies, Quinlan’s adoring partner whose entire life has been one of loyal service to Quinlan. In many ways he is the moral centre of the film, and as the film shifts its focus to Quinlan, so it equally explores the changes in how Menzies views his boss. Akim Tamiroff gives a lovely performance of puffed up pomposity as a ridiculous small time gangster with a dodgy wig. Dennis Weaver’s hotel manager is an eccentric collection of manners that is more likely to split opinions, but he doesn’t half go for the oddness. Marlene Dietrich is marvellous in her few brief scenes.

Touch of Evil is one of those films that lingers with you and rewards constant reflection and rewatching. I re-watched large chunks of it again immediately the next morning. As a piece of film making it’s a master class, an immersive, tightly framed, wonderfully shot film that brilliantly uses its filthy, litter strewn locations. The acting is terrific and the final moments strangely moving. Welles was a terrible self-promoter and later he ballooned to the very Quinlan proportions that padding and make-up create here. But when he was on his game, and fully focused, he was terrific. As is the film, which is surely one of the greatest (and last) film noirs ever.

CODA: The coda to this? Of course Welles wasn’t fully focused. He cut the film once, then shot off to Mexico to explore a new film possibility. Studio hands recut the film again. Welles sent a famous 58 page memo suggesting changes. Most of them got ignored for the third cut. Three versions of the film now exist – the two studio recuts and a 1998 recut using the memo (Welles’ original was wiped). I watched the 1998 recut. But it’s always the problem with Welles – a man I always felt who largely lacked the focus to actually finish something. The film bombed on release. Welles never worked in Hollywood again.