Friday, November 18, 2011

The Manchurian Candidate

John Frankenheimer, 1962, bw (8.6*)
#81, Top Ranked 1000 Films, 2011 Update, all polls.

This is the film that set the standard for cold-war thrillers, and also put director John Frankenheimer on the map. The film features a thankfully subdued Frank Sinatra in a dramatic role as a Korean War veteran, who returns to America a changed man. He suspects that a hero from his unit, played by Laurence Harvey, may have been brainwashed by the North Koreans. The problem of course is that the entire story could be in his own imagination, he has no evidence.

As the story unfolds, we find out in short flashbacks a little more of what happened in Korea, while the plot moves toward timed conclusion using the countdown technique, which works well here. One of those 'we have three days to save the free world kind of things', because of a plot already in motion which could have world-shaping implications.

Frankenheimer expertly plays into the hands of the paranoid right-wingers who, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 50’s, began to suspect a red commie hiding inside every industry and business in the U.S. He creates a nighmarish vision of their worst paranoia, that the communists are able to alter the minds of heroic American citizens and then unleash them on an unsuspecting American public – kind of like what Wall St. has done in the new milennium with even greater success than our enemies imagined.

Frankenheimer was a master at a low-key type of thriller that maintained great tension and apprehension throughout, and events seemed to be moving unhampered toward some bone-chilling conclusion. For me, he went on to make even better thrillers after this one. The Train (1964) bw, with Burt Lancaster, was about a Frenchman trying to stop the Nazis from carting off valuable art treasures back to Germany in a trainload of stolen French culture pilfered from the best museums.

Even better was Seven Days in May (1964) bw, in which Lancaster plays a right-wing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is upset with a left-wing President, expertly played by Fredric March in his last performance, who he feels is weakening the U.S. politically, so he plots a military overthrow of the government, while an officer on his staff, Kirk Douglas, slowly suspects the Chairman. This is eerily similar to the arguments made by the CIA against John Kennedy, who had decimated the branch with massive cutbacks in manpower - Langley was said to resemble a 'ghost town' during his administration.

More recently, Frankenheimer directed the excellent heist film Ronin (1998), featuring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno leading a team to recover a stolen briefcase for a suspected IRA terrorist, Natascha McElhone. This barely noticed film runs rings around the big budget, non-stop car chase films, with an intelligent script that allows for some development of complex characters.

Stick with the original (#81 on the all-time top 1000), the remake with Denzel Washington is ranked 2098th by comparison.

Whoa, is this James Bond or some Korean war vet?


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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