I knew that tonight (Saturday) was going to be a pretty boring night. Veishea, the ISU festival and all night party, is this weekend and I figured that I'd end up spending the night bored by myself (I don't like crowds or heavy drinking). So I went to the library and borrowed a movie. I wanted to borrow Network, but it was out. So I checked out The Manchurian Candidate. I hadn't seen the movie before and it seemed like as good a time as any. Every time I suggest a movie to my friends they reject it. I guess my taste isn't quite theirs. Best to watch it alone. Anyway, here's what I thought:
The first thing that struck me with the movie was it's very modern use of the camera. Many scenes were more realistic and wide that I am used to from an older movie. There were a lot of long takes and scenes in real contexts rather than on a sound stage. Granted the sound stage was used along with green-screen techniques, but they blended better than I was used to. Editing was also used in ways I'm not used to seeing, especially in the brainwashing sequences. I'm sure that someone else could (and has many times) give a better exposition on the techniques pioneered in this movie.
As for the cast, I was pleasantly surprised. I usually expect any movie with star power to be poorer than those with unknowns. Stars can't seem to separate themselves enough from their public image to play good characters. Frank Sinatra was suprisingly good in this film however. Perhaps it's that I didn't grow up seeing him on TV so I don't associate his face immediately with any particular stereotype (though I do recognize him). In any case his Major Marco was believable and that's all I ask. The only other player I knew was Angela Lansbury whom I only know from Murder, She Wrote. Needless to say, the thirty years that separate these two performances do much to disasssociate her for me.
The critique presented of McCarthyism presented in the film was, I am sure, groundbreaking at the time. I am not sure that it resonates the same way with today's viewers though, who know this period only through history books. Certainly the extreme points of view, us versus them attitude, and fear mongering is familiar, but we today don't have the same sort of "enemy in our midst" feeling that seems to have been prevalent at the time.
The US-centric point of view is also pretty apparent today. The Chinese and Soviet powers are presented as somewhat monolithic and two-dimensional. All the bad guys are in it together and infighting, when present, is trivial. Granted, the film probably treated the subject more generously than any other films of the time, but the communist powers could only have wished for such solidarity.
Another item of note is the diversity of the cast. Race, while not a real factor in the film, is at least present in the film. There are two black characters. One is a sharp minded psychiatrist, the first black man in a role not specificity created for a black man. The other is a soldier whose distinctly black mindset is shown through the brainwashing sequences we view through his dreams. In another scene a Puerto Rican police detective speaks a the phone in Spanish. While not an essential part of the film the diversity shown indicates an awareness not usually seen in a film of this vintage
On a personal level my biggest beef with the film is it's use of conspiracy. I am not a big believer in conspiracy or conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theory necessarily portrays the enemy as monolithic and inhuman. The conspirators need to have a superhuman knowledge of the consequences in order to have their plan succeed. I call this the Heist Movie fallacy. In a heist movie the thieves will know exactly how long the police will take to respond, how to get to the roof, and exactly when to jump off in order to land in the dump truck full of mattresses that their buddy just happens to be driving. This sort of coincidence just doesn't happen in real life. To assume that the "powers that be" know the consequences of their actions any more than you or I is to mistake humans for gods. In The Manchurian Candidate the Communists suffer from this. Granted, their plan eventually fails for reasons out of their control, but the assumption is that if Sergeant Shaw had completed his mission the US would have been in the hands of the Communists. I find this a little hard to believe.
Such quibbles are largely beside the point though. Any movie requires some suspension of disbelief and on some level this is what makes movies interesting. This movie was a real treat for me to watch. The modern, but well paced, cinematography combined with a rare glimpse of the political depth of the '50s and early '60s and it's relevance today made the movie well worth my two hours.