Cold War Classics Two Spy Thrillers Hit 40; Only One Came in from the Cold

By Gire, Dann | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

Cold War Classics Two Spy Thrillers Hit 40; Only One Came in from the Cold


Gire, Dann, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Dann Gire Daily Herald Film Critic

Two products of the Cold War - the James Bond movies and the sly political thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" - celebrate their 40th anniversaries this year.

Agent 007 commemorates the milestone with the release of his 22nd feature film, "Die Another Day." (The MGM-United Artists series claims it as No. 20, only by ignoring the renegade productions of "Casino Royale" in 1967 and "Never Say Never Again" in 1983.)

"The Manchurian Candidate" has no sequels. But a pristine new 35 mm print of the film will be shown today through Thursday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport in Chicago.

Whereas 007's films have evolved from their Cold War origins and adapted to meet new global threats, "The Manchurian Candidate" has remained frozen in time.

The John Frankenheimer drama stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury in a satirical what-if tale of political paranoia.

What if the Soviets, Red Chinese and North Koreans could capture American soldiers, brainwash them and turn them into unknowing drones, totally at the disposal of Communist villains seeking to destabilize the United States?

It begins with Maj. Bennett Marco (Sinatra) having a recurring nightmare from his service in Korea during 1954. He and his men appear to be gathered at a boring meeting of some women's garden club. As the dream continues, the women disappear, replaced by Soviet and Chinese officers.

The woman on the podium becomes Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who, after presenting some hypnosis mumbo jumbo (we never see any of the brain-washing process), asks Raymond Shaw (Harvey) to pick one of his favorite fellow GIs, and strangle him.

Shaw politely and efficiently complies.

Marco wakes up from his dream, one so real and disturbing, he sets out to discover what really happened in Korea two years earlier, and how it affected Shaw, the son of an ambitious woman (Lansbury, who was 37 to the 34-year-old Harvey) who is now married to the grandstanding Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory).

"Manchurian Candidate" has been hailed a masterpiece by some critics, a reputation no doubt increased by its mysterious disappearance from public view soon after the Nov. 22 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Twenty-five years passed before Frankenheimer's film would be made available for public viewing. Reports said that Sinatra, a good friend of the president, used his clout to yank the movie, an action confirmed in a Washington Post interview with producer/writer George Axelrod.

As a Cold War thriller, "Candidate" remains pretty cold itself. Lionel Lindon's angled, black-and-white camera work never asks for affection. The characters are aloof and studied. All in all, time hasn't been overly generous to this benchmark movie.

By today's standards, Sinatra's big karate fight scene with Korean mole Henry Silva (Hollywood's all-purpose minority character actor) looks forced, phony and funny with the actors almost posing between too-slowly edited punches.

Then we have a gun gaffe when Shaw, under the influence of Yen Lo, assassinates a liberal politician using a silencer on his revolver. Silencers don't work on revolvers, only on semi-automatic pistols.

Sinatra's performance has been touted by critics to be one of his best, although it consists mostly of him looking mildly uncomfortable with water splashed on his face, as if he needs some Preparation H really, really bad. Sinatra's blinking also proves a distraction, particularly in scenes where a laser-like stare would have worked better. …

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