Tuesday, April 25, 2017

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON 2017: The Mother of All Villains!


Malevolence is the key word whenever I conjure up the main villain in John Frankenheimer's masterpiece of political suspense, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. The film has a screenplay by George Axelrod based on the book by Richard Condon published in 1959. The subject matter was actually quite contemporary since the film was made only three years later.

Oh by the way, though I normally do not like to give things away, there will be
SPOILERS AHEAD, because I want to talk about the entire film.


For me there can be no movie villain more malevolent than Angela Lansbury as the iron willed, cold as an iceberg mother willing to sacrifice a son's sanity for a political end. There is malevolence in the very 'normality' of her sophisticated appearance - Eleanor Shaw Iselin is the ultimate Washington D.C. political wife, help-mate and devoted mother of a Medal of Honor winner just back from Korea. At her doting husband's side, she is only too willing and able to lend a guiding hand.


Her husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (the always effective James Gregory) is a McCarthy-like functionary whose strident claims that communists are lurking in government have given him mileage and made him a likely Vice-Presidential candidate. That he is a fumbling half-wit with little political acuity goes by the wayside when the possibility of communists hiding under every rock is accepted as fact. (Let's not forget that in reality we were at the height of the Cold War.)

Senator Iselin has risen through the ranks guided by a brilliant wife who understands how to manage fools and does so with cold-hearted determination. This is an old story in Washington politics. Never more blatant than in this duplicitous marriage with only one end in sight: the presidency of the United States.


I've often thought how frustrating Mrs. Iselin's job must have been when it was SHE who really wanted the presidency for herself, she who wanted to wield ultimate power at a time when the presidency was exclusively a man's club. (Then and now, apparently.) How this barrier must have thwarted her at every turn while at the same time adding fuel to the fire of her ambitions.

Brilliant, ambitious women (especially those without an ounce of empathy or sentiment) have never had an easy road. Most of the time they have had to sublimate their dreams in favor of whatever man was at hand as cover - especially in politics. Angela Lansbury plays Mrs. Iselin very much as a dedicated woman without remorse, one who is so twisted that she is devoid of any semblance of humanity. It is a chillingly brilliant performance. Especially for such a well-liked and likable actress.

THE PLOT:

A patrol of soldiers is captured in Korea. They are brainwashed with new techniques (the 'garden party' scene alone is worth the price of admission) which work indecently well. Then, memories of the entire episode buried in their sub-conscious, the men are sent back to America with an amazing story of combat and the heroic exploits of Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) who will go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor for a non-existent event.


(The guys have been brain-washed into thinking they are at a Garden Club event in New Jersey.)


Back home, when questioned, the men seem devoted to their leader, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life," they respond. In truth, because of his aloofness, he was the least liked man in the entire platoon.


But Raymond Shaw is the son of Eleanor Shaw Iselin and the Senator's step-son and he has reasons for his perceived aloofness. He is an unwitting pawn in the all-encompassing political aspirations of a mother who has sold her soul to a political cause. Plus it doesn't help that Raymond hates her and his step-father.

As played by Laurence Harvey, a normally cool and uninvolved sort of actor, Raymond comes across as stiff, awkward, lonely and isolated. It is Harvey's best performance - his normally stand-offish persona working very well here. In reality Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Harvey, which makes her Oscar nominated performance even more impressive.


Shaw and his fool of a step-father are merely stepping stones for Eleanor Iselin who is a deeply embedded Communist agent now well on her way to achieving the goal of getting her husband into the Oval Office by hook or by crook. To that end she plans to have him swept up by manufactured nationalistic frenzy (remind you of anything?) when later, by her command, the actual presidential candidate is scheduled to be assassinated at the convention and her 'grief-stricken' hubby will then give an emotional 'America first' speech while holding the dead body of his 'friend.' The speech is meant to catapult Iselin to the top of the ticket. It is a powerful speech worked on as she says, "here and in Russia on and off for eight years."


To that ignoble end, Mrs. Iselin is willing to compromise and destroy her own son. A son, whom, by the way, she has ensnared in an incestuous relationship. He is the assassin set up by the communists - having been brain washed in Korea (unemotionally killing two of his fellow soldiers in the process) to carry out the death of the presidential candidate. Raymond's state-side handler is none other than his own mother. His 'trigger' is the Queen of Diamonds in a deck of playing cards. Once he is shown the card, Raymond will blankly carry out any order he is given.

Marco and his psychiatrist (played by Joe Adams in an uncredited part) work out how the cards might be involved in his nightmares.

Frank Sinatra's troubled character in the film is another mind-altered member of the original platoon. Major Bennett Marco, re-assigned to Army Intelligence state-side, has been having vivid nightmares about his experience in Korea. When he learns that a fellow veteran, Corporal Allen Melvin (James Edwards) has also been having similar dreams, they begin to put two and two together. Marco comes in contact with Raymond Shaw and little by little he begins to realize that the story they 'remember' about Korea may not have actually happened.


In the end, it will be up to Marco to try and stop Raymond Shaw from carrying out his imbedded instructions.

In the meantime, Eleanor Iselin learns that Raymond has taken up with an old girlfriend, Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan played wonderfully by John McGiver. The warmth of that father daughter relationship comes as a temporary balm to Raymond's inchoate coldness. He, at last, might have found a bit of happiness.

At first, Mrs. Iselin approves of the relationship since she wants the influential Senator Jordan's public approval of her hubby's Vice Presidential bid. But when the Liberal Senator makes it very plain that he will, under no circumstances, approve Senator Shaw, Mrs. Iselin instigates one of the cruelest and more heart-rending events in the film. And the way that director John Frankenheimer develops the infamous 'carton of milk' scene makes for one of the most devastating moments in film history.


Mrs. Shaw shows Raymond the Queen of Diamonds card and orders him to kill Senator Jordan. When Raymond, an automaton without any will, goes to the Senator's townhouse and confronts him in his cozy kitchen, he not only shoots down the Senator in cold blood but as Jocelyn Jordan accidentally enters the scene, Raymond kills her as well. Later he is utterly heartbroken to learn the news of his friends' deaths since he has no clue it was he that caused it.


When the evil Mrs. Shaw realizes that maybe she might have gone a little bit too far with her son's mental health, she tries to explain to him that she had no clue that the commies would choose him as the assassin and that once in the White House she would crush the commies responsible. (Yeah, right. I believe her. Don't blame a confused Raymond if he has doubts.)


Near the end Marco finally breaks the hold the communists have on Raymond's mind and believes he's stopped whatever it is that Shaw is supposed to do.

But later, in one of the most creepily powerful scenes in the film, Mrs. Iselin, unaware of Marco's interference, goes ahead with her instructions to Raymond, topped off with a very un-motherly kiss.



Later, Raymond shows up at the political convention in disguise and calmly goes up to a room from where he can survey the entire stage. A desperate Marco races to find and stop him. As Raymond sets up his rifle, he is cool, collected, and completely in charge.


Has Marco failed? Will Raymond's brain washing re-assert itself? Will he kill the presidential candidate and catapult his odious mother and step-father into the White House?


In one of the best endings to any film I've ever seen, Senator Shaw and Raymond's mother sit side by side near the podium, awaiting what must happen - the next step towards the fruition of their dreams. Suddenly a shot rings out and Shaw rears back, shot in the head. As he slides to the floor, his frightened wife looks up towards the room where she knows Raymond is hiding and she too is shot.

As the cops and Marco break in the door upstairs, Raymond Shaw kills himself. Marco finds the medal of honor affixed to Raymond's jacket.

What a film. John Frankenheimer's gritty direction is excellent as is the editing which adds another element to the tautness of Axelrod's script. The acting, needless to say is superb. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remains an especially relevant story, especially now, considering today's political climate.

"According to rumor, Sinatra removed the film from distribution after the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue by MGM/UA denies the rumor. According to him, the film's apparent withdrawal was not due to the assassination, but by 1963 the movie had simply played out (in those days it could take a film months to play across the country). The film became the premiere offering of The CBS Thursday Night Movie on the evening of September 16th, 1965, and was rerun in April 1974 on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. Sinatra's representatives reacquired the rights in 1971 after the initial ten-year contract with United Artists expired. After two successful showings at the New York Film Festival in 1987 renewed public interest in the film, the studio reacquired the rights and it became again available for theater and video releases." Wikipedia.

My post today is part of the THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON 2017. Lots and lots of fabulous bloggers will be writing about their own favorite Movie Villains, so don't forget to check out their posts.

Your Hosts for THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON 2017: Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy. Link here for complete list of contributors over the next three days.

27 comments:

  1. Excellent insights into the perfect manipulation of The Manchurian Candidate.

    "Chilling" is the word for the film and Lansbury's portrayal. The mere mention of the title can induce a reflex tightening of the stomach usually reserved for a full viewing of such a film, that plays with our minds and hearts.

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    1. Thanks, Pat. I enjoyed writing this up even if I did have to tweek it a bit this morning when I got up. I still have trouble with that youtube embedding thingy. Ha. Angela Lansbury was SO good in this. An incredible role.

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  2. Yvette,

    Witches, Reds, Arab terrorists--it's all grist for the demagogue's mill, and Trump and his followers are descendants of the Salem witchcraft prosecutors and Joseph McCarthy.

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    1. Agree completely. This movie is especially apt considering what we're going through today. It shows how hysteria can be manipulated and used as a tool. Or at least, would have been used if Raymond hadn't come to his 'senses'.

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  3. I love this movie and Angela Lansbury was a marvelous villain. Great post, Yvette, and now I want to see it again. It has only been 7 months since I saw it last.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy, glad you enjoyed it. It was a fun post to put together. This is such a great movie.

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  4. Ever tried Condon's novel? He wrote some pretty sharp stuff along with this one...

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    1. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to, Todd. Maybe when I make my monthly haul at Abe Books. :)

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  5. I love Angela Lansbury in this film. She is a perfect and chilling villain. Also, I enjoyed your review very much. You've got me jonesing to see it again soon!

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    1. Thanks! I enjoyed being a part of this Blogathon so much. Though I mainly write about books, I do so love to write about movies too - any chance I get.
      Oh, I agree, Angela Lansbury made such a good villain. Hard to believe because she can be so much fun in other parts.

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  6. Good review and I certainly like Angela Lansbury. But this movie is too brutal and sadistic for me. I'll just read reviews of it. I've never seen this movie and probably never will. And now, with the gang in Washington, I worry about what's happening and could happen.

    It makes me want to just watch Thin Man movies and read Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books or watch humorous sketches on TV satirizing the White House group.

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    1. The film is certainly brutal, Kathy. It has a strong point to make and an equally strong story to tell. I think it was handled just right.

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  7. I nominate Claude Rains in Notorious, a favorite movie. And Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, Background to Danger and almost any film in which he's a villain. Then there's Peter Lorre, too.

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    1. Someone in the Blogathon is writing about Claude Rains in NOTORIOUS. You should check out the links and see what they have to say. And Pat over at CAFTAN WOMAN is writing about Sidney Greenstreet. At the bottom of my post you'll find the links to participating bloggers.

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  8. Lansbury's greatest role - she really should have won the Oscar for this.
    Angela is the ultimate villain--elegant, brilliant and coldbloodedly ruthless.

    Need to see this one again very soon! You have whet my appetite with your wonderful essay!
    -Chris

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    1. Thanks very much, Chris. I believe that Lansbury herself said that this was the most important film she ever made. Probably in retrospect, but I agree. She lost the Oscar to Patty Duke for THE MIRACLE WORKER - can't argue with that choice. But maybe they should have both won.

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  9. I didn't get to see this film until I was in college. I was very impressed with it. (Not so much the remake) I never saw Angela Lansbury in the same light afterwards.
    Good review.

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    1. Thanks, Quiggy. Oh, I can see how your view of Angela might have been influenced heavily by this performance. :) I love her in just about anything and always have. She's a wonderful actress. (I haven't seen the remake and probably won't. To my mind, this was an unnecessary remake. Many of those about these days.)

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  10. Fabulous choice Yvette - to me one of the finest (and most eccentric) American films ever made.

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    1. I agree with you completely, Sergio. Thanks!

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    1. Sorry Todd. Was working hard on other things and totally couldn't get organized and ready for Friday. Meant to apologize, but forgot. Mea Culpa!

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  12. And another good villain is Edgar G. Robinson, in Key Largo and so many other movies.

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  13. Excellent choice, one of the most disturbing and memorable villains ever, with a superb performance to go with! Thanks so much for joining in the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks, Kristina. Sorry for replying so late in the day, but I just noticed the comment. I had lots of fun and maybe down the line, I can join in some other movie blogathons.

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  14. Took me a while to get here ...

    If my memory serves me right, up to Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury rarely if ever played likable or even mildly sympathetic characters.
    Remember that early in her film career, she was best-known for looking older than her actual age; many times she played snooty society ladies were were working in opposition to the leading lady (or man, as the case may be). Always with a pinched sneer directed at whoever she was playing opposite, as a stuck-up mother, boss, or romantic rival - except for a couple of Poverty Row 'Bs' in which she was a femme fatale (once opposite Raymond Burr - I think the movie was called Please Murder Me; you can find it at the dollar store).
    It was after Manchurian Candidate - after playing Laurence Harvey's mother when she was only two years older than he was - that she moved to Broadway with Mame, and became adorable for really the first time in her career.
    It occurs to me that many people who see Manchurian for the first time after a lifetime of watching Murder She Wrote can be thrown off majorly; if they saw anything Lansbury did when she was younger, they might go into shock ...
    Oh well, live and learn.

    Talk about typecasting:
    Is it unseemly of me to point out that the only important "liberal" characters here are played by John McGiver and Lloyd Corrigan, who almost always played comic bumblers?
    ... or to point out Dr. Yen Lo, the cheerful Red Chinese brainwasher, played by an African-American actor, 'Khigh Dhiegh' - whose real name was Kenneth Dickerson?

    (I've got lots of bits like this - I can bring any party to a dead stop in seconds ...)

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    1. Ha! I love movie 'bits' and arcane knowledge, Mike. Yes, I do remember Angela Lansbury as the snooty second lead - but for whatever reason - I guess, MURDER SHE WROTE - she seems likable in memory though two parts I remember her playing were of unlikable characters - the awful mother in THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT and the dance hall queen in THE HARVEY GIRLS, though in the end, she softens a bit just long enough to give Judy Garland some good advice. Thanks for dropping by Mike.

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