Some movie reviewers might be content to file John Frankenheimer’s thriller The Manchurian Candidate under “Paranoid Cold War/Red Scare Political Satire” and let it go at that. Not Greil Marcus.
The East Bay author and culture columnist (Mystery Train, Dead Elvis, and “Real Life Rock Top 10,” now on CityPages.com) has probably devoted more thought to director Frankenheimer’s congenially hysterical 1962 spy yarn about a Commie-brainwashed ex-Korean-War GI (Laurence Harvey) on a presidential assassination mission, his similarly afflicted army comrade (Frank Sinatra), and the topsy-turvy milieu of DC Beltway intrigue and hypocrisy in the Bay of Pigs era — really chewed on it — than anybody outside of the original production team, screenwriter George Axelrod and potboiler novelist Richard Condon. In fact, Marcus wrote a monograph on the movie for the British Film Institute’s BFI Film Classics series: a typically densely allusive Marcus schematic, complete with stills and a chart of assassins and their victims, from JFK-Oswald-Ruby to Moscone-Milk-White. As in his Lipstick Traces, Marcus busies himself connecting the dots that ordinary moviegoers probably overlooked in the first place, until he pointed them out. On the phone from his Berkeley home, he notes: “There’s a great deal of discomfort surrounding this movie,” especially in Frankenheimer’s intimacy with the Kennedy White House, which was toppled by its own “Manchurian Candidate.” But don’t dwell too much on conspiracy theories. “The plot, in this movie, is an excuse,” Marcus writes, “an excuse for the pleasure of its violence.”
It’s a pleasure that’s easily obtained. Saturday evening at the Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus, Marcus appears in person after the 5:30 p.m. screening to talk about the movie, the early ’60s, Sinatra and Angela Lansbury (he loves them, and praises her hideously hilarious role as the Harvey character’s mother), and how it all relates to what he calls “Old, Weird America.” Says Marcus: “The Manchurian Candidate‘s comedy is pure ’50s black humor. The suspense is just killing. You say: ‘There has to be a way out of this,’ but there isn’t.” Info: BAMPFA.berkeley.edu