Reconsidering John Frankenheimer

by Paul Thomas

From Film Quarterly Spring 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3

Each of the books under review assures us that Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which had been withdrawn from circulation sometime after the J. F. Kennedy assassination, was first re-exhibited at a special screening at the New York Film Festival in 1987, a screening which in Stephen Armstrong’s words “eventually prompted United Artists to give the film a second theatrical release” (23). These assurances are misleading. The Manchurian Candidate was shown on September 24, 1982 at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) in Berkeley as curtain raiser for a series on “Hollywood and the Cold War” put together by Michael Rogin and my good self (with the invaluable assistance of Lynda Myles, Nancy Goldman, and Judy Bloch). Earlier, The Manchurian Candidate appears to have been in and out of non-theatrical distribution (the PFA had shown it in 1974), but by 1982 it had become both hard to get (simultaneous permissions had to be obtained from the agents of Frank Sinatra, of George Axelrod, its screenwriter, and of Frankenheimer himself) and hard to see (the PFA, much as I had hoped, was packed to the gills that night).

It was “Hollywood and the Cold War” that kick-started a remarkable series of books by Michael Rogin that I wouldn’t want to be without, and which is also important to Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. Rogin’s name has a longer listing in What Have They Built You To Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America than anyone else’s, except those of Frankenheimer and Richard Condon, the author of the original novel. Rogin’s work is by contrast unmentioned by Stephen Armstong, whose Pictures About Extremes: The Films of John Frankenheimer is a rather flat career survey which, determined to be comprehensive, gives equal opportunity to every single item in the director’s quite extensive filmography, overlooks the marked unevenness of this output, and fails to award The Manchurian Candidate the pride of place it deserves. The blurb on this book’s cover describes it as “a traditional auteurist survey,” but what the book shows is an almost ubiquitous pattern of constraint on the control Frankenheimer was able to exercise not so much over The Manchurian Candidate (when for once he was well and truly in the saddle) as over project after project that came his way later. As such, the book makes depressing reading, though it does, in fairness, lay out all the details of production crews, actors, and published reviews of each and every production, thus providing an invaluable service.


Shortly before the death of the senator in The Manchurian Candidate. 

What Have They Built You To Do? takes a very different tack, and is by far the better book. It extracts The Manchurian Candidate from the manifold frustrations of Frankenheimer’s career and places the film where the authors (and I) think it belongs: plumb in the center of Cold War counter-subversive discourse — the same discourse, they would insist, that in all its obfuscations, contradictions, and paradoxes still obtains today. The Cold War may be over and done with, but the U.S. National Security State is still in place. As part of this unwanted shelf life, and of a no less unwelcome pattern of senseless discourse, The Manchurian Candidate richly deserves the kind of detailed (if racily written) examination Jacobson and González bring to bear. In their introduction, in particular, they are right on target: “the circuitry of ideas and ideologies from the cultural realm to the political and back again matters—it mattered in 1962, in the wake of Korea and at the dawn of Vietnam; and it matters still, as the Cold War’s end has come merely to mark the beginning of a new and seemingly perpetual ‘war on terror’” (xiv).

More specifically, “The Manchurian Candidate … appeared at a peculiar juncture in [U.S.] political life — that moment when [Joseph] McCarthy had been so thoroughly discredited that a sound satirical thrashing was possible, but yet when the communist threat and the McCarthyite vocabulary for discussing it retained enough salience that a communist plot to take over the White House could provide the stuff … for a plausibly compelling political thriller” (83). Which is to say that The Manchurian Candidate, like Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, transcended in the event the left-liberal intentions of its director: “the film has it both ways on the McCarthy question,” not because of sophisticated measurement of audience metrics and preferences, but “just as the nation itself had it both ways in the early 1960s” (83). In this way, the fact that The Manchurian Candidate‘s “articulations of anticommunism and anti-anticommunism are inseparably conjoined … speaks eloquently to the convoluted, contradictory textures of Cold War culture,” just as Jacobson and González say; the film “is a text not simply on the Cold War but of it, participating subtly but deeply in the fortification of precisely the political edifice it would seem at first to demolish” (99).


Joseph McCarthy is remediated in The Manchurian Candidate. 

The line “What have they built you to do?” is one of a series of questions posed in The Manchurian Candidate by Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) to Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), once Marco as Intelligence Officer has figured out that “they” (the Chinese and the Russians from the Pavlov Institute in Moscow) had programmed Shaw to do something. Marco’s role in the film is in large measure to ask such questions. He asks Chunjin (Henry Silva) questions even as he is fighting him in Shaw’s apartment, where he finds Chunjin as “houseboy” (read “minder”): “What was Raymond doing with his hands? How did the old ladies [in Marco’s recurrent nightmares] turn into Russians? And what were you doing there?” Again Marco, this time in uniform, is asking such questions silently, with his eyes, at the political convention that frames The Manchurian Candidate‘s climax, when he is, absurdly, immobilized by having to stand at attention and salute as the national anthem is played. (The ironic punctuation of the action of the film by the enforced gesture of the military salute is, incidentally, one of the few details Jacobson and González miss.)

Most important of all, perhaps, are Marco’s words to himself (his answer to a long list of questions he has been casting forth) after he has at last become aware that his efforts to de-program Shaw appear to have failed: “OK, I blew it. ‘My magic is better than your magic.’ I should’ve known better. ‘Intelligence Officer?’ ‘Stupidity Officer’ is better. If the Pentagon ever want to open up a Stupidity Division, they know who they can get to lead it” (77). Marco means himself, but his words—like so many of the words uttered in The Manchurian Candidate—stretch further than the context of their utterance. Who among us, after all, is to say in the wake of the confection of WMDs in Iraq, and of earnest assurances from the authorities that Intelligence is not to be confused with information, that such a division hasn’t been established, or that they haven’t found the right person(s) to “get to lead it”? It is not for no reason that Jacobson and González quote Deborah Nelson’s Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (Columbia University Press, 2002) to such good effect: “the very war against communism had ‘created a rationale for surveillance that was infinitely expandable’” (96). Surveillance certainly did not cease its inbuilt expansion once the so-called War on Terror had displaced and supplanted the Cold War.

Jacobson and González have given us an important piece of cultural criticism about the Cold War and its aftermath in the U.S., one that uses Frankenheimer’s most memorable and disturbing film as a talisman. The Manchurian Candidate is both a characteristic product of its own setting, of its own time and place, and a “picture about extremes” in its own right, a film that transcends its own limits as it redefines and questions them. González and Jacobson have really done their homework, and have produced a first-rate book. It is not, however, faultless. As in many other racily written books, there are mistakes—as when, on page 160, the authors get wrong the title of To Catch a Thief (in a book that emphasizes Frankenheimer’s interfaces with Hitchcock, yet!), or when it tells us about the “meteoric rise” (xii) of (the real) Senator Joseph McCarthy or that of (the fictional) Senator John Yerkes Iselin (26). (As far as we earthlings are concerned, meteors don’t rise; they fall.) Most seriously of all, perhaps, González and Jacobson take gratuitous potshots at Greil Marcus’s 2002 BFI monograph on The Manchurian Candidate, even though What Have They Built You To Do? does nothing to undercut it, and much to complement its argument. Maybe—who knows?—the reason is that González and Jacobson are relentlessly humorless in their approach— this is Serious Business, and don’t you forget it!—while Marcus had dared to point out the obvious: that The Manchurian Candidate, whatever else it may be, is also a very funny film. More to the point, people laugh while they watch it, right down to the present day. But they don’t come away from it laughing.

I’ve never come away from it laughing either. This does not mean, however, that I shall here forego my punchline: yes, Virginia, there is a Manchurian candidate. His name is John McCain, and back in the days when McCain was still an affable man he would make jokes about this himself. But then look what happened. To make a long story short, in his concession speech (which authorized Barack Obama to relieve him of the unwanted burden of his candidacy) John McCain was visibly relieved at not having to go any further with his mission—as visibly relieved as Raymond Shaw when he let go of his own unwanted burden.

PAUL THOMAS teaches Political Theory and American Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley.

Image detail: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)