Unconvincing paranoia

20131223-155051.jpgWhen I watched Dr. Strangelove a few months back, I was impressed at how well the film held up, despite its age. Last night, I watched another paranoid classic from the same decade, The Manchurian Candidate. For me, it was a disappointing couple of hours.

I was willing to forgive the naive vision of hypnosis/brainwashing as symptomatic of the period in which the film was made, bur the simple point-A to point-B narrative of the film was more disappointing. Captain Marco (Frank Sinatra) has nightmares, figures out the source, and tracks down Sergeant Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) who is under communist control, and deprograms him. The end. Granted, there’s a coda that creates a little suspense when the Sergeant is allowed to avenge himself against his traitorous mother, but the plotline is linear to the point of annoyance. (OK, the last film I watched was Chinatown, and I realize not everything will match its twists and turns, but I don’t think that’s the source of my complaint.) The villains, both the foreign and domestic ones are so one-dimensional as to be almost comic, and the you-are-what-you-preach-against trope is pretty much old news, and probably was even in 1962.

You could argue that the villains in Dr. Strangelove are one-dimensional as well, and I’d probably agree. But we’re not meant to see them as a dangerous evil. Their danger springs from the fact that while they’re delusional, they have nearly unbridled power, and not because we’re supposed to fear them as some malevolent force. Frankenheimer tries, I think, to have it both ways, making Vice Presidential candidate Iselin a buffoon, but the portrayal of Mrs. Shaw and the Russians borders on camp, closer to a Bond movie than to the kind of evil that must be taken seriously.

This is not to say that The Manchurian Candidate didn’t have its moments. Mrs. Shaw’s kiss of her son was delightfully creeping, and there was real pathos in seeing the perpetually misfit Shaw kill the only source of happiness he’d ever known, Rosie (Janet Leigh playing a winsome 1960s ingenue). On the whole, however, I’d drop the “classic” label on this one for “over-rated.”

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