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By Steve Goldstein
"Well, nothing is what it seems to be."
-- George Grizzard as President Lockwood in Wrong Is Right
You can read The New York Times and Washington Post every day and devour every report by Seymour Hersh, but that doesn't mean you feel like you really know what's going on in the world of politics. And forget about TV journalism. Sometimes the only way to fill in some of the blanks and get answers, or at least "what ifs," is to watch a good political thriller.
The best political thrillers seamlessly weave together political insight and compelling suspense, and offer the unsettling thrill of having our flimsy notions and beliefs debunked. As the hero/investigator peels back the layers of falsehood, we experience the one-eye-open joy of seeing veils drop. We get more than just the solution of a mystery
and a new interpretation of history and current events - we get the dark gift of prophecy.
All the King's Men
Hollywood studios generally avoided making movies about battles for political power and the tactics of those battles until the 1960s. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and the 1949 version of All the King's Men were notable exceptions. RKO gave Welles nearly unlimited freedom to make any movie he wanted, and he and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz chose to critique the sources of power in the U.S., embodied in one politically ambitious man who possessed great economic wealth and control over much of the American media. After that, Welles was silenced - partly through his own doing - and so, too, was overt political discourse in Hollywood films through the next two decades.
Alfred Hitchcock, meanwhile, was busy inventing and refining the suspense film, and often used political struggles as backdrops. While political maneuverings in his movies were used to motivate his stories and put his neurotic heroes in jeopardy, Hitchcock nevertheless presented the realities of political tactics - assassination, empty talk used as a cover for self-interest, cloaking oneself in the language of peace while pursuing war - with sophistication. But what mattered most was entertaining audiences and dosing them with delicious anxiety.
In the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the child of a young English couple is kidnapped by a group of spies led by Peter Lorre, who is holding the child hostage because the father had heard the dying words of someone who knows the details of an assassination plot. The political intrigue serves as a device to force the child's parents to weigh their personal situation against the needs of their country. Foreign Correspondent (1940) introduced a staple of American political thrillers: the naïve, self-absorbed American caught in a web of political intrigue slowly perceiving layers of conspiracy and finding nothing is as it seems. Joel McRae plays Johnny Jones, a young crime-beat reporter in New York assigned to cover the storm clouds gathering over Europe on the eve of World War II. Rechristened "Huntley Haverstock," Jones witnesses an assassination and then learns of the abduction of a diplomat. He eventually uncovers a political conspiracy that links a member of the English upper class with the Nazis and tests the loyalty of the woman he loves.
In Notorious (1946), Hitchcock was still using Nazis as political villains, even if they are, in this case, hiding out in South America. Again, the international intrigue serves as a backdrop and catalyst for what is really on Hitchcock's mind - to show how far a fallen woman will go to redeem herself. Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman goes so far as to sleep with an ex-Nazi to help an American agent (Cary Grant) gather intelligence.
Hitchcock returned to the use of international intrigue as a narrative backdrop in North by Northwest (1959), his ultimate tale of an oblivious man who becomes the prey of foreign interests attempting to steal military secrets from the U.S. North by Northwest's stylish mix of romance, mystery, action and political intrigue served as the cinematic blueprint for the James Bond films and, along with Hitchcock's previous thrillers about seemingly innocent heroes caught up in webs of intrigue, set the standard for the thrillers of the next few decades.
In 1959, a former Hollywood agent with a gift for smart research published a novel called The Manchurian Candidate. The author, Richard Condon, applied the fast pace and deft characterization found in movies by Hitchcock, Welles and Billy Wilder to a political story about McCarthyism and its uses by powerful interest groups. Condon had the ability to look past the headlines of the day and perceive the motives of politicians and the sophisticated ways they employ the media to limit the scope and depth of political discourse. He was not concerned primarily with the struggle between the Communist East and the West. What he wrote about in The Manchurian Candidate, and much later, in Winter Kills, was the struggle for power - political and economic - and its corrupting influence. Condon wrote about the psychology of power, how the lust for it can enable one to sacrifice one's own children in its pursuit.
The film version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is justly regarded as one of the great American movies of the sound era. John Frankenheimer's pitch-perfect direction walks the line between absurd comedy and darkest tragedy, and he cast the movie nearly as well as Francis Ford Coppola cast The Godfather. George Axelrod's screenplay is witty and sophisticated, but the vision, the characters, tone and much of the dialogue come directly from Condon's book. The pre-psychedelic train sequence in which Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Rosie (Janet Leigh) meet and exchange pained non sequiturs, as well as phone numbers, is taken nearly verbatim from Condon's novel. That scene is often attributed to the go-for-broke attitude of the filmmakers, but it's pure Condon.
If the movie version The Manchurian Candidate is the first real American political thriller - that is, the first suspense film in which the political conflicts cannot be removed from the story without the whole thing falling apart, in which the characters themselves are shaped by those political conflicts - then Richard Condon is the progenitor of an entire genre. Condon took the hard-boiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the cold-blooded geopolitics of Ian Fleming's 007 novels, Shakespeare's epic familial conflicts and the crowd-pleasing entertainment values of Hitchcock's best thrillers to express his prophetic insights into the then-current headlines about liberals and Red-baiters, the Americans and the Communist powers.
For Condon, the ugliest political struggles exist within families. The relations between political scion Raymond Shaw and his mother and stepfather are characterized by shady alliances, duplicity, manipulation and mind control - a microcosm of the larger international story line. The political arena is merely a grand stage for the psychological tensions and conflicts that bind families and tear them apart. If you want to know the true nature of what goes on in Washington, Condon is saying, look no further than your family homestead.
Condon's book is frank in its depiction of assassination as a primary political tool. Americans weren't total strangers to domestic political assassination, though. One notable movie from 1954, Suddenly, hinges on a plot to assassinate the president. A team of hired guns in that film is led by a very wired, bitter ex-World War II veteran played by Frank Sinatra, whose performance anticipates Robert De Niro's would-be political assassin Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. The political forces involved in the attempt at removing a sitting president are upstaged by the centrality of Sinatra's character, who exists as a living rebuke to the nuclear family and small-town America.
The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate, both book and movie, intends to shock and destabilize the reader and audience member, and impart the sense that the news we read and see on TV never gets close to the truth. To create that woozy effect, Condon and the filmmakers place their deliberately bizarre international and domestic political conflicts front and center.
Frankenheimer and Axelrod gave the film a futuristic, Orwellian sheen. The stark, high-contrast scene showing brainwashed American soldiers being given their theatrical debut, so to speak, doesn't seem to belong in a movie released in 1962. It plays more like a scene from a modern science fiction film. The violence alone in that scene is more shocking than any killing in either of the first two Godfather films. The narrative is lean and taut and always surprising and suspenseful, but not so self-serious that there isn't room for Sinatra to get a beer at Jilly's or play the role of the sympathetic bartender from the song "One for My Baby" while Raymond Shaw drunkenly spills his guts.
No one had ever seen a movie like this. Certainly no movie before this one had satirized Red-baiting while reminding viewers that there are, in fact, very powerful enemies of democracy in Washington - all-powerful, elusive enemies that know how to use the media.
Frankenheimer followed The Manchurian Candidate with Seven Days in May (1964), based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey about an attempted military coup in the U.S. Rod Serling's tight script went in tandem with the black-and-white TV documentary-style cinematography. Like Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days is ahead of its time in its insistence that there are powerful political forces working to weaken democracy in the name of the national interest. Frankenheimer was given access to the White House by his friend President Kennedy, enabling him and his crew to authentically re-create the president's quarters and heighten the movie's realism in the scenes with the Stevenson-esque president played by Fredric March. Standing tall above the cast is Burt Lancaster, who restricts all facial movement and emotion in his voice in his portrayal of the mutinous Gen. Scott. His eyes, however, betray his lust for power. Kirk Douglas, as Scott's adjutant, plays the central heroic role of the idealist who uncovers the conspiratorial plot.
Also released that year was Fail-Safe, Sidney Lumet's economically shot thriller, based on Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's novel, about an accidental nuclear showdown between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Fail-Safe is political in the sense that it takes a moral stand against nuclear proliferation. Except for one military officer whose stressful family life - his parents are broken-down drunks - leads him to crack under pressure and attempt to sabotage America's plan to shoot down one of its own errant bombers, the U.S. government and military appears to be led by rational, decent people who mistakenly put their faith in technology they can't control. Like Seven Days in May, Fail-Safe is a liberal Cold War cautionary tale that lacks the timeless wit and caustic insight of The Manchurian Candidate.
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