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Life Seems to Imitate Art
by Jon Schuller

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There have been so many stories about spies, sleepers and double agents in literature and the movies they're too numerous to mention. For example during the infamous Battle of the Bulge in World War II German soldiers, disguised and speaking English, infiltrated the United States' lines as Americans. They wreaked havoc and death because no one bothered to ask them who they were and what they were doing. The Korean War had its share of infiltrators due to the simple fact that all the soldiers (except the Americans of course) were Asian. One exception, that took years to be revealed, was that Russian pilots were flying in Chinese MIG-15's against the U.S. Air Force. On the ground was a deadly game as each side attempted to insert spies and saboteurs across the border. American soldiers were inevitably captured and put into P.O.W. camps if they survived torture or forced marches. One amazing novel in 1959 spawned an equally incredible film.

The much-heralded opening sequence of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) showed an American platoon of G.I.'s being captured by Soviet troops in Korea and secretly flown to a base in Manchuria, manned by Chinese troops. They are held there for a week then released back to their own lines. The story is that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has single-handedly saved his men and brought them back to safety. Upon arrival in the United States the platoon leader, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) recommends that Shaw be awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery. All of the men saved by Shaw describe him as "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life" in rote fashion, like robots. Marco, and the other men, all
seem to suffer from a recurring nightmare: they're all assembled in a small theatre, on stage, as a speaker addresses an audience of various men, some in uniform. The key speaker is Dr. Yen Lo (Kheigh Deigh), a noted psychologist. He is giving a practical demonstration of how to brainwash apparently normal American soldiers and make them commit acts of murder on command. One soldier is ordered to strangle another; Sergeant Shaw, the supposed hero, is told to "shoot Bobby Lembeck in the head", in cold blood. He does so without a second thought and sits down. At this point Marco wakes up in a screaming cold sweat. Another soldier, the only African-American (James Edwards), dreams that he and his fellow soldiers are all at a garden club meeting, hosted and seated by African-American ladies. He too wakes up suddenly, scared out of his mind.

Captain Marco by this time has been promoted to Major and starts getting letters from the other soldiers about their dreams and decides to investigate. They look at photographs of famous Communist figures and some are recognized as being in the dreams. Marco wants to go to New York and meet with Raymond Shaw to see if he too has had similar nightmares. Along the way he meets a beautiful woman named Rosie (Janet Leigh) who befriends him on the train. Some have postulated that she too was an agent and was sent to keep an eye on Marco. I've never seen their involvement together that way. Shaw's mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is married to a powerful U.S. Senator, Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) and controls his campaign to root out Communists in the government, as McCarthy did in the 1950's with disastrous results. Every time Senator Iselin gets the
chance he gets on television to claim a new number of Communists he's uncovered the number changes from minute to minute. We find that Mrs. Iselin is really a Communist spy who is working to gain control of the Presidency by influencing the elections outcome. Her secret weapon is her son, programmed to kill on command, whenever he receives a phone call and is told to play cards; the trigger is the Queen of Diamonds.

Marco meets Shaw in his New York City apartment. Raymond has taken a job there and has tried to see his ex-girlfriend, Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of another Senator, Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), a bitter rival to Senator Iselin. The Romeo-and-Juliet type romance never had a chance because of Raymond's mother's hatred of Senator Jordan. She orders her son to unwittingly assassinate the Senator, and accidently, the daughter as well. Shaw has no recollection of it.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is Marco in Raymond's apartment when Shaw's new houseboy, Chunjin (Henry Silva), meet each other. Chunjin was in the same platoon as Marco and was the traitor who helped get them captured. The chance meeting triggers an immediate reaction in Marco and he punches Chunjin. I've always thought that this was the first martial-arts scene in the movies. However, the 1947 film, 13 Rue Madeline, a World War II film about the O.S.S., starred James Cagney as an instructor who does have a martial arts fight scene featuring judo and jiu-jitsu moves. Sinatra actually damaged his hand during the scene and had to have surgery later. The injury was so severe it kept him from a starring role in Dirty Harry years later.

Major Marco puts everything together as the film nears its climax:
Raymond is programmed by his mother to assassinate their party's presidential candidate at the convention so that Senator Iselin, the vice-presidential candidate, will step into the top spot and become the President. Marco had been working to defeat the links in Shaw's brain so that when he sees the Queen of Diamonds and receives his instructions he won't react. But he does go to the convention dressed as a priest, sets himself up in a lighting booth high above the crowd and does succeed in the assassination he kills his mother and step-father, then turns the rifle on himself. Marco witnesses the entire thing, looking on helplessly.

Sinatra for many years refused to allow the film to be shown after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are many theories why he took this position; no one's really sure. But eventually it was re-released for theatres and television. It was controversial and for some conspiracy theorists the ideal platform to squawk about how LBJ became President. It was and is an excellent film with a dynamic cast and plot. It was remade in 2004 with Denzel Washington as Major Marco, Liev Shreiber as Raymond Shaw and Meryl Streep as his mother.

Years ago, theorists were saying that Richard Nixon had been "influenced" by wealthy, behind-the-scenes industrialists who helped put him into the White House. Those people were in the United States. Today, we appear to have a president who was more than just "influenced" by secret forces. It has become increasingly clear and scarily so that Russia played a direct role in his election in 2016. There are many other forces at work, not the least of which is money. The similarities to The Manchurian Candidate I leave to you, Dear Reader.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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