May 04, 2008

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Spy movies have always been associated with James Bond. Bond movies are of course perfectly good- they do what they proclaim they will do and some particularly the Sean Connery ones are even very good films- but they don't epitomise the best work that a spy movie can do. That is becuase a Bond movie is about action- its about glamorous sexy women and big explosions, its about corny jokes and martial arts. Bond films are films to relax to, but they don't repay much analysis. Spies though do repay analysis and from Hitchcock thrillers and cheap noirs to the great adaptations made by the BBC in the 80s of John Le Carre's novels, they have produced some great films and television. When I think of a great spy on screen, I think of Richard Widmark fingering Jean Peters's bag in Pickup on South Street, or even more so of Alec Guinness shuffling into the London circus in order to plot the downfall of Moscow Central, with weary and sad resignation.

The Manchurian Candidate is a film that fits neatly within that genre- this is a film that explores the internal world of the spy. From the moment it begins, we are told that the problem with a normal spy is that he will collapse, he will feel guilt, remorse and pain. That when he murders, like Lady Macbeth, he will spot the blood on his hands- or like Macbeth be haunted by ghosts of Banquos that he has disposed of. The premise of the Manchurian candidate is that the most sophisticated spying operation in the world is one which dispenses with the spy, but finds a human that it can divest of his individuality- of his fear- of his memory of committing acts. The most successful spy is hypnotised, turned into a mere instrument in the hands of those who would use him and thus rendered completely without the intelligence to operate in a contrary fashion to their intentions. Of course nobody has achieved this outside of Hollywood films, though George Smilley might at this point knowingly nod his head and argue that all spies to an extent compromise their own personalities- learn to live with dark memories- the key here though is that the Manchurian agent had no volition, did not choose but lived the life his handlers chose for him.

But he symbolises something rather important- a point that Thomas Hobbes (about whom more soon) would have empathised with. The Manchurian Candidate is the most unlikely Communist agent- he is the adopted son of a Republican Senator whose wife is a senior red baiter. He is a war hero and a journalist. He is the soul of the Washington Establishment- a man who has met the President and whom generals salute. Yet he is unknowingly the spy, the assassin, sent to kill the targets of the communist plotters. The only men who see through him are those from his own platoon, who shared in the brainwashing and whose memories return as vile nightmares to stalk their dreams. The centre of this film though is an unsettling notion- that noone can know accurately who other people are- that endless fear is justifiable but ultimately corrosive and picks the wrong targets (McCarthyism is an obvious target in the film) and that the construction of trust is the basis of society. At one point in the film, a central character trusts another central character- indeed the film is built entirely on moments of trust: a girl meets a guy on a train, she trusts him enough to see that he is sick and needs help and she provides him with the stability to turn his life around. Janet Leigh's character is the female version of that stock character in film- the man who sees an attractive woman in trouble and helps her out in order to win her hand- only now the situations are reversed. But the central point is there: trust is what makes the world turn round.

Of course trust opens the way for the Manchurian candidate. But that trust is tempered by understanding, by an effort to sympathetically reach inside someone's brain and understand the logic of what they do and why they do it. The movie rests upon an act of empathy- of logical connection that sees the future in terms of unwinding the logical process that led to the creation of the spy. Essentially the film rests upon a liberal conceit- that reason can persuade anyone to back democracy and the American way and that reason is universal: that there is no such thing as the ultimately anti-rational- there is just the irrational. In that sense, the movie sits at two intersections- describing adequately the response of liberal thinkers to the problmes of the world but also describing the response of modern psychology to the problems of the psyche. Understand and confront are the watchwords here- and the rhetoric of conflict is ridiculed as both ineffective and conniving. Like Shakespeare (and significantly Edward Murrow) the film reminds us that

the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves

Its an important idea. And requires us to investigate ourselves- requires that solipsistic tendency which is the ultimate key legacy of Christian thought to liberal thinking: a concentration on understanding and addressing the inner motivations of the brain so as to understand and deal with their consequences. The point of the Manchurian candidate is about the ways that psychology enable us to analyse and also act upon the world- and there is no surprise that in this film it is in our minds, not on the ground, that the war between America and Russia is conducted. Science not scandal mongering will allow us to capture the high ground.

Its an interesting thesis- and not one that all liberals would agree with (Sir Isaiah Berlin would for example give such a position a sophisticated argumentative drubbing) but it is central to the kind of American liberalism that has prospered in Ivy League campuses and Eastern cities since the war. Within that liberal tradition, the Republicans have are represented as fake spokesmen of hatredn, as pharisees whose attention is misfocussed. Instead of looking inward on themselves, and seeking to empathise with those that oppose them, they look outward to condemn and consequently miss the biggest facts, and fail to deal with what they see. That is the position that this film endorses- I make no comment as to its accuracy. In that sense this is a fascinating historical document of the way that psychologically and politically liberalism links together.

It works because of its performances- there is plenty here to chew on because the actors themselves have got within their characters. In some senses the attitudes of the film are not easy to cope with: there are as I argued above some recognisably ungendered characters here. The men are mostly dependant, the women are mostly strong and resolute. Evil in this film is female, but so interestingly is the ultimate pole of good. Military life is shown in all its decadence: the men on bases whore and drink to cope with a fearful war. Furthermore this is a film about shell shock: its a film about the nightmares that wake you after war. A film about all the men destroyed by war who returned to Europe and America in the forties, fifties and sixties to lean on their wives. Its a film as well about the concept of patriotism, about the idea of service- which sometimes neccessitates great sacrafice. It is a great patriotic movie- its significant in my view that JFK was an important force in getting it made- he persuaded Arthur Krim (then President of United Artists) that the film should go out and contained no threat to the Presidency- for this is a film about Kennedyesque liberalism- America as a rational city on the hill. It is hard to remember now a time before the great conservative upswell of the sixties, seventies and eighties but this film comes from a moment where liberalism seemed triumphant- where reason seemed to have victored.

Its an important film- and remains an important film which embodies an outlook on the world. This is an enlightenment film- it is a film in praise of reason. Lastly it is significant that the key signal in the film comes from a pack of cards- the cards are random, but the signal is not- it is assigned by a man in Russia to be followed by a man in America and once understood, it enables one to perceive all the actions of the film to be logical and follow rationally. Language in the film means something, cards mean something, actions mean something- all that you need to do is read yourself and others accurately and the truth will be revealed. A truth that then allows you to take political actions- rhetoric and ambition cloud the issue, but reason is the key to unlock the universe.

Or at least that's how the world looked in 1962...