Deconstructing The Manchurian Candidate

Mentioned in a historical context before, it’s been a while since I’ve actually seen this amazing film. I’ve owned an unwrapped DVD copy for a couple of years, lugging it around without watching it like a dusty, aging tome…

Decided to “open” it last night. I found new charms that eluded initial viewings…Sure, the story is riveting and artfully produced, but it’s also beautifully written in spots (partly a testament to Richard Condon’s 1959 novel)…

So I’m presenting a few choice moments in the film posing as a Derridian deconstructionist exercise. Whatever…The scenes and lines stand alone (and Derrida is annoying):

Near the beginning of the film, the hopelessly mindfucked main character Sergeant Raymond Shaw returns home from Korea to a medal-of-honor-winner’s reception on an airport tarmac. He disembarks from the plane, saluted by a bevy of U.S. Army generals. Moving towards a waiting car, he’s approached candidly by one of them…

General: “Congratulations, son, how do you feel?”

Shaw: “Like Captian Idiot in Astounding Science comics.”

Later, the camera slowly pans across a pile of books being read by the tortured and complex Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra). It’s a wonderfully synchronous combination of titles:

Disease in Horses

Ulysses (Joyce)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)

The Trial (Kafka)

Wall Street: Men and Money

Enemies of the State

The most curious character in the movie is the comically “manchurian” Dr. Yen Lo, who embodies evilly cold scientific malfeasance, but delivers it with a disturbingly cynical “sense of humor”. He introduces himself a few times as a representative of the Pavlov Institute and in one (quintessential) scene is giving a presentation in front of blown-up black and white posters of Stalin and Mao…

On his visit to the U.S., when the safe house operator (“comrade Zilkov”) tells him that the business front where they are keeping Shaw under observation is running at a profit, Dr. Lo replies, smilingly, to “beware,” for “the virus of capitalism is highly infectious.” Of Shaw, who lies dumbly in a hospital bed between them, catatonic and unresponsive, Lo says “his brain has not only been washed, as they say…It’s been dry-cleaned.” Yuk, yuk.

I always relished the line that triggered Shaw’s hypnotic state and eventually led to him doing “very bad things” — what one said to “open” the “mechanism”: “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” I see it as an oblique commentary on atomization and individuality now…

One of the neatest pieces of writing in the film is uttered by a relatively minor character, a G-man psychiatrist of sorts, to suggest in a conversation with Marco that the trigger card for Shaw is likely a Queen (it is, in fact, the Queen of Diamonds), because of its association to his dark and distorted mother (chillingly played by Angela Lansbury):

“Human fish swimming at the bottom of the great ocean of atmosphere develop psychic injuries as they collide with one another — most mortal of all are those gotten from parent fish.”

Darwin and Freud mashed-up in a maelstrom.

Which summarizes this classic film, too.

N.B. There’s a very so-so remake of The Manchurian Candidate, which I like to pretend some studio executive had the good sense not to bother with. Alas…

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2 Responses to “Deconstructing The Manchurian Candidate

  1. uberfrau Says:

    I’m beginning to miss your poetry.

  2. The Necromancer Says:

    I’m beginning to miss the point.

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