Entry from July 12, 2012

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of The Enemy Within. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Wednesday, July 11th with a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) by John Frankenheimer, starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory and Janet Leigh. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about this movie as follows.

In yesterday’s Washington Post you might have noticed a tribute by Joe Heim to the folk singer and song-writer Woody Guthrie in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, which falls on Saturday, and in particular to the “grade-school classic” song, “This Land is Your Land” which, as Mr Heim tells us “was written as a rejoinder to another American standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America.’” Let’s just think about that for a moment. Since the lyrics of “God Bless America” consists of nothing but synonyms for “God”, “bless” and “America,” a “rejoinder” or “retort” (as it is also called) would have to mean something like “God, don’t bless America.” Joe Heim doesn’t say that, however. Instead he says that “Berlin’s song was overly patriotic and didn’t address the struggles and dreams of the ordinary Americans.” By contrast, the “rejoinder” by Woody Guthrie “would cheer populists” — “populists,” I guess, being people who are not “overly patriotic” — and “emphasized the country’s shared resources and egalitarianism.”

To anyone who remembers the 1950s, all this kind of euphemism and circumlocution is easily deciphered code — like the word “progressive,” which has recently come back into favor after a period of desuetude as a substitute for the now somewhat shop-soiled “liberal.” Another expression from that era is “fellow-traveler,” which perfectly describes what anyone could see Woody Guthrie was — that is, someone who followed all the twists and turns of the Soviet Communist party line, including writing “peace songs” in honor of the Hitler-Stalin pact, without — without “necessarily” to use Woody’s own word — being an actual member of the Party. In those days, when the American Communist Party took its orders from Moscow, that was widely thought of as being a very bad thing to be, which is why Woody, in common with an awful lot of actual communists, was so coy about his associations with the Party. According to Joe Heim, however, we only need to note that “his political outspokenness also earned Guthrie an FBI file and assertions that he belonged to the Communist Party.”

Assertions, eh? And was there any truth to these assertions? We are not told. The question does not appear to interest Mr Heim. He knows he can rely on the fact that in America’s media and academic culture for the last half century, the mere mention that there were contemporary allegations of communist sympathies against someone from what is now firmly identified as “the McCarthy era” is enough to discredit such allegations. A lot of the reason for this may be found in tonight’s film, The Manchurian Candidate, which was released fifty years ago this year. Directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod (based on a novel by Richard Condon), it includes a devastating caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the shape of Senator Johnny Iselin, played by James Gregory. Actually, Gregory looks more like Richard Nixon than he does like Joe McCarthy, but that was no handicap and in fact made him something of a twofer, since McCarthy and Nixon were closely associated in the minds of those who drew up the “liberal” rogues’ gallery of the period.

The caricature version of McCarthy relies on a number of liberal commonplaces that you can still hear today, such as that Senator McCarthy kept changing and, ultimately, simply made up the number of communists he claimed to know about in the State Department (here it’s the Defense Department). Amusingly, the film shows Johnny Iselin getting the number off a ketchup bottle. The most salient of these commonplaces is the line spoken by the entirely sympathetic left-wing Senator Thomas Jordan, played by John McGiver, about his entirely unsympathetic senate colleague: “If John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he’s doing now.” The cleverness of The Manchurian Candidate lies in its imagining that John Iselin really is a paid Soviet agent. Or, not him so much as his splendidly evil wife, Eleanor Shaw Iselin, played by Angela Lansbury, who is the means by which the movie gets over the self-contradiction in which so many of Senator McCarthy’s detractors involve themselves by seeing him as at once diabolically clever and buffoonishly stupid.

Here, the Senator’s missus gets all the diabolical cleverness and leaves nothing but buffoonish stupidity to him. In doing so, she, too, becomes a twofer. Or, rather, a threefer in the demonology of the time, for she is an anti-communist zealot, a communist agent and the sort of domineering wife and mother who was a favorite movie figure of the 1950s, someone who played off the contemporary fear of what the author Philip Wylie called “momism” — that is, the supposedly unbridled power to stifle free and independent manhood exercised by unscrupulous women as a result of the excessive respect paid by Americans to mothers and motherhood. Fifty years of the feminist portrayal of women before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (published the year after The Manchurian Candidate was released) as helpless victims of the patriarchy have blurred the memory of this particular bit of male paranoia, so popular at the time, but it was also the theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, another film classic of two years earlier in which the icy blonde Janet Leigh starred and, as in The Manchurian Candidate, had very little to do apart from looking decoratively feminine in order to point a contrast with the monster mother.

Clearly, Hollywood was working its way towards a unified field theory of popular paranoia when the enemy within became not just commies but mommies — and especially, as in Angela Lansbury’s case, mommies who were themselves secret commies! Moreover, and crucially for the political purposes of the movie, she was an anti-commie commie mommie, which is to say a commie who uses the commie threat and the need to combat it as her leverage to gain power. Nor is that all. Also like Psycho, the film offers us a popularized version of Freudianism in the hint of incest — in the novel it was much more than a hint — between the castrating mother figure and her creepily compliant son, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey. Supposedly an automaton in the service of the Soviets, Raymond shows every sign of having been, long before the commie brainwashers got their hands on him, a virtual automaton in the service of his mother, whose orders to give up the woman he loves he has as automatically obeyed as he was later to do those of the evil Chinese doctor.

All this psychologizing almost makes the brainwashing of captive American soldiers by Chinese and Russian communists, which is the ostensible nightmare of the film’s basic story, seem incidental. “Poor Raymond. Poor friendless, friendless Raymond,” begins Frank Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco in the final speech of the movie. As a description of a guy who had been captured and mentally tortured into becoming a mindless, will-less robot in the service of an evil conspiracy you might think that this leaves something to be desired. Being “friendless” would seem to be the least of Raymond Shaw’s worries. But in another way it describes what I mentioned in connection with Invasion of the Body Snatchers — namely the fear behind the fears of both communism and anti-communism, which is the fear of a loss of community and fellowship with one’s fellow citizens. The Manchurian Candidate is much more obsessed with Raymond Shaw’s likeability (or the lack of it), his ability to “fit in” as they used to say, than it is with either his politics or his psycho-sexual troubles. The first depredation of the enemy within is the loss of our sense that the only enemies we need to fear are those without.

Not that there are not plenty of the latter sort to worry about too. That the icky Freudian tangle between Raymond and his mother and his brutish step-father doesn’t assume any more prominent a place in the film than it does is largely owing to the striking effects produced by the remarkable brainwashing scenes early in the film, about which I need to say a few words. Although there was a certain nightmarish quality to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the last movie in our series, its narrative style was entirely straightforward, B-picture fashion, with nothing nightmarish or hallucinatory about it. To some, this matter-of-fact style, created with the help of flashback and voiceover narration — here’s what happened, and then this and then this — actually accentuates the horror of what is being described, making it seem more real. To others, the scarier course lies in making the movie’s story-telling reflect the horror it is describing. Certainly, that way of doing things is more congenial to the cinéphile who finds his own intelligence flattered by being invited to pick out correspondences between form and content.

It is also the course chosen by The Manchurian Candidate, particularly in what viewers are likely to remember as its central episode, where the brainwashees’ have been persuaded that they are bored spectators at a meeting of a ladies’ garden club in New Jersey when in fact they are on display at a meeting in Manchuria of top Soviet and Chinese brass, before whom Sgt Shaw is made to perform horrific acts of violence on his comrades before being returned to perform his treacherous mission back in the US. This is a nightmare in the double sense that the men are mistaking the dream world into which the brainwashers have transported them for the real world but also in that we experience it through the literal nightmare of Major Marco, Frank Sinatra’s character, and that of the black Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards) who sees in his dream all the white garden club ladies as black — which stresses that subjective manipulation has been used to blot out objective reality.

This sudden shift from white to black ladies, none of them real, is part of what suggests to some commentators on the film that the central nightmare is a racial one — in particular as we may see in its presentation of the Chinese threat — as well as a psychological and an ideological one. The brainwashers appear to be led and, indeed, dominated by the sinister Chinese Dr Yen Lo, played by Khigh Dhiegh, who was born Kenneth Dickerson of Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese parentage — in New Jersey, as it happens, as his telltale vowels reveal. “When you are retoined with your patrol to Korea. . .what will be the foist duty you will undertake?” he says to the hypnotized Major Marco. He often played Chinese characters, however, including a recurring role as the villain Wo Fat on “Hawaii Five-O,” and something about these roles must have stuck, as he went on to become the author of multiple books on Taoist philosophy. Similarly, Henry Silva, who plays the treacherous Chunjin, was of Spanish-Italian descent. The fact that these “Oriental gentlemen” (as Chunjin is described by Raymond’s secretary) don’t look much like any real denizens of the Orient is in a way a refutation of the racial interpretation, not only of the movie but of American foreign policy of the period. That they really look more familiar than “other” helps them to blend in, as you would expect of the enemy within. Or you could see it as evidence that American movie-goers were prepared to lump all vaguely foreign-looking people together as presumptively “un-American,” in the words of the Committee.

But it is clearly not as if the movie regards these men as inferior on account of their race. On the contrary, they are frightening because they are, if anything, superior to their American captives. The advanced psychological science of Dr Yen Lo, fully footnoted for his Chinese and Russian colleagues, and their cleverness in finding new and terrifying methods of fighting their clandestine war is echoed in Chunjin’s exotic martial artistry in his fight with Major Marco. Chunjin fights not like an American in the time-honored way of the movies up to that date — that is, by standing toe-to-toe with his adversary and trading punches — but in that sneaky Oriental way, as the old-fashioned would have seen it, using arcane and vaguely dishonorable techniques to deceive and throw the other guy off balance and using feet as well as hands. Frank Sinatra is forced to adopt the same methods, in which he has obviously been schooled.

It seems that, in the era of Sputnik and the hydrogen bomb, you almost had to add science to the list of enemies within, or at least of those suspected of favoring the communist enemy and the “scientific” socialism of which he claimed to be the agent. At any rate, Dr. Yen Lo’s science of the mind is clearly superior to that of the American psychiatrist who talks about fish and their relationships with their parents. The former has obviously achieved some sort of breakthrough. “I’m sure you’ve all hoid the old wives’ tale,” says Joisey-born Dr Yen, “that no hypnotized subject may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature” — adding, with a sneer, “whatever that may be.” He assures his fellow military psychologists that this is “Nonsense of course.” The Pavlov Institute where they have perfected the technique for turning men into automata, operated by remote control, was clearly way ahead of anything we could do in the West. Or so, at least, the West gave itself a thrill of horror by imagining.

Frankenheimer had read a book called In Every War But One about Korean War brainwashing by the Chinese of Americans. About this he said,

while it wasn’t quite as total as the brainwashing in The Manchurian Candidate [a good joke, that], it was nevertheless a very distinct type of brainwashing that they’d known. On another level we [that is, himself and George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay] believed that we lived in a society that was brainwashed. And I wanted to do something about it. I think that our society is brainwashed by television commercials, by advertising, by politicians, by a censored press. . . with its biased reporting. More and more I think that our society is being manipulated and controlled.

Raymond Shaw’s air of aristocratic aloofness expresses itself in the patronizing remark to his new bride, “My dear girl, have you ever noticed that the human race is divided into two distinct and irreconcilable groups: those that walk into rooms and automatically turn television sets on, and those that walk into rooms and automatically turn them off. The trouble is that they end up marrying each other.” Later, when Raymond gets his instructions to assassinate a presidential candidate, his mother, too, alludes to television as having prepared Americans for the chaos she expects to ensue when she and Johnny are, as she says, “rallying a nation of television viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy!”

As someone mentioned two weeks ago in the discussion of Body Snatchers, this fear of manipulation by advertisers and others employing newly discovered arts of persuasion with the help of the virtually hypnotic power of television was another commonplace of the period, like Senator McCarthy’s supposed discrediting of anti-communism. Both went together with that other cliché about the 1950s, perhaps derived from William H. Whyte’s, The Organization Man of 1956, that ordinary middle-class people who had never been near the Pavlov Institute or any Chinese communist doctors had somehow been brainwashed into a slavish “conformity” with the behavior and attitudes of their neighbors. As with the psychological wasteland inside Raymond Shaw’s head, the enemy within had been within long before anyone had supposed and so was already in position to aid America’s foreign enemies even before those supposedly brainwashed soldiers returned from Korea.

The universality of the mind manipulations is also suggested by nightmarish and surreal effects that go well beyond those of the garden club meeting. In fact, nearly everything in the movie looks at least slightly unreal, if not hallucinatory. Even the moment at which Frank Sinatra tries to de-program the dead-eyed Laurence Harvey shows Sinatra’s face out of focus. This was a result of an assistant cameraman’s booboo with the first and what everyone regarded as by far the best take of the scene. When Frankenheimer decided it was so much better than the subsequent ones that he would go with it anyway, everybody assumed that the unfocused shots of Sinatra’s face were deliberate. Why not, when almost everything his character, Major Marco, sees and experiences in the movie has taken on something of the same surreal cast?

For example the books in his apartment he shows to Colonel Milt, played by Douglas Henderson, he claims to order by the job lot — to read, yes, but “they also make great insulation against an enemy attack!” he says — not, apparently, in jest. Then, as he begins to pick them up one by one, he explains disjointedly to a bemused and rather alarmed Colonel Milt, “But the, uh, truth of the matter is that I”m just interested, you know, in, uh, Principles of Modern Banking and, History of Piracy, Paintings of Orozco. Modern French Theater. The… Jurisprudential Factor of Mafia Administration. Diseases of Horses and Novels of Joyce Cary and… Ethnic Choices of the Arabs. Things like that.” No wonder the concerned Colonel orders Marco to take a vacation.

And to get a girlfriend. He could hardly have expected how quickly that order would be complied with. The hallucination of the garden club is also echoed in the supposedly real-life romance on the train between him and Janet Leigh’s Rosie — or “You-genie” which she says is the French pronunciation of the name she uses when she’s feeling fragile. This scene is as dreamlike as anything in the movie — so much so, indeed, that some people have speculated Rosie must be in on the plot as Marco’s “American operator,” thus completing the symmetry with Angela Lansbury. After all, doesn’t Rosie tell Marco on their first meeting that she was “one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch”? She also says that she thinks of herself as the “sole survivor of a spaceship that overshot Mars” — which Marco claims to think “very sexy stuff.”

Insofar as such crazy dialogue suggests more coded “trigger mechanisms,” like Raymond’s solitaire game with the red queen, it is a measure of how powerful the film’s paranoid world has become for us. But it is not paranoid to ask ourselves what Janet Leigh is doing here if she doesn’t have any part in either the communist or the anti-communist plots. Perhaps her rather maternal interest in Frank Sinatra is the film’s attempt to redeem motherhood, just as his Marco represents the redemption of decent Americanism, free from foreign trickery and manipulation of any kind. The film ends with a scene of domesticity in her cosy apartment near the “Modern Museum of Art” as the terrors of modernism — perhaps including David Amran’s quasi-modernist musical score that is used to accentuate all the strangest moments in this strange picture — are at last being kept at bay.

That Hollywood ending, though it takes place with Janet Leigh’s Angel of the Hearth out of the frame, may mean that at last the enemy within is once again without. But, as with The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we are never allowed to suppose it has been banished for good or to know if, when it comes again, it will come from the left or the right. Like so much else about the picture, that doubt seems to me excessive, artificial and exaggerated, deliberately and unnecessarily mystifying what ought to have been the clear moral certainties of the Cold War. But, as we shall see in next week’s film, Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, that was the future of Hollywood’s approach to geopolitics. To me it is a matter of some interest to find it already trending that way, both politically and cinematically, in that supposedly innocent age before the assassination of President Kennedy made some people think of The Manchurian Candidate as prophetic.

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