The Manchurian Candidate
During today’s recitation we discussed various aspects of this film that centered generally around the two integral themes of our American cinema class: depicting the past and mental health. However, we also discussed ideas that cannot be winnowed into these specific categories.
Possibly the most direct relation to the theme of depicting the past would be the motif of Abraham Lincoln imagery. In Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin’s home there are various portraits of Lincoln- one shot specifically comes to mind of Senator Iselin’s image being reflected in the glass of Lincoln’s portrait. There are various connotations associated with Lincoln, for example, his renowned nick-name “Honest Abe”. In the film, Senator Iselin’s character is foiled by Lincoln’s ubiquitous image. In light of Senator Iselin’s apparent stupidity, helplessness, and active involvement as Mrs. Iselin’s puppet in the political world, his image is antithetical to that of “Honest Abe’s”. Additionally, the knowledge of Lincoln’s assassination serves as a harbinger for the fate of Senator Iselin.
In regard to the theme of mental health, Raymond’s enigmatic emotional and mental states are illuminated. There is blatant incestuous behavior between Mrs. Iselin and Raymond in the scene that Mrs. Iselin kisses Raymond on the lips. This corroborates the idea that Raymond suffers from an Oedipal complex that serves as an impetus for all of his behavior throughout the film. While Raymond certainly suffers from an Oedipal complex, his mother perpetuates this complex while she has him hypnotized. She orders him to murder his wife, Jocelyn, thereby ridding the possibility for competition with another woman for Raymond’s love. Mrs. Iselin also raises Raymond in a certain way that makes him “unloveable”, essentially guaranteeing that she can keep him isolated for his whole life. Following the notion of an Oedipal complex, Raymond ends up murdering his step-father (he also kills his mother and himself). This Oedipal relationship also mirrors the Oedipal relationship in Hitchcock’s film, Psycho, where Norman Bates eventually internalizes his mother and becomes her- acting and speaking for her. Similarly, Raymond acts for his mother by obeying whatever she says when brainwashed. This is reflective of the son’s weak personality being overpowered by the domineering personalities of their mothers.
Rather tangential from the two central themes of the class are the rest of the topics discussed. The themes of the film include the notion of brainwashing by the media. There is a telling shot of Mrs. Iselin watching Senator Iselin’s image on a television while they are in the same room, thus exposing the discrepancy between the actual occurrence and the televised image. This is relevant given the media presence in 1960 (two years before the film was made), specifically as it was the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Additionally the themes of anti-communism and the celebrity of war-heros are presented. The parade for Raymond as he returns from Korea is seen in an absurd light once it is understood that Raymond was wholly unremarkable on the battlefield.
As far as director Frankenheimer’s conveyance of political messages, the messages are ambiguous. The film’s political agenda is not concrete, although it could be said that Frankenheimer meant to shun all political radicalisms.
In regard to the way in which the film was filmed, the scene of Marco’s first nightmare is quite illuminating. The opening pan seemingly lulls the audience into the dream along with Marco as the image of his sweating, sleeping face becomes ghostly in front of the image of his dream. As the dream continues the abrupt cuts between the communist party and the garden ladies succeeds in disorienting the audience while maintaining the plot. A clip from this scene that is extremely fascinating is the last cut of Marco’s dream as he yawns while Raymond strangles his comrade, and then the sudden cut to Marco screaming as he abruptly wakes up from his nightmare. This scene can be interpreted as the disturbing possibility of humans becoming inured to the killing of other humans. While Raymond is killing another man Marco is casually yawning. This is possibly reflective of the casualty that American culture enables regarding violence and killing.
Another integral aspect of the film is the way that memory serves the characters. It is seen that memory is difficult to trust, but that it also acts as a respite from the dull reality of life (specifically for Raymond as he is soothed by his recollection of his romantic times with Jocelyn). Interestingly, Raymond cannot remember anything after he has been brainwashed of his behavior while he was brainwashed. This brings up the question of the character’s responsibility for their actions. Is Raymond responsible for what he does while he is hypnotized? This could also speak to the idea that many people wander around in life unconsciously, as though they have been brainwashed. Possibly Raymond serves as the archetype for this type of person and is a kind of warning for those who live their lives unconsciously.
Additionally, the relationship between men and women is fascinating in this film. Mrs. Iselin is the main woman and all other female characters (Janet Leigh’s character included) serve as foils for her. In Mrs. Iselin’s relationship with Senator Iselin, she is the alpha. It is interesting to think that her aim to control the Senator to get him into office is essentially the manifestation of her understanding that as a woman she has no political power and could have political voice but through her puppet husband.
Lastly, the relation between Belson’s film Allures, and The Manchurian Candidate are slim though are worthy of recognition. The way that Belson’s film sucks in the audience could be compared to what happens to Raymond when he is being hypnotized.