Sunday, September 4, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: The Manchurian Candidate

The Set-Up: This has got to be the loopiest, craziest scene not from a comedy ever put to film. But, then everything is suspect in The Manchurian CandidateJohn Frankenheimer's 1962 Cold War satirical-thriller. The government can't be trusted. The Army, the Red Chinese, everyone is a potential enemy—the only thing not sure is how seriously to take the "potential." Because every war-hero is a walking time-bomb, every power-broker is a secret traitor, and every politician...well, we already know what they are—it's an election year, after all.

But what to make of this scene? Ben Marco is sitting on a train, going to see "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."—Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who, with his troop, was taken prisoner by the North Koreans, and secretly brain-washed by the Red Chinese. Ben's trying to make sense of it all, but he's got the shakes, the sweats—he can't even light a cigarette. To his rescue comes "Rosie," and they exchange some of the strangest dialogue ever written. These scenes are usually designated "meeting cute." This one is "meeting surreal."

What's it all about, the talk of "Chinese workmen," the bringing up of Ohio, the repeated question if he's Arabic, and the proffered address and phone number? Roger Ebert has speculated that it's code, and "Rosie" is a planted agent looking for some kind of "trigger" phrase that will set off Marco, and providing a safe house in an emergency.

It's as reasonable an explanation as any. Despite the wacky dialogue, the players, the ever-reliable Janet Leigh (heroine of so many classic films*) and the snapping-on-all-cylinders Frank Sinatra make the scene "play," as if it was your typical "boy-with-nervous-breakdown-meets-girl-speaking-gobbledygook" scene. Sinatra is particularly good, convincingly showing Marco weak and confused, but playing up the bizarreness of the scene, as if he can't believe all this is really happening...or if it's secretly another matter of the brain-washing kicking in. Reality is pretty unreliable in The Manchurian Candidate.

The Scene: Army Intelligence Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having recurring nightmares that Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), with whom he served in Korea, assassinated men in his troop. It may be post-traumatic stress working, but other members of the troop are having them, too, down to the exact details. Now, as part of his investigation, Marco is traveling to meet with Shaw, but, as he's also a victim of brain-washing—or as the Chinese agent hilariously calls it "dry-cleaning,"—he's having trouble holding it together.

Action, Baby!

In the smoking car of the train, Marco tries to steady his nerves with a drink and a cigarette, but he has "the shakes" so bad that he drops his cigarette into his glass.
He's observed by a woman sitting across from him, who can't help but notice his hands shake as he tries to light a cigarette in vain.
Marco: Do you mind if I smoke?-
Rosie: Not at all. Please do.

Finally, frustrated, and barely in control he rushes out of the smoking car and into a connector.
Rosie: Maryland's a beautiful state. -
Marco: This is Delaware.
Rosie: I know. I was one of the Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But, um...nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.
Marco: I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town. You in the railroad business?-
Rosie: Not any more. However,
if you will permit me to point out, when you ask that question, you should say "Are you in the railroad line?" Where's your home?
Marco: I'm in the army. I'm a major. I've been in the army most of my life. We move a good deal. I was born in New Hampshire.
Rosie: I went to a girls' camp once on Lake Frances. It's pretty far north.
Marco: What's your name?
Rosie: Eugénie.
Marco: Pardon?
Rosie: No kidding. I really mean it. Crazy French pronunciation and all.
Marco: It's pretty.
Rosie: Well, thank you.
Marco: I guess your friends call you Jenny.
Rosie: Not yet, they haven't. For which I am deeply grateful. But you may call me Jenny.
Marco: What do your friends call you?

Rosie: Rosie.
Marco: Why?
Rosie: My full name is Eugénie Rose. Of the two names, I've always favoured Rosie, because it smells of brown soap and beer. Eugénie is somehow more fragile.
Marco: Still, when I asked you what your name was, you said it was Eugénie.
Rosie: It's quite possible I was feeling more or less fragile at that instant.
Marco: I could never figure out what that phrase meant, "more or less."
Rosie: Are you Arabic?
Marco: No. My name is Ben. It's really Bennett. I was named after Arnold Bennett.
Rosie: The writer?
Marco: No. A lieutenant colonel. He was my father's commanding officer at the time.
Rosie: What's your last name?
Marco: Marco. Major Marco.
Rosie: Are you Arabic?
Marco: No. No...
Rosie: Let me put it another way. Are you married?
Marco: No. You?
Rosie: No.
Marco: What's your last name?
Rosie: Chaney. I'm production assistant for a man named Justin, who had two hits last season. I live on 54th Street, a few doors from the Modern Museum of Art, of which I'm a tea-privileges member, no cream. I live at 53 West 54th Street. Apartment 3B. Can you remember that?
Marco: Yes.
Rosie: EL
dorado 5-9970. Can you remember that?
Marco: Yes.
Rosie: Are you stationed in New York? Or is stationed the right word?
Marco: I'm not exactly stationed in New York. I was... stationed in Washington, but... I got sick and now I'm on leave and I'm gonna spend it in New York.
Rosie: Eldorado 5-9970.
Marco: I'm gonna look up an old friend of mine who's a newspaper man. We were in Korea together.

The Manchurian Candidate

Words by George Axelrod and Richard Condon

Pictures by Lionel London and John Frankenheimer

The Manchurian Candidate is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.

* Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh's daughter, mentions in one of those TCM profiles that the day her mother filmed this scene was the day her then-husband, Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee's' father, delivered divorce papers to her on the lot. You'd never know it. Leigh was such a professional.

No comments:

Post a Comment