Let’s discuss artistic motifs in films. Really, it’s quite common when you think about it. Art works as a motif quite nicely if you think about it because artistic pieces lend themselves to subtlety. Repeated artistic motifs in a film can help repeat key themes that the director wants to make. Or, in the example that I want to cite, the motif can stress ideas and themes that the director wants to contrast. Why? Because, if you really consider it, in many cases a very strong contrast is more striking than a very strong comparison or likeness. To juxtapose to ideals on a screen- to force them to visually or thematically clash- creates a response, realized or not, from the audience.
Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is a perfect example to show the thematically-clashing motif because it is a film whose plot, at its very heart at least, revolves around clashing political thoughts during the Cold War. I’ll confess, I haven’t seen the Meryl Streep/Denzel Washington “remake” of The Manchurian Candidate, despite the fact that I’ve heard it’s a better film. Regardless, for me, The Manchurian Candidate (and I’m talking 1962 from now on) possesses a strong and timely story for a political/psychological thriller and, more importantly, possesses excellent talent throughout. While Sinatra and Janet Leigh might not be at the tip-top of their game, they are still arguably great in their respective roles. Of course, real acclaim belongs to Lawrence Harvey who manages to both repel and attract sympathy at the center of the plot as Raymond Shaw, and more importantly all glory, laud and honor belongs to Angela Lansbury in her role as the evil mother. Oh, Angela! No matter how hate-able you are in this role, I still can’t help but love you as the villain! But even my love for Angela can’t override the hate for Mrs. Iselin- one of the top movie villains of all time. Of note, Angela was nominated for an Oscar for her role, but unfortunately lost; a travesty if there ever was one.
While we’re talking about Mrs. Iselin, the theme of clashing ideas comes up once more because she, herself, is a seething mass of conundrums. She claims to be a conservative defender of American freedom, when in reality she is an underground Soviet agent plotting to control the White House. She is cold and manipulating, but at the same time, one feels she does care for Raymond. On that note, it is implied that while she appears to be a merely devoted mother, perhaps she is also (gasp) an incestuous lover (a fact that appeared in the base novel but could not even be mentioned in the film in the 60s). Angela Lansbury’s performance is captivating and stands out as one of her more evil, but certainly accomplished roles.
But I digress, Angela’s character is not the only member of the drama to consist of opposing ideas and themes. Perhaps even more so than the character of Mrs. Iselin, Raymond himself is one clashing opposition: fighting his own impulses and his conditioning. Regardless of this, Mrs. Iselin represents almost self-imposed conflicted characters as she creates a persona untrue to her real character. In doing so, it becomes clear that as reprehensible as her public image is to the initial audience, her genuine personality is merely pure evil.
Therefore it is altogether fitting that the woman who embodies juxtapositions in the film to envelop herself in a setting befitting these conflicts. And it is at this point that I have reached the crux of my discussion, because it is here that I’ll begin talking about a fairly obvious motif I noticed in The Manchurian Candidate. Broadly, this motif revolves around the theme of the true nature of an American hero. More specifically, I’m referring to the presence of multiple pictures, statues, busts and even iconography of Abraham Lincoln.
Let’s leave the realm of film history for a moment and venture into the realm of merely history where we can agree that Lincoln is by all accounts an American hero and a great president. Lincoln possessed a combination of moral courage and wisdom all too rare in leadership today. Or, if we return to film, rare even in the good old days of the Cold War, where Mrs. Iselin is attempting to mold an American hero, or at least convince the American people her husband- a dimwitted weak man who is also pretty transparent allusion to McCarthy with all the “Red” accusations. Her home is filled with all types of images glorifying Lincoln in an attempt to perhaps subliminally make her husband more in the Lincoln vein. In one scene, the image of Senator Iselin is reflected on the frame of a portrait of Lincoln. It becomes all too apparent, despite his wife’s best, most evil-minded efforts, Iselin is a poor comparison to Lincoln in both likeness and subsidence.
Lincoln, in this respect, serves almost a foil to Senator Iselin, reminding audiences that mere accusations do not a forge a hero, nor does lack of personal independence. In one scene, during a costume party, Senator Iselin dresses up as Lincoln. Initially, one can assume that he was forced to dress up as Honest Abe to help “the public” see him in a more heroic light. But beyond the fourth wall, we can assume that Frankenheimer chose to have Senator Iselin wearing the Lincoln outfit because instead of making him look more noble and more heroic, it makes him look like a cheap fake of the original, which in fact is true. In a similar manner, Lincoln, an articulate, jovial man, can also serve as a foil to Raymond- a more complex character who is already lauded as an American hero. Raymond, lacks the warmth and kindness of Lincoln due to no fault of his own and serves as stark contrast to honest Abe.
Lincoln, however, is no foil to Mrs. Iselin. Her possession of manipulating characteristic precludes her from such company as her husband. When she is pictured besides Lincoln the audience can merely shudder at the two clashing ideologies appearing such close context. Lincoln embodies freedom, while Mrs. Iselin embodies the opposite, allowing her own son to be brainwashed in an attempt to subvert democratic government. The inclusion of Lincoln is to remind audiences of everything Mrs. Iselin is not and what her dastardly deeds are attempting to destroy. How much more perverted her plan seems when she talks about overthrowing the government surrounded by portraits of the man who preserved it?
|Lincoln overload: two busts frame this scene|
In many respects, Frankheimer did not achieve this in the most subtle manner. I find it very suspect that any American household, even that of a political family like the Iselins, would be in possession of so many busts and portraits of one American hero even if it is Lincoln. I kept a close watch and I believe that one room contains two or three busts of the president. But that’s not all: portraits of Lincoln hang on the wall and in a more darkly humorous instance, one lamp has a very suspicious resemblance to a stovepipe hat. Coincidence? I think not!
Now, we can argue two things from this point over. Is the inclusion of all the Lincoln memorabilia a direct action of the character in an attempt to fulfil her patriotic persona, or it past the fourth wall? Does Frankenheimer include the Lincoln iconography for the audience? I diplomatically believe it is a combination of both. It seems in character for Mrs. Iselin to throw off her enemies by filling her home with Americana decorations. In character, she goes overboard, and therefore her attempt becomes shallow and easy to see through. At the same time, I feel Frankenheimer took advantage of this potential action of the character to make a point of creating contrast on screen. I said that the motif wasn’t subtle but in this instance and don’t think it was an attempt to be subtle. Frankenheimer wanted to stress a point and stressed it through repetition. The audience would have to be daft not even to subliminally get the message.
The Manchurian Candidate is really an excellent film when you consider the time in which it was made. When we watch the film today, we feel no imminent danger from a Soviet brainwashed soldier. But in 1962, when the Cold War was in full swing and when tensions were high, the possibility, as far-fetched as it seems, could be terrifying. And when you consider how the filmmakers played with the audiences contemporary fears and were still able to make a poignant political and social message (as well as the viewers into a little suspense), The Manchurian Candidate can become timeless.