Manchurian Candidate – Film Theory Paper
The Manchurian Candidate, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel of the same title, was released in 1962, and directed by John Frankenheimer. Brief Plot Summary The central concept of the film is that the son of a prominent, right-wing political family has been brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy Thesis Statement The Manchurian Candidate was noted for its breakthrough in cinematography, as the scenes were shot in a creative manner that was new and different in that era.
It also made use of different editing techniques to seamlessly piece the story together, along with the use of certain recurring Motifs to effectively deliver the story to the audience. This paper would examine how the groundbreaking use of cinematography, editing help to bring across the theme of surrealism, and delivers a thrilling effect while the motifs help bridge the Theme of The Manchurian Candidate with the use of visual elements. Cinematography The Manchurian Candidate made use of several different brilliant cinematography aspects to bring forward the theme of surrealism and thrill to the audience.
According to the Dictionary, the term “surrealism” refers to “an avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, characterized by the evocative juxtaposition of incongruous images in order to include unconscious and dream elements. ” This theme was highlighted in several scenes in the film. Particularly in a scene where Major Marco was having a nightmare, the camera tracked from the end of Marco’s bedroom towards Marco, who was lying on the bed sleeping.
The tracking shot ended with a close up of Marco’s face, with his brows furrowed as he began to experience his recurring nightmare. The close up shot of Marco’s troubled face was then superimposed onto his nightmare shot. From the tracking to close up shot, it creates a sense of mystery and suspense, which intrigues the audience and builds up the anticipation. After which it would lead up to the film’s most noted scene- the Ladies in Garden Club scene.
In this scene, the director made use of a 360 degrees panning shot to showcase three different points of view- the “Reality”, the “brainwashed white man’s imagination” and the “brainwashed black man’s imagination”. These three different points of view in a dream add up to one big surrealistic nightmare scene. It is also important to note that this scene was considered to be “notorious” (Chung, 2006, p. 129) during that era, for its unconventional use of camera work. During and after the 1950s, there is an “increase in the number of dark, provocative and original films. (Mann, 2008, p. 12) and The Manchurian Candidate was one of them. It was “stylistically ambitious” (Mann, 2008, p. 12) and can be considered a breakthrough in cinematography during that era. This scene alone had to be shot 3 different times, as each individual point of view comprised of different elements and actors. The platoon was captured and brainwashed into thinking they were attending a ladies horticulture club meeting, when in fact they were present and sitting in a Communist meeting. The camera then does a 360 degrees slow panning shot from the lady speaking, Mrs.
Whittaker, to everyone present in the scene, listening to the talk. However, as the camera makes a full round and returns to the start, gone was Mrs. Whittaker, and in her place stood an East Asian doctor giving the Russian and Chinese generals a speech about the brainwashed American soldiers. This panning shot builds up suspense, as the camera slowly pans around the venue, showing that there were only ladies present. It delivered a shock to the audience, who expected to see Mrs. Whittaker after the camera makes a full round, to find out that the lady was gone and replaced by a man instead.
This slow panning movement also gave the scene a dream-like quality, which is a characteristic often associated with the theme of surrealism. The scene with the doctor and Communist generals reflected the “reality” of which the soldiers are unaware of, as they were brainwashed. The camera used a low-angle shot to reveal the amphitheatre filled with Communists. It was positioned behind the soldiers, as if they were looking up to those seated. This is to show that the American soldiers caught were at the mercy of those Generals present, to show authority from those seated above and around the amphitheatre.
Even though they are under the mercy of the Communists, the soldiers showed no sign of fear as they were brainwashed into thinking they were facing a group of women instead. Hence the use of camera angle here provides a sort of contradiction to reality, it showed Communist authority even though the soldiers displayed no fear. Another groundbreaking use of cinematography can be found in the scene where Johnny Iselin was confronting the Secretary about the “number of Communists in the Defense department” with Eleanor Iselin manipulating her husband.
In this scene, the Secretary was giving a press conference and Johnny Iselin stood up, and demanded to know why are there communists present in the Defense department. The scene was constructed such that the Secretary was at one end of the room, while Johnny was the other end. Yet they were able to appear in one frame, with the use of juxtaposition. As the press conference was broadcasted live, the confrontation between both parties were filmed and showed on television screen.
Whenever the Secretary is in frame, Johnny Iselin would appear on the screen of a small television at the corner of the frame, thus making both parties visible onscreen even though technically, they are at different ends of the room. This use of framing and juxtapose imagery echo them theme of “surrealism”. Surrealism often uses incongruous juxtapositions to highlight conflicts (Strom, 2003). In one particular scene, the mastermind of this confrontation, Eleanor Iselin, appeared in the foreground, with Johnny in the background, and the Secretary reacting angrily on the small little television screen at the corner of the frame.
Every action was combined in one frame capturing the whole shot, filled with conflict and movement. This framing brought the tension of the film up a few notches and audiences were able to feel the impending explosion of anger between the characters. The unconventional use of cinematography aspects in this film successfully brings forward the theme of Surrealism, with its “unusual framings and camera movements” (Strom, 2003, p. 8), which are styles indebted to Surrealism. Editing The different use of editing was also one of the most noted aspects of The Manchurian Candidate.
According to Carroll (2003), “editing, or montage, was generally celebrated as the most important, essential characteristic of cinema” (p. 153). Hence the right choice of editing technique would set the pace and coherency of the film. This would bring us to the editing pace of the film- the long takes versus the accelerated montage. The scene that showcased a long take, happened when in Major Marco’s train ride from Washington to New York. Marco was feeling jittery and nervous, thus he decided to leave his train seat and go to the back of the train for some fresh air.
He arrived at the last carriage, and stood with his back leaning against the wall. A woman followed Marco and entered the same carriage. She had observed Marco from before, and decided to follow him into the back. Marco and the woman began to strike up a conversation, with random small talks that made no sense. This whole scene involved no cuts at all, all shot at one go and thus showcasing the aspect of a “long take”. The long take builds on the tension between the meeting of two strangers, showing the entire conversation between Marco and the woman, despite it being nonsensical and weird.
The audience took in the scene at one go, after which it leaves them wondering “what lies underneath this exchange of words between the Major and this woman? ” The long take establishes a fact that this scene is important, as it “intensifies” a shot (Goldberg, n. d), contradictory to the fact that the content of the scene is random and consist of small talks only. As opposed to a long take, which consists of virtually no cuts, an accelerated montage consists of shots with increasingly shorter lengths.
With regards to The Manchurian Candidate, the accelerated montage editing aspect occurs during the “Convention” scene, where Raymond Shaw was sent on a mission to assassinate the President. In this particular scene, Sergeant Raymond Shaw was instructed by his mother to shoot the newly elected President at the Madison Square Garden, with Major Marco scrambling to stop Shaw from accomplishing his mission. The establishing shot of Madison Square Garden showed Raymond walking through rows and rows of empty tiered seats, arriving at a small room high above the arena.
He positioned his rifle as he prepares for his mission to assassinate the elected President while he was giving his speech. As crowds filled the arena, Major Marco struggles to locate Shaw in hopes of stopping him. The whole sequence was edited with the cross-cutting technique. Through cross-cutting, it helps to create tension and delivers the sense of thrill when the audience sees Shaw preparing to fire his rifle, as Marco runs frantically to stop him. From the first few shots of Shaw preparing his rifle and locating his target to Marco searching frantically for Shaw, was edited with shots and cuts that got shorter and shorter.
It adopted the technique of Accelerated Montage, which serves to create tension and keep the audience at the edge of their seats. As this is the climax of the film, by using cross-cutting and accelerated montage, the film manages to capture the audience’s attention and builds a highly thrilling and exciting sequence. Motifs The Manchurian Candidate makes use of several motifs in this film to drive home its message and to develop its theme. One of the most glaring motifs used in this film would be the Red Queen, or the Queen of Diamonds.
The Queen of Diamonds card had appeared several times in the film, particularly during scenes that involved Raymond Shaw being brainwashed. In this film, the Communists had conditioned Shaw’s brain into receiving commands and fulfilling them like a robot would. However, this brainwash condition can only be activated when Shaw hears the line “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little game of solitaire? ” After which, Shaw would proceed to take out a stack of cards robotically and began playing.
As he plays the game, he would eventually draw out the Queen of Diamonds card, and upon seeing the card it would fully activate Shaw’s brainwashed condition. At first glance, it may seem that the Queen of Diamonds motif is played out to trigger Shaw’s mental condition. However, as the film progresses, the intent of using the Queen of Diamonds began to clear up- that the Queen of Diamonds was linked to Shaw’s mother, Eleanor Iselin and later in the film, his soon-to-be wife, Jocie (Blakesly, 2007).
According to Blakesly (2007), the Queen of Diamonds card represented “an adamant woman, his mother, someone Raymond would rather not see”. During the first few scenes, Shaw admitted that he “despised and loathed his mother”. It was eventually revealed that Shaw’s mother was also part of the Communist conspiracy, and a woman hungry for political power. Hence, the card that would trigger Shaw’s mental condition was picked out to be the Queen of Diamonds, which signifies his mother and hinted that his mother had a connection with the Communists. As mentioned above, the Queen of Diamonds is also known as the Red Queen.
In this case, it represented Communism as this film was shot and based on the Cold War, which was ongoing during that time. Blakesly’s analysis surmises that: Another triggering device for Raymond’s conditioning is when he looks upon the Queen of Diamonds, the Red Queen, with the concomitant relationship of “red” to the “Red scare”, the communism from which the left in North America, with rare exceptions, still recoils. (p. 218) Besides being a figure representation of Shaw’s mother, the Queen of Diamonds also took on the representation of Communism.
Hence it would make sense to why Shaw would fall into a state of “brainwashed condition” upon seeing the Queen of Diamonds card- he was being controlled by the Communists, with the card serving as a reminder that Communism took over his mind. Other than the Queen of Diamonds motif, the film also adopted Abraham Lincoln as a motif. The use of Abraham Lincoln ranges from obvious pictures of Lincoln himself, hanging in the Iselin house to a more subtle form, where Johnny Iselin dresses up at Abraham Lincoln in a masquerade party.
The Iselins were from the Right-Wing, or Republican party. The use of Lincoln signifies the stand that the Iselins take within political context and also to serve as a kind of contradiction between right and wrong. Abraham Lincoln was a prominent leader of the Republican Party. According to Redding (2008), the film was “mediating symbolically on the political heritage of Lincoln’s republic among a corrupted public sphere”. Lincoln was used a symbol to represent America, and the director’s portrayal of the Iselins served as a satire of the America politics during that time.
Johnny Iselin, the Senator, was portrayed as a drunk, impulsive and rash person. He often confronted the government with issues concerning the communist, when in fact; he is also part of the communist conspiracy to take over the American government. This is a parody of “McCarthy”, who was a rash and impulsive Senator from the Republican Party. During the time he acted as a Senator, he often appeared drunk and caused a lot of controversy. Thus the portrayal of Johnny Iselin based on McCarthy, and the images of Lincoln all served to fuel the director’s satire on the political situation.
During the masquerade party scene, Johnny Iselin dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, a contradiction as he is working with the communists whereas Lincoln was regarded as a righteous politician in the past. To further highlight the contradiction, Johnny’s wife, Eleanor Iselin dressed up as Bo Peep, a character which symbolizes innocence and naivety. However, as mentioned previously, Eleanor was anything but innocent. She worked hand in hand with the communists in order to gain political foothold. Thus, this portrayal also serves to show a contradiction between right and wrong, righteous and evil.
Portraits of Abraham Lincoln decorated the Iselin house, and in a particular scene, where Eleanor was confronting Raymond about his love interest with the daughter of a Senator from an opposition party, Lincoln was “staring” down at the confrontation. This is yet another example of contradiction between right and wrong, the mother being an evil influence was threatening Raymond to give up his love and Lincoln’s portrait in the background serves to remind us light will prevail, as the portrait was hung above of Eleanor as she speaks.
The different motifs of this film helped shaped the entire plot and provided audience with clues; when they see the Queen of Diamonds they immediately would know that Raymond Shaw would be brainwashed. It also helped to bridge certain morals or theme of the story with visual elements, like the battle of right and evil was shown through the portayal of the Iselins versus Abraham Lincoln iconography. Conclusion This paper discussed how use of cinematography, editing helped bring across the theme of surrealism, and delivered a thrilling effect while the motifs helped bridge the Theme of The Manchurian Candidate with the use of visual elements.
In conclusion, The Manchurian Candidate made use of highly unconventional cinematography and editing aspects that successfully showcased the theme of “surrealism” and effectively created tension and thrill, for the audience. Not forgetting the effective use of motifs, which helped developed the main theme with the use of visual elements and provoked thought from the audience as they watch the film, while trying to piece the puzzles together.
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