Film books published by universities are often unreadably academic, but I had the best time with “What Have They Built You to Do?” (University of Minnesota Press), by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar Gonzalez, which covers the various versions of “The Manchurian Candidate” in a highly entertaining and illuminating manner.
Jacobson and Gonzalez taught in the American studies department at Yale and they give the reader an overview of one of the most influential stories of the past half-century — from the 1959 publication of the Richard Condon novel to the classic 1962 film adaptation (script by George Axelrod, direction by John Frankenheimer) and then on to the rather dismal 2004 remake by Jonathan Demme.
(The book oddly never mentions the stage adaptation New Yorker critic John Lahr did in the 1990s.)
“What Have They Built You to Do?” does a fine job of combining intelligent analysis with solid reporting that clears up many of the misconceptions about what happened to this riveting (and darkly funny) thriller about political assassination when JFK was killed only 12 months after the movie was released.
Actually, as the two authors note, “The Manchurian Candidate” was shown on television throughout the 1960s and was even aired by NBC in prime time in 1974 (I saw it in a college town rep theater in 1969).
After a decade in TV syndication, Frank Sinatra (and his producing partners Axelrod and Frankenheimer) decided to shelve the movie because they weren’t happy with their United Artists distribution deal for cable and video.
They finally worked things out for a major theatrical re-release in 1987 and then home video the following year (the trio made more money from the reissue than they did from the original theatrical release).
Unlike critic Greil Marcus who did a short (and rather incoherent) book on “The Manchurian Candidate” for the British Film Institute, in which he trashed the source material, Jacobson and Gonzalez give a great deal of the credit for the movie to Condon’s wild satirical novel (which remains as strange and unsettling now as it must have been in 1959).
Condon was one of the first major American writers gutsy enough to poke fun at both the right and the left — in the wake of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s reign of terror — in a tale of an ultra-conservative senator who is actually an agent of the Soviet Union.
As Jacobson and Gonzalez point out, the novel took the brainwashing of American soldiers during the Korean War and expanded it into a scathing view of a whole culture being brainwashed by advertising and political spin.
Nearly every major plot point in the 1962 film, and even some key lines of dialogue, were lifted directly from Condon. Axelrod did a masterful adaptation but he had great soure material.
“What Have They Built You to Do?” contains wonderful material on the 1950s paranoia films that influenced Frankenheimer and a terrific chapter that deciphers the much-debated and very weird scene in which Janet Leigh seduces Sinatra on a train heading from Washington to New York.