The Big Idea Behind THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
Axelrod may have seemed an unlikely choice to adapt a political thriller to the screen. He was primarily associated with comedies that took on sex and morality, including The Seven Year Itch (1955), adapted from his play; William Inge's Bus Stop (1956); Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), also from his play; and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. But Axelrod's writing was always based on his notion that good comedy is bitter, great comedy is angry. In Condon's book, he saw possibilities to combine grim, paranoid suspense and dark satire.
John Frankenheimer was then the hottest director in Hollywood. He and Axelrod met when Frankenheimer was set to do Breakfast at Tiffany's. He ended up not directing that movie, but the two became friends. Axelrod had him read the book, and he was instantly convinced. They each put up $5,000 of their own money against the $75,000 purchase price and secured the rights.
Frankenheimer later said he could not put the book down and was drawn to the story because "it had great social and political significance for me at the time." He told Gerald Pratley, author of The Cinema of John Frankenheimer (Oak Tree, 1976), that he wanted to do a film "that showed how ludicrous the whole McCarthy far Right syndrome was and how dangerous the far Left syndrome is...It really dealt with the whole idea of fanaticism, the far Right and the far Left really being exactly the same thing, and the idiocy of it."
The director was also attracted to the project as something he could, for the first time, instigate himself and have complete control over, rather than being a director for hire. The project fit all the standards he held for an ideal undertaking, he told Pratley: "You have to feel terribly involved, and it has to be something that means a great deal to you, that you feel very deeply about; and it has to be a statement that you want to make as a human being and as an artist."
Frankenheimer and Axelrod learned that almost every studio in town had turned down the property and that certain actors, such as Robert Mitchum, had been approached unsuccessfully. The Manchurian Candidate would not have gotten made if it hadn't been for Frank Sinatra. The star liked the book and wanted to play Marco.
United Artists, with whom Sinatra had a $15 million contract, was willing to finance almost anything that interested him but recoiled at this one. The studio's president, Arthur Krim, was national finance chair of the Democratic Party and felt the subject matter was too politically explosive. Krim was also worried the story would not sit well with President John Kennedy. But Sinatra knew Kennedy well (he had produced the president's inaugural gala), so the actor flew to Hyannisport in September 1961 to approach JFK about it. Kennedy had no objections; in fact, he had enjoyed Condon's book and thought it would make a great movie. So the project had the high-level go-ahead it needed.
Despite Sinatra's key role in getting it made, Axelrod and Frankenheimer were wary of working with the actor. The main concern was Sinatra's reputation for being difficult, not being on time, and refusing to do retakes. Frankenheimer approached him with the concerns, and Sinatra assured him this was a project he very much wanted to do and that he admired the director's films and was very interested in working with him. Because Sinatra was an insomniac who often couldn't get to sleep until five or six in the morning; the two negotiated an 11:00 a.m. start time to assure his being on time and ready for work. As for the retake issue, Sinatra explained he was more of an entertainer than an actor and always delivered his best performance when he was fresh and spontaneous, in other words, on the first take. "But if you want, I'll keep doing stuff as long as you want me to," he assured Frankenheimer.
The other issue with Sinatra was that the star was very firmly committed to having Lucille Ball play the part of Raymond's Machiavellian mother (who was given no first name in either the book or the script). Frankenheimer got him to agree to watch his most recent movie, All Fall Down (1962), to see Angela Lansbury's performance first. At the end of the screening, Sinatra agreed: "That's the lady."
A lot of names, including Tony Curtis, were tossed around for the role of the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw. They settled on Laurence Harvey, at the time a hot property after his appearances in Butterfield 8 (1960), Summer and Smoke (1961), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). The British-trained Harvey had recently been Oscar®-nominated for his work in Room at the Top (1959), but Frankenheimer said his casting was partially decided on the basis of his accent, which somewhat recalled Kennedy's distinctive Massachusetts accent.
Although Tony Curtis wasn't cast, the woman from whom he was recently divorced, Janet Leigh, was given the small but pivotal role of Rosie. Leigh had read the book on the plane on her way to Kennedy's inaugural and been both disturbed and impressed by it.
Axelrod began the script in New York in early summer 1962, then went to California to work on it more with Frankenheimer. Although Condon and Axelrod became friends, the novelist did not work on the script at all.
Frankenheimer said they consulted every book they could find on brainwashing, relying most extensively on In Every War But One, a 1959 work by Eugene Kinkead. Frankenheimer admitted the idea of brainwashing in this movie was carried to extremes. But he also wanted to "do something about" his belief that American society was brainwashed by advertising, politicians, and a censored press.
Although Axelrod was determined to be very faithful to the book's plot and characters, he and Frankenheimer decided one change needed to be made. Condon had the Communist plot foiled by having Marco order the execution of Raymond's mother and stepfather, but they didn't want the outcome of the movie to hinge on the hero ordering a murder. So they reworked the plot to have Raymond take his final action independent of Marco. That also added the element of unbearable suspense to the climactic scene in which Marco races to stop Raymond from carrying out his deadly mission.
Taking the murder out of Marco's hands left the issue of how he was to find Raymond in Madison Square Garden. For that, Frankenheimer said he "ripped off" a plot element from Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which Joel McCrea locates the Nazis in the windmill that is turning in the wrong direction. In The Manchurian Candidate script, they had Sinatra spot the booth where Raymond was poised to carry out the assassination because it's the only one in the building with lights on.
Axelrod made a few changes in adapting the story. One of his ideas was to make one of the members of the captured platoon black and show the brainwash sequence from his point of view, with all black characters.
Axelrod copied the lecture about hydrangeas in the brainwash sequence verbatim from a seed catalogue. Sinatra's coda speech, quoting from Raymond's Medal of Honor citation, was also taken directly from the wording for the congressional awards.
Axelrod found the "brilliant, wildly chaotic" novel a challenge, which he met by writing in dream sequences, flashbacks, narration, "everything in the world you're told not to do," he said. He credited director Billy Wilder with giving him the courage "to do some of the nutty stuff" they did in this picture. For Wilder, he said, the cardinal rule was Thou Shalt Not Bore, and so anything is permitted to get the story across in an exciting way.
Axelrod always considered this to be the best adaptation he ever did (and many, such as critic David Thomson, call it his best script, period). The director echoed that sentiment and noted that although people always talk about The Manchurian Candidate as a great Frankenheimer movie, Axelrod also deserves an immense amount of credit for it.
by Rob Nixon