Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Commentary Tracks - The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with director John Frankenheimer

On the opening scene
This scene that we're looking at here was shot day for night in Franklin Canyon, Los Angeles, and this was supposed to be Korea. The reason we shot it day for night was that we wanted to do the titles over this. Now in one of the previews we actually tried to do the titles over this scene and the subsequent scene, which is about to come up, and the audience was terribly confused, they just didn't have the faintest idea what happened. So the next night we brought the workprint up to San Francisco, which is where we were, and we previewed it with no titles over all this, and it suddenly became very clear to the audience what was happening. With titles over all this scene here, you didn't really know that the patrol was being captured, and if you didn't know that the patrol was being captured and was subsequently being taken to Manchuria, you had no idea what this movie was about.

On casting Frank Sinatra
George [Axelrod] had heard that Frank Sinatra wanted to do this picture. The next day George called Sinatra and he did have a tremendous interest in it. We went down to see Sinatra in Florida where he was singing at the Fontainebleau Hotel, and on the way down George had said to me, “Look, the one thing he must not do is get into any kind of prolonged discussion, anything that would make him think that he didn't want to do this movie.” I said, “Don't worry about it.” So we arrived and knocked on Sinatra's door. He opened it and there was this great smile on his face, and he said, “God, I just can't wait to do your movie.” So we knew that anything we said from then on would hurt us, and we said nothing practically, except how thrilled we were to be there, and we went back the next day and said, “We've got Frank.” And that got the whole project together.

On the nightmare/brainwashing sequence
Now this dream sequence, that's coming up here, presented many, many problems, because it's through this dream and the James Edwards character's dream that you learn what happened to these men. What I had to do here was really show the brainwashing. The idea for this came right out of Richard Condon's book, which stated that the men thought they were at a garden club party in a hotel in New Jersey. The idea was to go 360 degrees around here, and the way we did that, to get this feeling that they're in the Manchurian amphitheatre, was that this part of the stage was on a railroad track with the front of the hotel lobby, which was on the same railroad track. As the camera panned off the hotel lobby and was going around the room, the stagehands just pushed the other set right into place and the actors ran around from one set and jumped into the other. Then this was a completely different set here, the Manchurian amphitheatre. We filmed this scene with about six different combinations. We filmed it with the soldiers on the New Jersey stage with the woman and with the Chinese psychiatrist; we filmed it in the Manchurian amphitheatre with the Chinese psychiatrist and with the woman; with the woman with the dignitaries, and the woman with the women; with the Chinese psychiatrist with the dignitaries and the Chinese psychiatrist with the women. So the combinations were endless and we put it all together in the editing room, although we had no idea how we were going to edit it when we shot it. That we being I, really.

On the karate fight
Now this next scene, this karate fight, was a scene that Frank Sinatra looked forward to doing from the moment that he read the script. He practised for it, he got himself an artificial hand, and we staged it and shot it really fairly quickly. It was the first big karate fight ever done on film, to the best of my knowledge. The problem is that Henry Silva, the actor whom we had playing Chunjin, was actually left-handed and we couldn't stage the fight with him being left-handed, so we had to make him do everything from the opposite side, which was a bit of a problem. It's one of the first times, as I say, that this had been done, and it got criticised at the time for being very brutal. Looking at it today, it's hardly anything compared to what you'd see even in a family movie.

On watching the film abroad
About three years after I made this movie I was in Europe, filming The Train, and I had some time off from that picture and I was asked to go and do publicity for another movie I'd made called Seven Days in May. One of the stops was Athens, and I had never been to Greece before. Anyway, I got to the hotel and the United Artists representative said to me, “You must come and see your movie The Manchurian Candidate. It's playing at this huge amphitheatre right in the middle of Athens, way up on a hill. You get up there and you see all of Athens below you, there are five thousand people that come to every showing of the movie, and you will just be overwhelmed by it. So indeed I went to the movie, I went into this amphitheatre, and it was huge, it was all the things that the guy said it was. I was sitting way down at the bottom and I could see the whole screen, and up at the top – way, way up – was the projection booth, separated from where I was by about 200 steps. I was also a very heavy smoker at the time, which has something to do with this story. As the film was playing there came a time when the reels changed, and this movie was on what we call 'double reels'. It came time for this section of the movie to come up, and this I believe it reel four. Suddenly, instead of this whole section of the movie, on comes reel five! In other words, this section that you're looking at now – he skipped! Well, I was hysterical. I ran out of my seat, I grabbed the Greek interpreter with me, and we ran up 200 steps to the projection booth, wildly out of breath but so obsessed and driven by this. I said, “Tell him that he skipped reel four!” The man is saying this in Greek and the projectionists starts to laugh. He says something back, and I said, “What's he laughing about? What did he say?” He said, “He always skips reel four. He feels that the picture plays much better without reel four, that reel four doesn't really make any sense, and this way he gets another showing.” Well, I don't know what to tell you. I was just so shocked! And that's what they did every night!

On Raymond walking into the lake
Now in the scene you're about to see, where he goes outside and walks into Central Park, it was probably the coldest day that New York had had in thirty years. We had to film this shot of Laurence Harvey going into the lake and the ice on the lake was about a foot thick. Starting at five o'clock in the morning we had bulldozers and shovels trying to cut holes in that ice, and he went in on take one. It was absolutely amazing, he just kept going. It was so cold we had one of these cameras freeze up, but he kept going, he went into the water. He was staying at the Plaza Hotel, so he went back, soaking wet, covered with towels and so forth, and people were looking at him going into his room; “Oh my God, that poor man has had an accident.” Twenty minutes later he came out of his room dressed as a priest for another scene in this movie, it was unbelievable, people couldn't understand what this man was doing in this hotel. But this was unbelievably cold, as you're about to see, but he went in there. This was the shot, we had three cameras on this thing, and there it is. You have no idea how cold that it, just look how thick that ice is.

On the murder of Senator Jordan and his daughter
This scene presented a tremendous challenge to me. In other words, I've got so many bodies in this movie, it became a tremendous challenge to figure out how to get rid of them all, how to kill them. I didn't want to see blood all over the place, so I thought, this is the perfect guy, this is the good man, the pure man, and I thought I'd go over-the-top and shoot him through the milk and see how that all worked, see if I could get away with it. Again, it's a low angle on Raymond, showing the American eagle, the whole thing. If you take it shot by shot it's a little bit over the top. And this [killing Jocelyn] had to be quick. This next thing had to be quick and, not disgusting, but terribly final. Again, that's an 18mm lens with those bodies big in the foreground.

On Sinatra's first take
It's important to know that Frank Sinatra was a man who really was better on the first take. It wasn't a question of the fact that he would only do one take, as rumour has it sometimes, he was just better on the first take. This scene coming up is his most dramatic scene in the picture, and he had great anxiety about doing it. On his close-up, which you'll see, he did it magnificently on take one. When we looked at the daily rushes the next day, Frank Sinatra was out of focus and his Major Leaves were in focus. I was devastated, it's the longest walk I have ever taken, from the projection room to Frank Sinatra's dressing room, to tell him this. He was in tears because he knew how good he'd been in the scene. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, we're going to have to re-shoot.” The first time we went to re-shoot it Frank got laryngitis, he was so nervous about having to re-do it. We couldn't shoot. We scheduled a re-shoot again, we did it, it wasn't good. We shot it again, we did like ten takes, it was never good. This is the shot right here. And I didn't know what to do. I was alone in the cutting room putting this movie together, I tried all of the other stuff and finally I said, to hell with it, put the out-of-focus shot in. A lot of people including the editor argued vociferously not to do it, but I said, “His performance is much better in this shot. Put it in.” Well, I can't tell you the great reviews I got as being a genius to use the brainwashed man's point of view of this out-of-focus man. Everybody thought it was Larry Harvey's point of view, everybody thought that this was on purpose, and in reality it was the assistant cameraman's fault.
Bits and Pieces

I think the important thing to remember about this movie is that it was turned down by every studio in Hollywood.

David Amram, who does the music for this movie, had done some television for me, and had done another movie for me called The Young Savages. The only other movie to the best of my knowledge that he did was Kazan's movie Splendour in the Grass. He's basically a classical composer.

As you watch this movie just be aware of the fact that a lot of the scenes were shot with wide-angle lenses in real locations. It's a style that I had developed in live television and had used to a greater or lesser degree in The Young Savages, The Birdman of Alcatraz and All Fall Down, the movies I had done before this. But really, in this film I did it almost continually. 

Incidentally, this whole business of hydrangeas, I said to George Axelrod, “Look George, we have to have a whole speech here that's going to enable me to get this camera to go 360 degrees around this room, and I need a lot of words.” He asked what I wanted the speech to be about and I said, “Well, she's talking about hydrangeas so obviously the speech has to be about hydrangeas.” He said, “Dear boy, I know nothing about hydrangeas. However, you shall have your speech!” So what he did was he got a seed catalogue and he copied the seed catalogue word-for-word, and that's what we have here. 

Here's an interesting fact about this actor here, Joe Adams. This was one of the first instances where a black actor or an African-American actor was cast in a part that specifically didn't say that the character was black. We weren't trying to win any great causes, it's just that we decided we wanted to do that.

You know, a lot of things have been said about this movie, but the thing that I really care about is that it was the first movie to take on Senator McCarthy. Don't forget this movie was made very soon after McCarthy, and the whole blacklist was still a factor in making movies and still a factor in everybody's life in showbusiness.

Now this is the black guy's version of the same dream, his dream of the same event. Now the idea was to have the whole audience be black women, because that's the way he would dream it, we thought. If you look carefully in the background there's a white bellboy – see it? Nobody ever picked that up, incidentally. It was my own private joke, I guess you'd say. Throwing the blood on Stalin was just an idea I had while we were shooting the scene.

Angela Lansbury, in my previous picture All Fall Down, had played Warren Beatty and Brandon deWilde's mother, and I wanted her very badly for this movie. Frank Sinatra had wanted Lucille Ball and we had a discussion about it, and I must say Sinatra was very gracious. He didn't have to, but he put a lot of faith in me and let me cast whoever I wanted, and when I showed him All Fall Down it was just a cinch that Angela should play the mother. The funny thing about it is, when she did this she was only two years older than Laurence Harvey.

Now the trick here was, how does Sinatra find Laurence Harvey? We couldn't come up with it. Finally one day I said to George Axelrod, “Foreign Correspondent,” and we both knew exactly what was meant by that. In Foreign Correspondent, Joel McCrea finds where the Nazis are in this mass of windmills because all the windmills are going in one direction, except for the one where the spy's radio is, which is going in the other direction because it's electrically powered. Today they call such a thing an homage, but in those days I'd call it a rip-off. I have to admit to the fact that I ripped off Hitchcock here because all the lights dim, except for one, Raymond Shaw's light does not dim and that's how Sinatra finds out where he is.

Final Thoughts
Like most scenes in this picture, Frank shot that one in one take. We shot the whole picture in 41 days, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

God's Own Country

The first time we see Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) in God's Own Country, he's hunched over the toilet bowl, throwing up the previous night's booze. This, we soon learn, is not an unusual occurrence. Ever since his father (Ian Hart) suffered a debilitating stroke, Johnny has been running the family’s farm almost single-handed, and his few hours of freedom are spent drinking himself into oblivion and picking up men for fleeting sexual encounters. When one of them suggests meeting up for a drink some time and furthering their relationship, Johnny scoffs and drives away. There’s no emotional connection in these meetings for him. They’re simply a form of release.

Johnny is clearly a young man in need of a release. His body is coiled and hunched, and he trudges through the fields scowling, with his head down. Josh O'Connor's withdrawn but wonderfully physical performance expresses all of his resentment, frustration and repression through the way he moves, and one of the joys of watching God's Own Country is seeing him unfurl and grow over the course of the movie, until he appears to be an entirely different person, yet recognisably the same.

The catalyst for this transformation is Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant worker hired for a week to help lighten Johnny's burden. Johnny reacts to this outsider with suspicion – dismissing the Romanian as a “gypsy” - but when they spend a few nights together alone on the mountain, where they have been sent to mend a fence and birth the lambs, the relationship between them gradually shifts into a quiet tolerance, an easy companionship, and then a sudden explosion of passion.

Comparisons between God's Own Country and Brokeback Mountain are as prevalent as they are reductive, and I don't wish to belabour the point, but as I watched Francis Lee's film I was put in mind of that story – not the 2005 adaptation, as such, but the original short story by Annie Proulx. “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey,” she writes, “of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” As admirable as it was, Ang Lee's production could never come close to capturing such an evocative sense of post-coital intimacy, but Francis Lee invests his film with a wonderful tactility and earthiness. Johnny and Gheorghe's first coupling, as they grapple in the mud, feels raw and urgent, but it's the more tender touches that fix themselves in the memory. Johnny's first instinct is to reach for Gheorghe's cock, but Gheorghe repeatedly stops him and instead brings up his hand to caress his cheek, encouraging him to let down his guard and give in to his emotions. The moment works beautifully because Lee has already allowed us to see  Gheorghe's nurturing instinct as we watched him at work, whether he's tending to a newborn lamb or offering Johnny his gloves as they build a stone wall. Lee uses work as an expression of character.

The two leads are wonderful together, but it's a perfect ensemble. Ian Hart is stoic and moving as the gruff patriarch whose power has been diminished by a series of strokes, while Gemma Jones gives a brilliantly subtle display as the grandmother who sees and understands more than she lets on. Both actors have a moment in which they reveal hitherto concealed emotions, and both of these moments are underplayed to heart-wrenching effect. This is Francis Lee's feature debut but he handles it with unerring confidence and skill. He began his career in front of the camera and he clearly knows how to work wonders with actors, just as he clearly understands this land and the lives that are lived upon it. God's Own Country may follow some conventions of the romantic drama, but every scene is invested with a sense of authenticity and passion that ensured I spent much of the final third yearning for a Hollywood ending to emerge in the midst of the Yorkshire Dales, having been drawn so completely into the lives of these people.