Genuine weirdness in movies is exceedingly rare. Oh, there are plenty of bizarre films out there, ranging from the aw-shucks surrealism of David Lynch to the fuck-you grotesquerie of Harmony Korine. But you generally know what you’re in for in those cases, or at least recognize within the first couple of minutes that you’ve entered unfamiliar terrain. What can really throw you for a loop, on the other hand, is a movie that chugs along fairly normally, lulling you into a false sense of security, then abruptly throws a hidden switch and veers hard into the nonsensical. I don’t know that I’ve experienced a more severe case of cinematic whiplash than the one casually tossed out mid-film by The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 adaptation of a political thriller by Richard Condon. So utterly wack is the scene in question that the recent Jonathan Demme remake not only jettisoned most of its outré dialogue (all of which came straight from the novel), but also re-imagined one of the characters in a way that seems expressly designed to retroactively explain her odd behavior in the original film!
Like so many great movie moments, this one takes place on a passenger train. (Is it just me, or did Hollywood lose a big chunk of its glamour when air travel became commonplace?) Frank Sinatra, in his best screen performance, plays a military officer who’s haunted by a recurring nightmare involving his time as a POW during the Korean War. You can tell he isn’t handling the strain terribly well from the thin layer of sweat that covers his face here from start to finish, to say nothing of his inability to perform simple motor functions like lighting a cigarette. En route to visit one of his fellow officers, in the hope of discovering what actually happened to the platoon when they were captured, he’s chatted up by a woman played by Janet Leigh, in what has to be one of the strangest conversations between two total strangers in the history of cinema. Are you Arabic? Let me put it another way: Are you ready?
The first thing that struck me, watching this classic scene again, is that it starts feeling odd before either Leigh or Sinatra says a word. That initial shot of Leigh, for example, silently watching Sinatra fumbling with his lighter, is so jarring that it almost audibly clangs. At first I ascribed that sensation to outmoded technology: This is a process shot, and from today’s perspective, it’s almost painfully obvious that the train was filmed separately from the background we see whizzing by through its windows—especially when the film cuts to Leigh, framed directly against one of the windows and looking as if she’s been pasted there. But it’s more than that. Frankenheimer deliberately refrains from “establishing” Leigh, shooting Sinatra initially from an angle that doesn’t include her, even though she’s right beside him. So our first view of her is (intentionally) disorienting—we have no idea where she is relative to our only frame of reference in the scene. It’s as if she just mysteriously appears, specter-like—an effect that will be reinforced a moment later when she starts spouting gibberish.
As for that dialogue—well, yes, it’s crazy. And it reads as crazy even in Condon’s novel. Still, I can easily imagine two actors putting a sort of topspin on the words that would lend the exchange at least a semblance of normality. A lot of what’s overwhelmingly weird here is that neither of them even once registers surprise, bewilderment, or confusion—Sinatra’s only double-take in the entire scene is in response to Leigh telling him her name is Eugenie. (When he rolls his head in her direction at that, after declining to even blink when she claimed to be a Chinese rail worker in the 19th century, it’s kind of hilarious.) Leigh occasionally evinces a hint of playfulness, but for the most part, she delivers her lines completely straight, as if it were just ordinary love-interest chitchat. If you kept the dialogue exactly as-is, but changed the intonation slightly and threw in a few more plausible facial expressions, the scene would play entirely differently—offbeat and whimsical rather than unnerving and paranoid.
Quick aside: Screen acting of the classic era—even as late as the 1960s, well after the Method had taken hold—bears almost no resemblance to contemporary screen acting, both for better and for worse. And it was actually Janet Leigh who drove that home for me. In preparation for the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho—which I mistakenly thought was literally going to be a shot-for-shot recreation of the original, a truly avant-garde experiment—I watched Hitchcock’s version three nights in a row, immediately before the new version opened. Try watching them back-to-back yourself, and you’ll see Anne Heche busily signifying numerous emotions that Leigh opts to almost completely internalize. In fact, Janet Leigh comes pretty close to being David Mamet’s ideal actor: She hits her marks, speaks her lines with little to no inflection, and trusts the script and the direction to do most of the heavy lifting. Emotion in motion she ain’t. That’s meant neither as praise nor criticism—it’s just part of what makes this scene so mysterious.
Still, this conversation is so flagrantly bizarre that many people insist it must have some sort of plot-related significance. The film ultimately reveals (spoiler imminent!) that Sinatra’s commanding officer, played by Laurence Harvey, has been brainwashed by Russian and Chinese communists, turned into an unwitting assassin who’ll snap into action when cued by a particular image. Roger Ebert, among others, has posited that Leigh may serve a similar function for Sinatra, and that her apparent non sequiturs are actually code words designed to trigger a particular response. And Sinatra does in fact appear at times as if he’s in a state of hypnosis, particularly when he twice replies “Yes” in a zombie monotone after Leigh recites her address and phone number and asks whether he can remember them. Only trouble is, nothing that either Sinatra or Leigh does for the rest of the movie even remotely suggests such a scenario. (In Demme’s remake, the Leigh character, now played by Kimberly Elise, does have an ulterior motive, even though she no longer says anything inexplicable.)
My gut feeling is that Condon was simply amusing himself. Writers like to play with language, and much of the goofiness in this scene is linguistic in nature: Sinatra admitting he never understood the phrase “more or less”; Leigh noting the different associations prompted by her first and middle names; the railroad business vs. the railroad line; whether “stationed” is the correct word. Even the opening exchange could fit snugly in a Marx brothers routine—just because we’re passing through Delaware doesn’t change the fact that Maryland is a beautiful state. Perhaps Condon meant for us to be a bit suspicious of this unknown woman’s agenda, or perhaps he was just trying to find a fresh way of introducing the requisite sympathetic female. Or both. All I know is that I first saw The Manchurian Candidate in 1988, during its at-long-last re-release, and I’ve now spent 21 years waiting for a beautiful woman to ask me if I’m Arabic.