A Three-Year-Old’s Perspective: John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

The Manchurian CandidateIt is 1988. I am visiting my friends, Rick and Claire, in Redondo Beach. We are trying to decide what movie we’re going to rent at the video store. Their three-year-old, Dietrich, is with us in the living room.

I mention ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, a film I didn’t see until it was released on VHS. But from the first viewing, John Frankenheimer’s film blew me away. There’s an interesting look to the film, with its deep focus shots and yet the film has an almost documentary feel. The technical accomplishment of staging a scene showing the brainwashed American soldiers mixing reality with their programmed perceptions is remarkable.

And then there’s my favorite scene, in which Major Marko (Frank Sinatra) meets Eugenie (Janet Leigh) on a train. The dialog, straight from Richard Condon’s novel, sounds like two spies negotiating a complicated series of pass phrases.

But that is not what we are talking about.

Claire tells me she saw the film when it first came out in 1963. She tells me it scared her.

I ask why. It’s a suspense thriller. Not scary.

She says it was the scene where Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is being treated for snakebite by Josie (Leslie Parrish), who removes her blouse to use as a tourniquet. Claire was a young girl when she saw this, so scared isn’t what she means.

It ‘disturbed her’, she tells me. She didn’t understand what was going on.

Dietrich listens quietly.

I tell Claire about the whole ‘mother’ thing, with Angela Lansbury, his controlling mother, being his American controller for the Communists. The way Raymond shoots Senator Jordan (John McGiver) through a milk carton held before his chest, which proceeds to leak milk, is a clear reference to maternity in my mind (Director Frankenheimer makes no such claims – he just wanted to find a different way to stage a shooting).

The time has come to decide what movie we will rent at the video store.

Three-year-old Dietrich has a suggestion.

“I want to see the scary milk movie.”

Scott Wannberg: Mad Roman Candle

Charles Black organized the readings and made the flyers on his computer at work. His was a unique spirit, and he drew poets from across the Westside to this tiny place, where we’d drink Guinness and listen to poetry. And that is how I met the poetic roman candle that was Scott Wannberg.

Scott was a bear with breathing problems. He managed Dutton Books in Brentwood. His hair was always greasy and his gigantic forehead always glistened. He en-THUSED. When Scott was there he was your biggest fan. And we were ALL fans of Scott’s. Inside Scott was a pair of lungs that weren’t up to the challenge and a heart that BEAT.

He was, very simply, the BEST poet. Even with his under achieving lungs, the man would get up with a sheaf of papers and WAIL, his delivery half Television’s jerk, half Ramones rampage. He plowed through poetry that came out of him like the sweat. He was PRO-lific.

Scott loved movies. We were sitting at a table one night during a break, admiring a particularly beautiful cascade on a pint of stout when I mentioned I had studied film in school. I don’t know how it came up, but we discovered that in addition to a common interest in film, we both really, REALLY loved John Frankenheimer’s film ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Scott got really, REALLY excited and began sweating profusely. We drank Guinness and swapped reasons we loved the film.

I began expounding on one of my favorite scenes. Scott grabbed a steno pad and started writing as I described how Frank Sinatra’s character (Major Marko) first encounters Janet Leigh’s character (Eugenie) on a train. Major Marko is going through a sort of breakdown as the brainwashing he received at the hands of the Communists is leaking into his conscious mind. Leigh watches him as he tries to light a cigarette, only to drop it in his cocktail and flee the compartment for the seclusion of the end of the car. Leigh joins him, speaks to him slowly, pleasantly, as she lights a cigarette for him.

The more I talked, the more excited I became. And the more excited I became, the faster Scott wrote. He gripped the pen like it was trying to get away. They wrestled, filling the page of the steno pad.

“The way she spoke to him, the things she said,” I told him, “and the things he said to her…It was like a rendezvous between two spies, exchanging some complicated set of passcodes in order to establish each other’s credentials.”

Scott tore the page from the steno book. He slid it across the table and took a long drink from his beautifully-cascading stout. I looked at what he had written. It was a poem called ‘Steve’. It was where we were and what was happening around us. I was telling him about ‘The Manchurian Candidate’.

He wrote it in real-time.

In ‘On the Road’, Jack Kerouac wrote:

“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Scott was a wonderful man and an amazing poet who Kerouac would have liked, because no one embodied those mad yellow roman candle spider stars more than Scott Wannberg.

Scott Wannberg