August 8, 2004
Whatever the Public Fears Most, It's Right Up There on the Big Screen
O one believes you; the colleague you trust is an enemy; there are people out to get you; even your mother acts funny.
This could describe the plot of any number of Hollywood thrillers, but there's a special breed of mind-bending movie that taps into the darker side of these anxieties at specific moments in history, and "The Manchurian Candidate" is the latest example.
Often hinging on a conspiracy, these movies of political and social paranoia stay in moviegoers' minds when formulaic disaster films have faded from memory. They stay there because serious filmmakers have somehow intuited apprehensions both overt and covert, like a Rorschach test of the public's fears at a given moment.
The movies range from Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," a 1941 fable of the little guy against a corporate fascist, and the same decade's film noir genre with bedazzled and manipulated men reflecting postwar paranoia; through cold war fables like "Fail-Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove" (both 1964), and including the original "Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a cold-war liberal fantasy of collusion between McCarthyites and Communists, and the assassination nightmare "The Parallax View" (1974).
Along the way, premonitory fears of mass media and its potential for demagogy emerge in "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and "Network" (1976), where messianic outsiders seize the stage and mesmerize a gullible public. Too improbable? You'd think so until you heard screeching ideologues on talk television and radio.
Jonathan Demme's reworking of "The Manchurian Candidate" takes our fears of a president hand in glove with greedy corporate globalists and imagines a cabal of faceless donors as the real power in politics.
The group is powerful and malign, using the latest mind control technology, and in league with a superpatriot senator played by Meryl Streep (more Nurse Ratched than Hillary Rodham Clinton). She is changing her son "just a little bit, darling, not too much," with a device that works like mental Viagra, turning him into a killer though, alas, not of herself. In the more cathartic original, the son, played by Laurence Harvey, became the assassin, presumably of the president, but ultimately of the subtler and more deliciously malignant mom, played by Angela Lansbury.
In "Meet John Doe," Edward Arnold's captain of industry had corporate swagger to spare, though Gary Cooper's hobo-stooge - initially exploited by the ruthless journalist Barbara Stanwyck - was a bit of a stretch. Capra's tale, preachier than his usual films, was uncomfortably dark and not a success.
Yet darkness and sordidness is what made film noir such a refreshing change from the movies' sentimentality during the war years. The world of shadows and doubt in which the hapless noir protagonist found himself fed into the nasty suspicions of the men off at war: what were their women doing in their absence? Those alluring monsters of duplicity, the femmes fatales in movies like "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Out of the Past" (1947) personify the darkest thoughts about emancipated women; Fred MacMurray and Robert Mitchum are bewitched by, respectively, Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer into doing something they otherwise wouldn't, involving murder.
The terror of nuclear war (the crazy hand on the button in "Dr. Strangelove"; the "fail-safe" runaway bomber trained on Moscow in the movie of that name) was the focus of anxieties in the cold war.
The mass media, with its capacity to disseminate the crackpot theories of charismatic performers, was also projected as a force of evil. This was the nightmare personified in the hillbilly singspiel of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in "A Face in the Crowd," and Peter Finch's dyspeptic "mad prophet of the airways" in "Network."
The appeal of conspiracies, as the relentless rehashing of that day in Dallas attests, is to offer a plausible explanation for an act of nihilism that, as the work of a lone nut, is too randomly terrifying to contemplate. In Alan Pakula's elegant and hallucinatory "The Parallax View" - pretty much the only film, unless you count Oliver Stone's semi-fictional "J.F.K.," to address the Kennedy assassination - Warren Beatty is an investigative journalist who uncovers a giant political conspiracy, only to be framed for the assassination and killed. Appalling, yet somehow reassuring in tying up loose ends.
Because most of these films deal with mind control, with loss of identity, the genre has an almost voluptuous aura of defeatism. If some omnipotent force - Global.com or SuperMom - has reduced you to impotence, turned you back into a helpless child, then you might as well learn to enjoy it.
These movies uncannily seem to understand an impulse viewers both recognize and resist. The specter of male impotence is at the heart of the matter, as are stories of wobbly men and take-charge women. In "The Bourne Identity" (and "Supremacy"), as in "The Manchurian Candidate," men are programmed to become killers, suggesting that one theme in these ambivalently bellicose times is how do you turn a nice liberal boy - Matt Damon, Liev Schreiber - into a murderer? Both protagonists have blank moments - Who am I and why am I killing these people? - in scary recognition of the possibility of multiple disconnected selves.
But these films also tell viewers that Someone Is Watching Over Us. Conspiracy offers an antidote to chaos. Instead of unpredictable terrorists, true aliens in our midst, we have "people like us" only more extreme: logical tacticians with scientific plans to take over the world. They don't want to kill us, only change us "a little bit."
Instead of confusion about how to deal with the new amorphous threat we have believers in a Better America, allowing us to forget the lone fanatic in the subway, the zealot in the truck, a situation in which a sniffing dog may be more effective than a military platoon.
Molly Haskell is author of "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies."