Having been revamped a couple of years ago to give Guernsey audiences a chance to see current releases on a bigger screen the cinema in Beau Sejour Leisure Centre, dubbed Beau Cinema, has recently branched out to present a (hopefully ongoing) season of films slightly away from the mainstream under the banner of #CriticsChoice.
Following an opening pair of recent releases Train To Busan and Nocturnal Animals (both of which I sadly missed) they headed into classic territory with John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.
Before the film #CriticsChoice curator, Wynter Tyson, who has been involved with various cinema events in the past including the local Sarnia Shorts film festival, gave a brief introduction to the film giving a little context to not just the time of its release but also its place within the career of director John Frankenheimer as part of a trilogy of films dealing with paranoia.
Released in 1962, we are dropped straight into the Korean War ten years earlier where we meet a platoon of American soldiers led by Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) and see them taken prisoner by a band of Chinese/Soviet troops.
From there we cut to a number of years later as the American soldiers appear to have escaped from captivity and returned home thanks to the heroics of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and he is awarded the Medal of Honor, but all, of course, is not quite how it appears.
From the start Frankenheimer takes the story by Richard Condon and uses fabulous cinematic technique to slowly build a creeping sense of claustrophobia.
Throughout there’s a sense that we are either voyeurs spying on the characters or, as it goes on, trapped in metaphorically tight spaces with them. Even when we head to New York’s Central Park or Madison Square Garden arena there is the feeling of being oppressed and enclosed.
This is predominantly done with the use of startlingly tight close-ups which is particularly effective on the big screen.
Also spectacular are the nightmare sequences which are pure cinematic magic in the best of ways, all done very simply but genuinely tense, terrifying and confusing in a good way.
Along with this are some excellent performances. Harvey is excellent as the initially standoffish Shaw who gradually grows across the film before leading to something convincingly unnerving in the genuinely thrilling denouement.
Sinatra meanwhile gives a surprisingly fragile performance, while retaining something of the quintessential American soldier, that must be one of the earliest portrayals of a kind of post traumatic stress disorder – albeit highly fictionalised for the purposes of the plot – and he never comes across as too ‘starry’ as I thought he might.
The supporting cast are also generally very effective, particularly Angela Lansbury who is something of a revelation to see for the first time away from Murder She Wrote or Bedknobs & Broomsticks as she develops a truly unsettling and dark presence in the centre of the story.
The only real downside of the film Janet Leigh’s role which really only seems to serve as a slightly improbable love interest for Sinatra that never quite rings true or satisfactorily becomes a part of the wider story as it feels she at first might.
Of course a lot could be made of the film’s political side which is astonishingly relevant today, 55 years after the film’s release, given most of the headlines coming from the US, Russia, France and the U.K, and develops in a way that feels far more intense than you’d expect in the pre-JFK and pre-Watergate world, but I’ll leave that for you to find out and ponder on.
The Manchurian Candidate then is a fantastic film that uses everything cinema can to both tell a tremendous, gripping and thrilling tale and say something truly reflective of real world politics through a (vaguely) heightened filter.
While the audience was on the small side for this screening the chance to see something a bit different on a big screen is a great one to have and with Scorsese’s latest, Silence, lined up next in 11th May hopefully #CriticsChoice is a series of events that will continue for a long time to come.