Hollywood in the 1960s: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Last Saturday evening, the Yale Film Studies Colloquium and Screening Series presented a double feature at Whitney Humanities Center. As I was unable to attend myself, here are the introductions that I scripted. I’m happy to share my thoughts on these two provocative films with the internet.

Have you seen either of these American classics? Which one do you like better? I’m more of a Manchurian girl myself, but I see the appeal for both!

In the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, America is in jeopardy, the future of freedom and liberty is in limbo, and so is Abraham Lincoln — or, at least, a costume party Lincoln is doing the limbo. If that sounds like a strange bit of humor in what is otherwise a serious political thriller, it is, but this film of a Korean War veteran who has been brainwashed by the Communists is filled with such surprising, startling moments. At times, the film strays into experimental, surreal areas that do not seem to belong in a Hollywood film of this period: said one L.A. Times writer, “the earlier sequences… may [make the viewer] begin to believe he is undergoing a session or two [of brainwashing] himself.” The scenes between the character of Ben Marco, played by Frank Sinatra, and his love interest, played by Janet Leigh, are so purposely stilted, so odd, that critics have suggested that the woman is a Communist agent herself (though the director said he did not know, and the author of the source novel claimed that was not his intention). Reporters and journalists report on the screenings of this film, more than one mentioning how the theater was filled with nervous laughter and gasps, as though the audience did not know how to process what they were watching. At the time of the film’s release, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, anxieties around the Communist enemy are at a high; this would not be the case by the end of the decade, as detente began to set in.

! The film dropped out of circulation until the Reagan era, in which it enjoyed a resurgence of popularity; it has been remade in 2004 and in many ways set up the brainwashing-political thriller narrative paradigm that has brought us contemporary hits as disparate as the movie Zoolander and Showtime’s Homeland. But what is most significant, it would seem, about this film is how, at such a tense and scary juncture in America’s history, director John Frankenheimer presented audiences not a rousing patriotic propaganda film but a crazed, confusing, compelling Cold War nightmare. The tagline for the film’s publicity read: “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about! When you’ve seen it all, you’ll swear there’s never been anything like it!” Has there been anything like it — before or since? You be the judge.

…And now, the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate…

What happened to the old bank?, asks Butch Cassidy (played by Paul Newman).
The no-nonsense proprietor responds: People kept robbing it.
A small price to pay for beauty. Butch Cassidy decides.

By 1969, the year in which the film was released, the beauty and economic excesses of the Hollywood studio system had been replaced by a more functional system of independent producers and agencies selling package-deals to studio-distributors. These “New Hollywood” directors studied at film schools like NYU or UCLA, or, as with the director of this film, George Roy Hill, started in television. The films were being made by younger artists and reflecting younger audiences’ sensibilities — see the slick, stylish violence of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — and concerns — the existential ennui paired with ironic humor in The Graduate (also 1967). (As it happens, the star of The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman, was considered for the role of Butch, while Warren Beatty and Jack Lemmon were possibilities for Sundance, and Marlon Brando was up for either role. When Paul Newman and Robert Redford were finally cast, the original title of the film The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, was changed so that the more famous actor’s character would come first.)

! Sometimes these New Hollywood films downright shocked establishment critics. Just as the New York Times Bosley Crowther infamously panned Bonnie and Clyde, revealing his stodginess by deeming the film “non-sensical” and “not wholesome,” so another critic at the Times treated Butch Cassidy similarly uncharitably. Vincent Canby wrote in his review that the movie is “[one] that attempts to borrow so much from other films (Bonnie and Clyde, Jules and Jim) that it must be apparent to any movie buff who, I think, will be slightly depressed by this awareness… [I]t might have been very funny if you’d never seen a movie before.” Butch Cassidy went on to be a box office hit and garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director,

while winning for Best Screenplay, Score, and Cinematography. What Canby read as derivation was read by others as a complicated rumination on a mythologized American past that gains momentums through its opposites: sweeping Western panoramas with peppy ‘70s pop playing against it, modern scenes of violence and bloodshed faded to an old-timey sepia, a school- teacher who manages to bridge the categories of Madonna and whore in ways that John Ford would never dream (or at least, could never show).

! What is the meaning of putting these generational cues and signs into conflict — is the clash merely an aesthetic device, or is there an ideological, even an industrial, argument being forged? It cannot be a coincidence that a film so confused and conflicted about America’s Wild West imaginary would be proceed on the heels of Hollywood’s movement away from its own grand past: of Hollywood glamour, of MGM spectacles, and Studio Chiefs who begged, borrowed, and stole for their art.

And now, the 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…

Thanks for playing, kids! -Annie

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