Talking with Evans Frankenheimer about The Manchurian Candidate

John and Evans Frankenheimer
Although it was nominated for two Oscars, John Frankenheimer’s masterful 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate met with some opposition from critics upon its release, for a variety of reasons—including a possible reluctance to recirculate the film after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the fall of 1963—and languished, largely unseen, until it was finally rereleased in 1988. In honor of our disc release last week of the classic thriller, I sat down with the director’s widow, actor Evans Frankenheimer (formerly Evans Evans). She talked with me about her time on set with stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury—“It was a very friendly set”—and what it was like navigating the charged political debates around the film (adapted by screenwriter George Axelrod from a novel by Richard Condon), which she encountered while traveling on its national press tour.

Can you tell me about the atmosphere on set? Did the serious nature of the film carry over into life behind the scenes?

It was a regular atmosphere on set because everybody was working and involved in what they were doing—so it wasn’t jolly-jolly jump-up time, people weren’t running around having a party. I knew Angela Lansbury very well, because she lived up the coast and was a friend, but you certainly never bothered an actor on the set and you didn’t get in their eyelines. Angela had been in All Fall Down, which came out in March and this came out in September. So John said, after she’d finished the two roles that year, “I’ve made you mother of the year,” because in both of them she kisses her son—and John fought for those kisses and won. But everyone got along well; it was a very friendly set. Movies then were much leaner than they are now, and it was done in thirty days.

How did Frank Sinatra become a collaborator on the film?

We had a little house in Malibu Colony that we’d rented, and we’d sit in our barroom, as John and George would call it, and drink Dom Pérignon and put the bottles up in the windows. By the time we left the house we got them all around the room. That was when Dom Pérignon cost about twelve dollars, if you can believe it. But anyway, George knew Frank Sinatra and said we’ve got to have Frank. John said that he’d heard Frank was terribly, terribly difficult—that he comes late and holds people up for three hours and won’t do more than one take, et cetera. George said, “Let’s worry about that after we’ve gotten him, dear boy.” So they went down to Florida to the Fontainebleau, where Frank was performing, and all over the place were all sorts of mafia figures. There was a huge boxing match going on at that time, and they kept coming out and telling John and George what to bet on and who was going to fall when, which was a little distressing considering that’s exactly what happened.

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate
John finally went to Frank’s house to talk, and Frank said, “Well, I hear you’re very nervous about working with me.” And John said, “Yes, I’ve heard that you come three hours late and won’t do more than one take.” And Frank said, “Well, first of all, I’m an insomniac, John, and I really don’t get to sleep until three in the morning. There’s no way, because of what I’ve done as an entertainer all my life, to come down from entertaining at clubs—it’s about three o’clock in the morning when you go to sleep. And to wake up and be on a movie set at five or six in the morning, it’s hell.” So he said, “However, if we could maybe do French hours . . .” and John said, “Oh my god, I love French hours!” Everybody arrives on the set at eleven or twelve o’clock having eaten breakfast and lunch; the craft service table sets up snacks for people to eat for the rest of the day—because there’s no dinner break, they don’t stop and sit down to eat, which saves a lot of time. That’s why John loved shooting in France, because you keep going and your concentration isn’t ruined by lunch and perhaps a lot of wine. So he said, “Well, that’s solved.” And Frank said, “I promise you I will be there,” which he was. He was incredible.

The other thing he said was, “As for my not wanting to do many takes, I’m an entertainer, John, I’m not an actor. I’m used to giving my all on the first go-round, I’m not used to repeating a scene. I certainly don’t repeat each evening—if I make a mistake or don’t like it, I don’t suddenly say, ‘Oops, I’m going to sing that again.’ ” He said, “I find that all my takes seem to be best on the first take and a lot of directors don’t pay attention to the actors,” which is true. A lot of directors really care about whether everything is perfect with the shot rather than perfect with the actors. And actually that did occur in that important scene when Frank is in the hotel room dealing cards for Laurence Harvey. It was a key scene, and it was just incredible, but then they got back and realized it was slightly out of focus. So they tried again and it was terribly upsetting to Frank, because he was so emotional about it, knowing how great his first take was, and John was too. So John just said, “To hell with it, we’re going with you even if it’s a little fuzzy.” People actually thought that he did that on purpose, because it sort of looked like Larry was looking at him through a kind of haze, so it worked.

There was another scene where you saw a boom, and John said, “Who gives a damn about the boom, we’re going with Frank.” So it did work out that way, and he was always best on his first take. For instance, that wonderful, wonderful love scene at the end of the train between Janet Leigh and Frank—that was all done in one take, really. He was just incredible on the first take, as was she. And that was also true in that wonderful, charming scene when Janet says, “How clever of you to have the police call for our first date.”

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate
Did that approach transfer over to the other actors as well?

He didn’t have to with the other actors. There was Angela, who was a consummate actress and could do something twenty times if you required it. She was so wonderful. You know that Frank originally wanted Lucille Ball, and when John heard this he didn’t argue, he said, “I’ve just finished All Fall Down, and I’m going to send you the cut footage of two or three scenes" of Angela.And he sent them over and Frank called and said, “Absolutely.” We were very good friends with Peter Shaw and Angela, they lived up the beach from us, and we were all very close. I just think she’s one of the more fabulous actresses, and I adore her. She’s a very, very dear friend still, and I can’t say enough good things about her.

What was it like shooting the large scenes set in Madison Square Garden?

For the first time, John found out how to shoot footage off the TV monitors at the same time he was filming the scene. They got TV people in from CBS to explain how to have a picture on the monitor that a movie camera could film. Usually if you had a TV monitor on a movie set you had to just put it in later, you couldn’t shoot what was on-screen. It was a complicated thing, and John was so thrilled because he liked that technique and had done it before in live television. Madison Square Garden itself we were on location for, but the close-ups on the stage were in Los Angeles, including the scene when Angela’s character was shot, which was a change from the book. In the book I think Marco instructs him to shoot her, but of course they couldn’t do that because that would make Frank Sinatra, Marco, into a really unpleasant character. So Richard Condon and everyone managed to come up with that wonderful idea of how to have it happen—that he just does it.

One of the other great scenes was watching the Ladies Club and all the Russian diplomats and Koreans. Do you remember Dr. Yen Lo played by Khigh Dhiegh and Zilkov played by Albert Paulsen? Albert had just shot All Fall Down and a lot of these same actors were in it, and he loved having a summer stock. He called it his summer stock or his stock company. Anyway, speaking of that scene, George said, “Dear John, I included the line, ‘Always with a little humor, dear Zilkov’ just for you.” So that became one of our family sayings, and we would always say, “Always with a little humor, dear Zilkov.” In fact, we had a pillow on our couch in Malibu with that written on it. It’s one of my favorite things about the movie.

I also think the scene when he walks into the lake in Central Park is fabulous. That was something they just decided on at the last minute. He just walked out, and boom! I’d never seen anything like it—he just got out of his trailer, it was cold as hell, and he just went walking down and went kerplunk. He does look hypnotized or brainwashed. We were all sort of standing there in shock.

John and Evans Frankenheimer on the set of Seconds
How was your experience on the film’s national tour? What kind of people did you encounter, and what was your role on the road?

John had said he was going to take me on the tour because it’s so lonely in those hotel rooms, and Howard W. Koch or somebody said, “Oh, great! Why don’t we use her—we’re going to need people at the premiere and openings.” It’s always sort of scary to begin with, and I cannot tell you how angry people were when we were on the road. Right- and left-wing people were angry, both of them! Some people said, “What in the hell does this mean?!” And so we would all stand there trying to calm them down, and be as jolly as we could, and explain what Condon said: that the extreme right and the extreme left, if they keep going out further and further left and right, they will finally meet somewhere in the middle and become the same thing. That was his feeling.

And how did people react to that?

It didn’t appease everybody, I can tell you. But we all got used to it. I didn’t realize why they were so happy to have me there; I got stuck going to all these women’s television interview shows, which were big all over the country. Those and ladies clubs things I’d spent my life avoiding! It was sort of interesting, though, talking about the movie and all the people in it, et cetera. We got very good at it. We could sort of pounce on people before they could ask a question. So we had some success the first time around, but when it really took off was when they rereleased it.

John and Evans Frankenheimer at the Cannes Film Festival
And what was it like seeing the film revived in 1988, more than twenty years after its initial release? Did it feel even more relevant then than it had when it premiered?

It was really exciting. By then, the term “Manchurian candidate” was in the dictionary. They were all in the office, and they said, “Well, it’s going to cost a lot of money to release this—it’s going to be at least two million dollars or something like that to make prints.” So Frank suddenly pulled his checkbook out and wrote a check and pushed it across the desk. And it was a huge success. It was very exciting.

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