RARA-AVIS: Sinatra Assassination Movies

From: Mark Harris ( mark_r_harris@yahoo.com)
Date: 20 Sep 2001

Colin wrote:

< The Guardian runs a Notes and Queries (readers answers) column and this week one of the questions concerned a film thriller. Said thriller was slated for release in 1963 and supposedly starred Frank Sinatra. It concerned the attempts of a gang to assassinate the US president, it was apparently withdrawn and never shown again when JFK was assassinated in not dissimilar circumstances. Does anyone out there know of this? >

There are actually *two* assassination movies starring Frank Sinatra: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which has already been mentioned, and Suddenly (1954), which was described by a fan-reviewer at the Internet Movie Database thus:

< "Suddenly" takes its name from the small western town where the action takes place. It's a taut drama about an assassination attempt on the President of the United States...Reportedly this movie was viewed by Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he assassinated President Kennedy. For this reason, Frank Sinatra withdrew this movie from circulation. >

The Manchurian Candidate, a masterpiece, was also withdrawn. This account is from filmsite.org:

< Although the film initially failed at the box-office, its importance as an un-nervingly close-to-the-truth statement was underlined when it was withdrawn and suppressed from movie theaters after the death of President Kennedy one year later - JFK was gunned down by the hand of a suspected, robotically docile, trained and 'brain-washed' assassin. Star Frank Sinatra purchased the rights to the film in order to permanently remove it from circulation. Coincidentally, Sinatra had also been featured as a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly (1954). Since then, the fictional film has attracted a cultish following for its tense, intriguing, relevant, and sophisticated story-line and symbolism (superbly filmed with innovative cinematography). >

According to another website, it was not just the JFK factor that kept The Manchurian Candidate out of circulation for 25 years, but also a profit dispute between Sinatra (who was instrumental in getting the daring film made at all) and Arthur Krim, the head of United Artists. (Other websites agree that there were fights over distribution rights.) And to confuse things further, here is yet another account from a 1988 Washington Post article on the occasion of the movie's re-release:

< Twenty-five years after its original release, John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" is back, and the mysteries surrounding the film as it returns to theaters are almost, though not quite, as compelling and bizarre as the movie itself.

Explanations of why the film -- which stars Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey and deals with a Communist plot to send a brainwashed American war hero to assassinate a presidential candidate -- was withdrawn are not as clear cut as the popular film lore might suggest. Even the exact length of time that the picture has been unavailable is hard to pin down.

One version has Sinatra, who obtained ownership of the rights to the film from United Artists in 1972, withdrawing it from release, along with the 1954 film
"Suddenly," which also was about an assassination plot, after it was revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the latter before he shot President Kennedy.

The screenwriter George Axelrod, who adapted the Richard Condon novel for the screen, says "The Manchurian Candidate" has been out of release since immediately following the president's death in 1963, when the film's producers and United Artists decided to call it in.

"The climate of the times was such," says Axelrod, who produced the film along with Frankenheimer and Sinatra, "that having an assassination picture floating around seemed to be in grotesque bad taste. Particularly since Frank had been friends with the president."

As for whose idea it was to withdraw the film, Axelrod says, "We practically all picked up the phone at the same time." But, he adds, "The decision was Sinatra's with our agreement -- we were the tail of the kite, really."

Axelrod reports that United Artists, the company that produced the film, had always been nervous about making the picture, but not because of any fear that it would encourage assassinations. "They didn't want to make it because they thought that it was un-American," he says. Ironically, it was a phone call from President Kennedy -- made at Sinatra's request -- that persuaded Arthur Krim, then head of United Artists and also the national finance chairman of the Democratic Party, to change his mind and start production.

(An additional irony, which may be more curious than telling but is entirely in keeping with the tone of the film, is that it was Frankenheimer who drove Robert Kennedy to the hotel in California the night he was assassinated.)

Seductive as all the theories may be, Richard Condon isn't buying them, and his response to Axelrod's version of the events is unequivocal. "Ridiculous!" he said when reached by phone at his home in Dallas. "I don't think it was ever actually 'pulled' from release. It had begun to peter out and play on late-night television. I know Sinatra has a very high regard for it. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if he put the film away, as one does, as an anchor to windward."

According to Frankenheimer's office, the film has, in fact, not been seen in this country, either on television or theatrically, except for scattered festival screenings, since its original release. But a spokesman there says that the Kennedy assassination was only "one of the reasons" the film has been out of circulation. The others, he says, are largely financial.

"It was money that held this thing up," says Axelrod, who first came up with the idea of turning the book into a movie. "Unromantic economics."

Sinatra himself was unavailable for comment, and when questioned on these matters, his spokesperson had no comment, except to say that Sinatra was "pleased and delighted" that the film would once again available to moviegoers. >

If Sinatra did buy the rights in order to "bury" the film for a while, only to have it re-surface to acclaim later, the strategy is a familiar one: Hitchcock did this with the films he owned personally
(Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry), and Jack Nicholson is currently sitting on The Passenger, the great film he made with Antonioni.

There may be a better, more definitive account of The Manchurian Candidate's history out there than what I've been able to find web-searching. Anyone?


__________________________________________________ Terrorist Attacks on U.S. - How can you help? Donate cash, emergency relief information http://dailynews.yahoo.com/fc/US/Emergency_Information/

# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
# majordomo@icomm.ca.  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 20 Sep 2001 EDT