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Strangers in the Night: Frank Sinatra unravels a brainwashing plot using Laurence Harvey to subvert American politics in 'The Manchurian Candidate.'

Tiffany Talent

George Axelrod (1922-2003): It was good to know he was out there, taking it easy for all the rest of us

By Richard von Busack

FROM THE PLAY Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by George Axelrod: "I figured anybody can write a movie. The big trick is to sit through one." Axelrod, who died late in June, was a playwright and a writer of popular screenplays. He created human-sized roles for both Marilyn Monroe (The Seven Year Itch) and her parody self, Jayne Mansfield (in his Hollywood Faust story Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?). His Oscar-nominated streamlining (or mainstreaming) of Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's resulted in a film that never leaves the revival screens. Breakfast at Tiffany's represents New York as a multiculti feast to which even the poor can find admission. That quality may be essential to the film's appeal, besides the skyscrapers bathed in river light, Mancini's music and Audrey Hepburn's blithe little courtesan Holly Golightly. Here is a city full of people like Holly's cat named Cat, who seek shelter without work and love without responsibility.

And the wit here is often Axelrod's, whose work is redolent of the era of cool jazz and the wet bar. His ear for showbiz talk was as good as S.J. Perelman's and his gift for elegantly phrased lechery rivaled Terry Southern's. "I want to end my days lying on the golden shores of Malibu, my head cradled in the lap of a sun-kissed starlet, sipping vin rosé and dictating long, thin movies to fit long, thin screens."

While Axelrod's work went out of style in the hippie era, there are two films of the 1960s where he bestirred himself from the sun and the vin rosé. One was his directorial debut, the overlooked 1966 comedy Lord Love a Duck, in which a nerdly genius (Roddy McDowall) destroys himself over a stunning but venal girl (Tuesday Weld). This evil comedy was the Heathers of its day.

But it's Axelrod's other film, taken out of circulation after the JFK assassination, that represents his most serious achievement. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is an ingenious satire of the paranoid streak in American politics. In this berserk story, Frank Sinatra--perfectly cast--plays a haunted, sweaty secret agent cracking a Commie brainwashing plot. Lawrence Harvey parodies Hamlet as a disagreeable American war hero and political prince with mother issues. Playing his mother: Angela Lansbury, recently honored as one of the 100 Best Villains by the American Film Institute. She's an Ann Coulter-style ultra-right-wing broadcaster. Her speech forecasting a Patriot Act to come--"They'll sweep us into the White House with powers that'll make martial law look like anarchy"--begs to be sampled and mixed into today's political hip-hop.

Axelrod's real achievement wasn't just finding and buying Richard Condon's novel. The real skill lies in the adroitness of Axelrod's tone. John Frankenheimer's direction leans more toward Sam Fuller. Axelrod's script is more like the work of a Yankee Buñuel, urbane instead of shocking. Writers love to punish themselves. More should subscribe to the breeziness of Axelrod's epigram "Writing something is the cross every writer has to bear."


Breakfast at Tiffany's plays July 16 outdoors at sundown in San Jose at Park Valencia, Santana Row, Winchester and Stevens Creek. (The film also shows Aug. 30-Sept. 3 at the Stanford Theater.) The Manchurian Candidate plays July 12-15 at the Stanford Theater.


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Web extra to the July 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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