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Still the most sophisticated of paranoid thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate is the link between film noir and the later conspiracy-minded movies of the 1970s. Predating the first Kennedy assassination, the film weirdly predicts an entire culture of distrust and political insecurity. Richard Condon probably meant his book as a Cold War satire, but both it and the movie have now taken on bigger meanings. The idea that hypnotized deep cover agents could be programmed to carry out the orders of foreign agents was taken as far-fetched fantasy in the early 60s. Now we aren't so sure it's not a real possibility.
Probably the best movie work by everyone involved, The Manchurian Candidate gets more complex the more one sees it. The title has continually been evoked to describe conspiracies real and imagined; the conspiratorial filmmakers appear to have hidden a secret or two within the movie itself.
I've kept the synopsis to a minimum with the idea that someone out there may not have seen The Manchurian Candidate; we wouldn't want to spoil that experience for them. In fact, if you haven't seen the movie and you like intelligent thrillers, stop reading this until you've gotten a chance to see the picture. It's unlike any other.
The Manchurian Candidate is the essence of the paranoid thriller, a subgenre that only developed in the 1970s and is linked to a cultural cynicism over Vietnam, Watergate and the previous decade's political assassinations. With so much lying and covering-up going on, people were ready to believe anything about anything.
But that cynicism came later. Frankenheimer's film was a flop when it was released, a development that confounded those critics who instantly recognized a superior entertainment. It wasn't the right year for intense intellectual anxiety - America would instead soon turn to James Bond's upbeat and reassuring escapism. 1 Yet The Manchurian Candidate stayed in the collective consciousness as a "special" movie that might be more true than it seemed. Rumors abounded as to why it was withdrawn from circulation and not shown much again until a 1988 rerelease; some said it was because Frank Sinatra felt guilty about the Kennedy assassination. In reality the film was pulled because of a financial tiff between Sinatra's company and United Artists, and was withdrawn simply so it wouldn't drain the profits from other better-received Sinatra pix like the terrible Sergeants Three. In any case, Sinatra was already associated with another film about an attempt on the life of a president, Suddenly. It wasn't withdrawn, even though it later lapsed into the Public Domain. And Sinatra made yet another sniper-assassin picture four years later with The Naked Runner. So ends the "guilt" theory.
All of these rumors haven't eclipsed the mystery of the movie itself. It advances the notion that Communist experts (descendants, perhaps, of those Pavlovian geniuses seen in silent documentaries of cruel vivisection experiments on animals) could brainwash American soldiers into becoming the unknowing pawns of spymaster-controllers. Using a programmed trigger, in this case the Queen of Diamonds playing card, the controllers could instruct a subject to do anything they wanted him to do and then order him to forget they'd ever done it. Previously, the Remote Control of Human Beings was only investigated in science fiction films like Invaders from Mars. That makes The Manchurian Candidate science fiction as well.
The jovial Chinese mastermind Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) chortles at the naive idea that "people can't be hypnotized to do things they wouldn't normally do" - and that commonly held belief is indeed foolish when one realizes that all one need do to circumvent the inhibitions of the hypnotized subject is create a false reality. Stage hypnotists do this all the time, telling a subject they're alone at home where no one can see them. Then they suggest that the subject do something they wouldn't normally do in front of other people.
Laurence Harvey was often stiff and uncomfortable-looking in his movies. His better pictures Expresso Bongo, Room at the Top and Darling are exceptions to this; The Manchurian Candidate uses Harvey's more typical unhappy presence to good effect. Angela Lansbury's harpy of a mother is correct when she says that it does look as if his head is "about to come to a point in the next thirteen seconds." Harvey always seems on the verge of a migraine, a perfect stance for a man with a head stuffed full of other people's software commands.
When Condon wrote his book, his biggest theme was anti-McCarthyism. James Gregory's John Yerkes Iselin is a clown, but a very dangerous one. Unlike the boorish self-promoter McCarthy, Iselin is just a puppet following the directions of his wife, played by Angela Lansbury as a uniquely American female monster. Loud, prejudiced and insultingly dismissive of those around her, Mrs. Iselin is a brilliant but frustrated castrating female willing to let the world go to ruin to get the power she wants. She's the engine of destruction in the American landscape, some species of grand misogynistic demon. I've seen plenty of wealthy and manipulative women but none who really wanted to be Lady MacBeth and Mr. MacBeth at the same time. Lansbury actually has very little screen time (this is an intensely economical movie) but we know right away who is in charge. In a film full of actors' best roles, hers is on the top of the stack.
The movie really surprises when it comes to Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. Sinatra had a bad habit of skating through his pictures, barely paying attention to their directors (ask what drove Frank Capra to fits of apoplexy) and falling back on his ring-a-ding persona in lieu of anything like acting. He's obviously quite committed to The Manchurian Candidate and does a great job looking feverish and disoriented. Janet Leigh also gives her part a completely professional spin. She has less screen time of any of the leads and her role appears to serve little real function in the story. Her Eugenie Rose Chaney character is just "the girl," someone for Sinatra to romance between panic attacks. Or is she?
The movie is famous for its eccentric writing, the weird dialogue stranger than anything in George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck. Sinatra occasionally segues back into hip phrases, but nothing that breaks his character. But there is a vein of content that some writers have pegged as placing a whole new perspective on the movie. 2 What's with Marco's having hundreds of books lying around his apartment on all these weird subjects? Why is he filling his head full of arcane knowledge?
And what exactly is happening in Marco's introductory scene with Rose on the train? She keeps asking him questions and making statements with the names of states in them. She talks about being one of the original Chinese who "laid the track on this line." Then they exchange comments that confuse the notions of being married and being Arabic. On the surface this talk is all nonsense, but they say it like it's hipster jargon, with we the audience excluded from the joke.
The theory is that Raymond Shaw wasn't the only soldier assigned a "controller" in China. Rose Chaney is Marco's controller. Perhaps she rattles through several state names because saying them in a particular order will trigger Marco the way the Queen of Diamonds triggers Raymond. The Chinese laborers would seem an obvious reference to Dr. Yen Lo. What the, "Or are you Arabic?" line means is obscure, except that one of the books Marco was reading was about Arabic customs.
Rose Chaney - the girl with a thousand faces? - seems to be a plant who enters the conspiracy to babysit Marco and keep tabs on him. She first intercepts Marco when he's on his way to New York to see Shaw for the first time since the war. She soon has him sharing everything with her. She comes on to him strongly, offering herself as both a lover and a nurturing mother figure. She commiserates with Marco over his bad luck and never interferes with his plans except when he proposes to her. That suggestion is deflected with professional precision; Rosie changes the subject as if she were talking to a child.
Frankly, in a movie as carefully organized as The Manchurian Candidate, it makes no sense whatsoever for Rosie to be "just the girl" for Sinatra. Why waste the screen time? And why return for a coda where Marco simply recites some facts about Medal of Honor winners before breaking down in remorse? Is Rosie still on the job, babysitting the only survivor who can put the puzzle pieces together? As with later paranoid conspiracy films the movie ends with the villains still at large and their nefarious plots mostly intact. This particular five-year effort didn't pay off, but the long-range planners in Peiping surely have more projects in the works.
The difference between The Manchurian Candidate and escapist spy movies is the sense of unease inherited from film noir. A very similar movie is 1989's The Package. It builds up a nice momentum as Gene Hackman seeks to undo an assassination plot. But by the halfway point the mystery has become all too clear; we know Hackman will save the day in the nick of time. In The Manchurian Candidate we're never sure about much of anything. It's more than a simple case of "things are not as they seem." Unlike Gene Hackman cutting the baddies down to size, we have no confidence that Marco will save the day. And he doesn't, really.
The Manchurian Candidate is brilliantly cast. Making comedian John McGiver represent the liberal opposition does not reassure us in the least. 3 Leslie Parrish (Daisy Mae in the overlooked musical L'il Abner) is cooly eccentric. Henry Silva is a stereotyped Korean who doesn't look Korean, and various other roles veer toward cartoonishness without upsetting the rest of the film's documentary realism.
Director Frankenheimer pulls off a genuine masterstroke with his objective/subjective circular scene that confuses a Communist briefing with a ladies' garden party. Without words and with the slyness of a political cartoonist, he gets away with extreme gags like having the same scene repeated from the POV of a black soldier (James Edwards), who then imagines all the garden ladies as black. But there's always a sting in the tail - just as we're laughing, we get a (for 1962) shockingly graphic bullet to the head.
MGM's Special Edition DVD of The Manchurian Candidate replaces the flat letterboxed older release with a crisp new 16:9 remaster, reason enough to buy it. The extras show a nice variety. A Frankenheimer commentary is repeated from the first disc along with a reunion interview with Axelrod, Frankenheimer and Sinatra for the 1988 theatrical reissue. The conversation goes along nicely until Sinatra is upset by an opinion he doesn't like. He basically shuts the other two out, takes over and tells things the way he sees them. It's pretty amusing. 4
Two new featurettes interview Angela Lansbury and director William Friedkin. Lansbury's personal reminiscences are interesting for their own sake and director Friedkin explains the late Frankenheimer's genius and some of the film's political context and import. The trailer is there as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Manchurian Candidate rates:
1. Variety reviewed Dr. No the same week as The Manchurian Candidate and found it to be good too, but the "Bondwagon" didn't really get rolling as an international craze until the release of Goldfinger two years later.
2. I learned about this from Greil Marcus' book The Manchurian Candidate, BFI Classics series, 2002.
3. McGiver's ineffective liberal is also mocked with a freaky composition that makes it look as if the wings of an American Eagle are sprouting from his head, telegraphing that he's about to become an "angel." Similarly, James Gregory's Iselin is frequently juxtaposed with images of Lincoln, reinforcing the notion that assassination is a historical tradition in America. It's undeniably weird that right after The
Manchurian Candidate it became a frequent occurrence.
4. We got the source tapes of that original interview short and I lobbied to reinvestigate them for a re-cut, to see if there were provocative statements that could be reinstated. Then a phone call asked me if I wanted to play some solitaire, and the idea just seemed to go away ...