Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Still the most sophisticated paranoid thriller, 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 concept 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
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.
Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring dreams that tell him
there's something false about his Korean war experience three years before. He investigates his old
platoon buddy Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Medal of Honor winner who unbeknownst to
even himself has been programmed as a conscienceless assassin by Russian and Chinese communists.
Someone is waiting for the right moment to put Shaw into action, but who?
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 Rumors abounded as to why it was withdrawn from circulation and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 puts forward the idea that
communist experts (descendants, perhaps, of those Pavlovian geniuses seen in the silent documentary
showing cruel vivisection experiments on animals) could brainwash American
soldiers to be the unknowing pawns of spymaster-controllers. Using programmed triggers, in this case
the Queen of Diamonds playing card, the controllers could instruct the subject to do anything they
wanted them to do, and then order them to forget they'd ever done it. Previously, the Remote Control
of Human Beings was a science fiction staple in films like
Invaders from Mars.
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 is create a false reality to allow the hypnotized
subject to circumvent his inhibitions. 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 right, 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, its biggest theme was anti-McCarthyism. James Gregory's John Yerkes
Iselin is a clown, but a very dangerous one. Unlike the boorish and self-promoting 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 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 in 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 segues
back into some hipster talk on occasion, nothing that breaks his character. But there is a whole
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, and we the audience are excluded from the joke.
The theory is that Raymond Shaw wasn't the only soldier assigned a "controller" in China.
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 comiserates 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 could put all 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 three or four more in the works.
The difference between The Manchurian Candidate and escapist spy movies is the sense of
unease inherited from film noir. There's a very similar 1989 movie The Package. It
builds up a nice momentum as Gene Hackman seeks to undo an assassination plot. But by the halfway point
we're no longer invested in the mystery, which 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
isn't 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 are 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 seems to get upset by an opinion he doesn't like. He basically takes over,
tells things the way he sees them and shuts the other two out. 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:
Supplements: commentary, 1988 interview, 2004 interview docus with Angela Lansbury and
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 2, 2004
1. Variety actually 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
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 recut - 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 after that the idea
just seemed to go away ...
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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