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Paranoia runs amuck and reigns supreme.
Only a choice few political thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s have grown in stature, but no film has made as complete jump from fantasy to plausibility as John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. It's the key link between films noirs and the later conspiracy-minded movies of the 1970s. Predating the first Kennedy assassination, the movie weirdly predicts our cultural shift toward political distrust and insecurity. Author Richard Condon may have meant his book as a Cold War satire, but both it and the movie have now taken on bigger meanings. In 1962 the idea that deep cover agents could be hypnotized and programmed to carry out the orders of foreign enemies was taken as science fiction or fantasy. Now we aren't so sure.
Representing the best filmmaking work by everyone involved, The Manchurian Candidate becomes more complex the more one sees it. The title is now commonly evoked to describe conspiracies real and imagined. In later years critics and analysts have claimed that the 'conspiratorial' filmmakers hid a secret or two within the movie itself.
The story takes place in the Red Scare years after the Korean War. Former POW Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring dreams that tell him there's something false about his experience in combat. He investigates his old platoon buddy and fellow ex-prisoner Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Medal of Honor winner. Unbeknownst even to himself, Raymond has been brainwashed. Russian and Chinese communists have psychologically programmed him to function as a conscienceless assassin. The spies are waiting for the right moment to put Shaw into action, but who is controlling him?
This synopsis has been minimized with the idea that someone out there may not have seen The Manchurian Candidate; we wouldn't want to spoil that experience for anybody. In fact, if you like intelligent thrillers and haven't seen the movie, stop reading this. It's unlike any other. Frankenheimer's film is the essence of the paranoid thriller subgenre that came into its own in the 1970s and is commonly linked to the cultural cynicism over Vietnam, Watergate and the previous decade's political assassinations. With so much lying and covering-up going on, the public was ready to believe almost anything about anything. Now, of course, we as a nation are constantly distracted by so much nonsense, that ordinary relevant facts have been crowded out of the public discourse.
But just ten years earlier Candidate was far-fetched fantasy. It also flopped on release, a development that confounded those critics that instantly recognized a superior entertainment. Perhaps it was a bad year for intense intellectual anxiety, what with Americans worried about the bomb. We would instead turn for reassurance to the upbeat escapism of James Bond. 1 Yet The Manchurian Candidate stuck 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, to be seen only infrequently until a 1988 rerelease. One rumor was that Frank Sinatra felt guilty because of the film's similarities to the Kennedy assassination. In reality the problem was a financial tiff between Sinatra's company and United Artists, and the show was withdrawn simply so it wouldn't drain the profits from other better-received Sinatra pix like the terrible Gunga Din remake, Sergeants Three. In any case, neither Sinatra nor UA did anything about the actor's earlier film Suddenly, in which he plays a sniper preparing to assassinate the President; it continued to play on late-night TV without comment. Sinatra starred in yet another sniper-assassin picture four years later with The Naked Runner. So ends the "guilt" theory.
The Manchurian mystery has outlasted all of these rumors and myths. The film advances the notion that Communist experts using Pavlovian techniques 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 instruct a subject to do anything they want him to do and then order him to forget that he had ever done it. Previously, the Remote Control of Human Beings had been the subject matter of comic books and outlandish 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 naïve idea that "people can't be hypnotized to do things they wouldn't normally do". That commonly held belief is indeed foolish when one realizes that all one need do to circumvent the inhibitions of a hypnotized subject is to 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 public.
Laurence Harvey was often stiff and uncomfortable-looking in his movies. His better pictures Expresso Bongo and Room at the Top 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 looks as if Raymond's 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.
The biggest theme in Condon's book is McCarthyism. James Gregory's John Yerkes Iselin may be a clown, but he's a very dangerous one. Unlike the boorish self-promoter McCarthy, Iselin is a mere 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. To get her hands on power she's willing to let the world go to ruin. She's the engine of destruction in the American landscape, a species of grand misogynistic demon. Lansbury actually has very little screen time in this intensely economical movie, but we know right away who is in charge. It's her most assured, intense film performance.
The intriguing pair-up in the show is Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. Sinatra had a bad habit of skating through his pictures, ignoring his directors and falling back on his casual, audience-pleasing ring-a-ding behaviors. He's obviously committed to The Manchurian Candidate, giving each scene a maximum concentration - he's great when feverish and disoriented. Janet Leigh also gives her part a completely professional spin. She has less screen time of any of the leads and initially appears to serve little real function in the story. As William Friedkin explains, the Eugenie Rose Chaney character is just "the girl," someone for Sinatra to romance between panic attacks. Or is she?
The movie is famous for George Axelrod's eccentric writing, with weird dialogue stranger than anything in his Lord Love a Duck. Sinatra occasionally reverts to hip phrases, but nothing that breaks his character. Yet there is a vein of dialogue that some writers have pegged as placing a whole new perspective on the movie. 2
The oddities with Marco pile up very quickly. What's with the dozens 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 Rose's introductory scene with Marco 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 the characters recite 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? - would appear to enter the conspiracy to babysit Marco and keep tabs on him. She first intercepts him when he's on his way to his New York reunion with Raymond Shaw. She soon has Marco 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. Notice that Rosie deflects Marco's marriage proposal with professional precision. She 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. The commercial quota of sexy scenes is satisfied with Leslie Parrish. 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? The only explanation is that Rosie is still on the job, babysitting the only surviving brainwashing victim that can put the puzzle pieces together - or serve as the next phantom trigger man. As with later paranoid conspiracy films the movie ends with the villains still at large and their conspiracy intact. This particular five-year effort didn't pay off, but the planners in Peiping surely have more projects in the works. Elect that loser Nixon, perhaps?
The difference between The Manchurian Candidate and the decade's more successful escapist spy movies is its sense of unease, perhaps inherited from film noir. 1989's similarly plotted The Package builds up a nice momentum as Gene Hackman seeks to thwart 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. The film is reassuring. In The Manchurian Candidate we're never certain 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 supporting cast of The Manchurian Candidate is brilliantly chosen. 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. Various other roles veer toward cartoonishness without upsetting the rest of the film's documentary surface.
The big talking point with the film has always been director Frankenheimer's cinematic masterstroke, an objective/subjective circular scene that confuses a Communist seminar with a ladies' garden party. The conceptually challenging scene explains itself, and has a wicked sense of humor. The same Mad Tea Party is 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. How many pre-1962 movies can you remember that show bloody brains splattering across a wall?
Arrow Academy's Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of The Manchurian Candidate is the same as MGM/Fox's 2011 release, with the same fine MGM film transfer and uncompressed audio. The movie has always looked good, and this expertly graded-scan cannot be faiulted. When displayed on a large screen the HD image reveals the director's penchant for composing shots in depth, as in the televised news conference and the killing in the congressman's kitchen. The improved resolution confirms that Henry Silva's close-up in one of the very first shots is an optical effect - his face has been inserted into the picture via a travelling matte. The film is a showcase for the director's cutting edge docu techniques. Frankenheimer uses rear-projected views out car windows, but also the TV broadcast scene with the repeated images of Senator Iselin. The multiplied TV images 'confuse the message' while also pointing forward to later split screen experiments in film's like Frankenheimer's own Grand Prix.
Arrow has included the older MGM- produced extras made for videotape in 1988 (the year the movie was finally reissued) and for DVD in 2004. The 1988 reunion interview with Axelrod, Frankenheimer and Sinatra moves along well until Sinatra suddenly loses patience with 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 The two featurettes from 2004 are built around interviews with Angela Lansbury and director William Friedkin, who considered John Frankenheimer his personal mentor. Arrow adds its own lengthy extra, an hour-long TV docu series called The Directors. A convenient chapter stop is included to go to the section that talks about The Manchurian Candidate.
Arrow's fancy illustrated souvenir booklet contains two essays guaranteed to induce political paranoia. Peter Knight begins with the old rumors that Sinatra and the mob helped JFK win the White House, and that Kennedy asked Sinatra specifically to make the movie. Knight repeats the disproved 'guilt' story about the theatrical withdrawal of the film, but weaves a good web of conspiracy elsewhere. In his view, the CIA drummed up propaganda about brainwashing, and then believed their own lies. Their experiments to 'alter men's minds' achieved no brainwashing results, but did open new avenues in psychological and physical torture methods: 'enhanced interrogation.'
Neil Sanders' essay goes further into the crazy coincidences and historical echoes of Candidate including the recurring fear that RFK was gunned down by a brainwashed Sirhan Sirhan. The article gives enough testimony and references to make any reader think that Frankenheimer's movie is small potatoes next to an enormous real-life secret brainwashing conspiracy. Even the sci-fi premise of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World no longer seems out of the question. Wenders' unseen CIA villains frame two scientists as outlaws to get their hands on their invention, a device that can pull mental memory images out of the human brain -- or insert false ones.
Disc producer Michael Brooke's booklet also has a section of contemporary British film reviews. My favorite likens Frankeheimer's sci-fi stew of altered reality to Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Variety reviewed Dr. No the same week as The Manchurian Candidate and praised it too. But the "Bondwagon" didn't really get rolling as a full-blown 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. It's not considered a wild theory, but a legitimate read of the movie.
3. McGiver's ineffective liberal is mocked with a freaky camera 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 political assassinations became the scourge of the decade.
4. I edited the featurettes for the 2004 disc. While prepping it we accessed the original source tapes for the 1988 Sinatra/Axelrod/Frankenheimer interview. 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...
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.