IF YOU COME IN FIVE MINUTES AFTER THIS PICTURE BEGINS, YOU WON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT! WHEN YOU’VE SEEN IT ALL, YOU’LL SWEAR THERE’S NEVER BEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT!
This movie ran into bad luck. Or was it really that bad? It’s been said sometimes that The Manchurian Candidate was pulled from distribution when President John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963 because of similarities with what happens near the end of the film. It was rereleased in theaters in 1987 and treated as almost a revelation. In an interview, Angela Lansbury said that her career received a boost thanks to this renewed interest.
But the film never really disappeared. In the years after the assassination, The Manchurian Candidate was shown in theaters and on TV. But there’s no doubt that the well-managed rerelease helped its standing.
During the Korean War, an American military unit is captured by Soviet soldiers; after some time, all of them but two return to the United States. Captain Marco Bennett (Frank Sinatra) recommends that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is awarded the Medal of Honor; his courage is the reason why almost all of them survived. Shaw also gets a hero’s welcome, staged by his ambitious mother Eleanor (Lansbury), all for the benefit of her husband (James Gregory), a clueless senator whom she wants to see as president. In the following years, Bennett is plagued by a recurring nightmare where Shaw is brainwashed by the Soviet and Chinese military into murdering the two men of the unit who never came back…
Few secrets in the story
For us in the audience there are few secrets here. We know that the whole unit was brainwashed and that the Soviets and the Chinese have a sinister purpose for Shaw; making Bennett recommend him for the Medal of Honor elevates his position and gets him closer to the powers that be in D.C. We know that Shaw is a sleeper agent who’s ”activated” through a phone call and a game of solitaire.
But even though we know all this, there’s lots of sweaty suspense throughout the film. After all, we don’t know exactly what Shaw is meant to do and we wonder if Bennett will realize in time that he’s been played and do something about it. Director John Frankenheimer (who also made another terrific political thriller, Seven Days in May (1964)) and screenwriter George Axelrod present a very dark and twisted conspiracy that may not look plausible because of its fantastical ingredients… but the thing is that the film has remained relevant through the decades and consistently been used as a reference. It’s not because we necessarily believe in the actual brainwashing part of the film, with card games triggering agents, but because it is a little too close to reality to see how easily a dumb politician is used by unseen powers to manipulate other politicians and the people.
The film draws a clear connection to Joseph McCarthy only a decade after that shameful chapter in American history, and contemporary commentators have seen parallels in the rise of Donald Trump. That said, the brainwashing in the shape of Bennett’s recurring dream is brilliantly conceived, an eerie and absurdly funny sequence where the Soviet and Chinese military figures take the shape of little old ladies at a garden club party.
A lot of things are convincing about this film. The style is intense and direct, almost like a documentary. And we even believe in Lansbury as Harvey’s mother, even though they’re only a few years apart. This is one of her finest efforts onscreen, intimidating as a truly political creature, complete with just the slightest hint of incest to make us really fear and loathe her.
The Manchurian Candidate 1962-U.S. 126 min. B/W. Produced by George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Screenplay: George Axelrod. Novel: Richard Condon. Cinematography: Lionel Lindon. Editing: Ferris Webster. Cast: Frank Sinatra (Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Eugénie Rose Chaney), Angela Lansbury (Eleanor Iselin), Henry Silva, James Gregory.
Trivia: Remade as The Manchurian Candidate (2004).
Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Lansbury).
Last word: “In 1960 I was probably the best-known television director around. And I was approached to do some work for John Kennedy. And I don’t know… I was 30 years old. I was going through a divorce, and I just didn’t want to deal with it, so I said no. Then when we were in pre-production on ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ a couple years later, there was a great deal of concern that JFK wouldn’t like it because of its subject matter. So Sinatra, who was great friends with him, flew up to Hyannis Port and told Kennedy he was doing the film, to which Kennedy replied ‘I love ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Who’s going to play the mother?’ (laughs) So Kennedy loved the movie.” (Frankenheimer, The Hollywood Interview)