In an era when American politics seem to exist in some strange parallel universe where reality plays second fiddle to rhetoric, a film like John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War classic, The Manchurian Candidate, is eerily prescient and remains alarmingly relevant. That is not to suggest any of our current politicians are embroiled in a global conspiracy of brainwashing and secretive plotting (though really, would anyone be surprised?), but what makes The Manchurian Candidate such a great film is that its themes are conceivable still today, and the formal execution of this paranoid thriller is itself remarkably modern.
Starting in 1952 Korea, The Manchurian Candidate opens on an initially merry band of soldiers called away from their revelry to go out on maneuvers. Not long into the assignment, they are betrayed by their Korean translator, are captured, and are evidently subjected to an as yet undetermined and unseen experimental conditioning technique. Sometime later, the leader of this group, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), returns to America where he receives the Congressional Medal of Valor. As it happens, this war hero is also the begrudging son of the overzealous, icy, and calculating Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), and the stepson of Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), an empty-headed politician running on an outlandishly ambiguous anti-Communist platform.
Meanwhile, a dream sequence initiates the mystery of The Manchurian Candidate and develops the brilliant catalyst for the film’s political plot. As the group of previously seen soldiers sit bored and passive during a Ladies Garden Club presentation on hydrangeas, the gathering is revealed to actually be a Communist meeting of top Chinese and Russian officials who detail their methods for mind control and showcase the obvious effectiveness. The way the sequence is constructed, there are times when the military men and scientists appear to be saying the words of the women, and vice versa. At first the sequence is a comical juxtaposition of the wrong words (political bluster or floral enlightenment) coming out of the wrong mouths (elderly women or hard-lined governmental personnel), all as the hapless men sit idly by. But soon we see the deadly potential and persuasive power of the hypnosis, and the gravity of the experiment is no laughing matter.
Haunted by these unceasing nightmares, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) pleads with his superiors to recognize significance in their recurrence. The officers remain curious but dismissive, even after Marco points out that the two men lost in action are, not coincidentally, the two men killed in this vision. His plea for understanding and assistance is powerfully contrasted by the coolness of he and the others in the dream sequence, their placidity most troubling when one sees the extent of their suffering in reality. It’s not just about what happened then, though; it is also about what is still influencing these ill-fated men. Asked about Shaw, Marco blindly recites, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The catch is that he and the others actually despise the sergeant. Marco, for one, knows that despite this approving declaration, somehow it isn’t the truth, and he grows increasingly aware of the entire situation’s crafted fabrication.
On his way to meet Shaw in New York City, Marco encounters Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh), ostensibly an irrelevant love interest who somehow falls for Marco’s sweaty, rambling, anxious charms, even meeting him at the police station after he is arrested a few scenes later, even though she hardly knows him. This is a bizarrely hasty and nonsensical courtship, but Chaney does give Marco a companion to whom he can vent his frustrations and concerns.
Marco finally discusses the situation with Shaw, who also notes that another soldier has contacted him with the same problem. When Marco takes this new information to his supervisors, and after said other soldier substantiates the mutual dream, an investigation is initiated into Shaw and what lies behind the torment of those previously under his command. Marco’s discussions with Shaw also elaborate upon the long-gestating hostilities between Mrs. Iselin and her beleaguered son, a feud that apparently reached its zenith when she began to meddle in his relationship with a rival senator’s young daughter before the war. At a costume party later in the film, Mrs. Iselin is dressed as Little Bo Peep, and the inference of her character as one who dominantly oversees her “sheep” will soon carry substantial weight.
The most remarkable thing about the structure of The Manchurian Candidate is the length it goes before there is any solid semblance of what exactly is happening. We have seen that someone, somehow, is controlling Shaw and coercing him to commit murder. It is clear that political motivations and implications are at play. But the film moves well beyond its halfway point before the true nature of the plot reveals itself. And when it does, it is somehow not that surprising, yet it also provides further impetus for the film to keep moving forward, as we now want to know the how and why in addition to the what. As Errol Morris comments in an interview on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, The Manchurian Candidate is like “Chinese, Korean and Soviet boxes” in its complex narrative web.
Frankenheimer’s visual diversity is like this, too. The film is a mosaic of slightly canted angles and deep-focus photography, accentuated by the overt placement of particular features and faces in the direct foreground. Diverse objects noticeably populate the interiors, including chessboards and pieces, origami birds, cigarettes, stacks of books in Marco’s apartment, and, of course, the playing cards that with key words function as triggering mechanisms and visual cues to provoke action. The Manchurian Candidate is subsequently a stellar example of production design built on the emphasis of certain props that may or may not have some significance but are prominent nevertheless, at least offering a hint of their eventual importance.
The stars of The Manchurian Candidate do exceptional work. As the controlling Mrs. Iselin, Lansbury is absolutely chilling and would receive an Academy Award nomination for her powerful performance. In her own Criterion interview, she notes that Sinatra initially proposed Lucille Ball for her role, a choice designed to contrast with the comedienne’s good-natured persona at the time. While that makes sense for the early 1960s, post-Murder, She Wrote audiences get the same amusement by seeing Lansbury as such a devious character. Sinatra, who already had an Oscar win and an additional nomination by 1962, likewise gives an excellent turn as the crusading figure of sanity (Lansbury says this is his best performance). And finally, though he is dispassionately stoic if not completely spellbound for much of the film, Harvey also does a great job. As one character puts it, Shaw and his men had their brain washed and “dried clean,” and as a helpless assassin there is something especially tragic in the vulnerability of Harvey’s character. When he walks away from the most devastating of his “assignments,” with tears streaming down an otherwise blank face, the forcefully buried pain is apparent.
Morris argues that The Manchurian Candidate is a little “too perverse” to be a thriller, instead contending the movie is a family story, one about “the American family gone awry.” Be that as it may, the film’s true power seems to derive from its sociopolitical repercussions and the way it tapped into a national consciousness. As Morris observes, The Manchurian Candidate spoke to a paranoid post-war era, one that expressed fears of foreign subversion on one hand and a corrupt government on the other, concerns that still permeate a considerable portion of the populace and keep the film as pertinent as ever.