The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
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Synopsis: Raymond Shaw, stepson of Sen. John Iselin, a highly vocal anti-Communist demagogue, returns from the Korean War decorated for war heroism. The sullen, withdrawn Shaw is described with robotic precision by all the surviving members of his platoon, including Army lifer Bennett Marco, as a warm and wonderful human being. But Marco is having nightmares about what really happened in Korea, and when he finds out others have been experiencing the same disturbances, he sets about to uncover the truth - that the entire platoon had been captured and brainwashed by the Chinese Communist enemy. As opponents of the rabidly right-wing Iselin and his wife, Raymond's fierce, controlling mother, begin to be destroyed politically or killed outright, Marco discovers Raymond's deadly mission and the horrifying reason they were brainwashed years earlier.
The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare pictures that enjoys a reputation and cult status that extends far beyond its effectiveness as a superb entertainment. The controversial subject matter and unique combination of genres and tones (ranging from nerve-shattering thriller to wildly fantastic political satire), flawlessly executed by all involved, earn it a place in the pantheon. But the picture has also gained in cache thanks to the historical events that came on the heels of its release, an era of political unrest and horrifying assassination that seems to be foreshadowed by the film's story. On top of that, the film's unavailability for viewing for more than 20 years, fueled by speculation for the reasons it was being withheld, added an air of mystery to this volatile and terrifying parable of American political life.
The Manchurian Candidate's impact on all those who saw it in 1962 was undeniable. Although Richard Condon's novel had been available to the public since 1959, the story did not have the same dramatic effect on readers it would have on moviegoers when they saw it brought to life by some of Hollywood's most talented actors. The nation's shameful anti-Communist era was essentially over, but its effects lingered, and the idea of presenting a McCarthy-type movement as a sinister Communist plot was outrageous. The topsy-turvy premise offered great opportunities for twisting and turning the audience's attention and expectations, shifting between black humor and queasy violence to make for an emotional thrill ride.
Although he had built up a solid reputation with the release of both Birdman of Alcatraz and All Fall Down in 1962, director John Frankenheimer became a major cinematic force with The Manchurian Candidate. He was instrumental in providing a creative atmosphere that allowed Frank Sinatra to give what many feel is his best performance. And he also drew impressive work from Laurence Harvey and, despite her odd and relatively small role, from Janet Leigh. And of course, there is the unforgettable Angela Lansbury, a mommie dearest so indelibly, deliciously evil that her Oscar®-nominated performance is usually what is remembered most about the film.
Frankenheimer, ably assisted by Oscar®-nominated editor Ferris Webster, creates a tension and excitement that have not dated, moving the story back and forth in time and place, revealing bits of information and shocking details in fantastic sequences of memory and nightmare alternating with stark realism. A director who cut his teeth in television, Frankenheimer creates small moments that are filled with conflict and movement. A case in point is the press conference sequence, in which we see Lansbury, the mastermind, in the foreground; James Gregory, as her puppet husband, carrying out her orders in the background; and the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) on a TV screen watched by Lansbury as he furiously reacts to accusations of Communist influence in his department - all this tense action compacted into one tight, unbearably cramped frame.
The true mark of an essential film is how well it stands the test of time. When it was re-released in 1988, The Manchurian Candidate caused as much, or more, of a sensation than on its initial theatrical run, finding an entirely new generation of admirers. Since that time, it has taken on an almost mythic importance due to the events that transpired in its wake and the fact that both Frankenheimer and Sinatra were close friends of the Kennedy family. Seen today, it is as exciting, creepy, and darkly humorous as it was in 1962. And despite a 2004 reworking and updating of the story, the original's power and influence have not been diminished.
irector: John Frankenheimer
Producers: Howard W. Koch (executive producer), George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Design: Richard Sylbert, Philip M. Jefferies
Music: David Amram
Cast: Frank Sinatra (Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Angela Lansbury (Raymond's mother), Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose), Leslie Parrish (Jocie Jordon), James Gregory (Sen. John Iselin).
by Rob Nixon