Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962; Directed by John Frankenheimer)

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate both embodies and explodes the concept of the “classic” film. The term can be a bit of a poisonous snakebite as a selling feature for a movie. Like most things that are referred to as “classic” (novels, in particular, come immediately to mind), the moniker conjures expectations of an artistically edifying but nonetheless vaguely stultifying experience. It’s a promise of watching a film that we are assured is rewarding but is likewise possessed of out-of-fashion aesthetic, narrative, and discursive elements. Many great, entertaining, transporting films are “classics”, but the term invokes a sort of cinematic oatmeal: nutrition above deliciousness, intrinsic value over robust diversion.

The Manchurian Candidate is plenty robust. It’s also a whipsmart satire, darkly witty, expertly shot and composed, politically provocative, and deeply uneasy about the ambitious project of American democracy. In other words, it’s terribly modern, a movie at least 10 years ahead of its time, anticipating the breakdown of the Studio Era into the fragmented suspicion and paranoia of the 1970s. But it retains the meticulous craftsmanship of Old Hollywood, making it a sort of signpost hybrid as perhaps the prototypical political thriller.

The story, adapted fairly closely from Richard Condon’s novel, enfolds then-contemporary events such as the Cold War, its recent hot flash in Korea, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s socially destructive vendetta against American citizens with affiliations to the Communist Party into an imaginative, chilling psychological scenario. During the Korean War, a US Army patrol is captured and choppered away by Soviet agents. The unit’s commander, Raymond Shaw (the superb Laurence Harvey), is later given a hero’s welcome home to the States and a Medal of Honor for evidently saving the lives of all but two of his men. The laurels are quickly co-opted for political promotion purposes by his manipulative mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury, an iconic Freudian battleaxe) and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory, hilarious as a dimwitted McCarthy clone). But Shaw is stoic and principled, and chafes against his mother’s control, moving to New York to get into the newspaper business.

Although Shaw seems (suggestively) unbothered by his traumatic war experiences, the other men from his patrol are plagued by recurring, disturbing dreams. Captain Bennett Marco (a sweaty Frank Sinatra) is most haunted by them, rendering him all but useless in post-war assignments to Army Intelligence and public relations roles. In his dream, Marco sits with the rest of his patrol in the greenhouse of a New Jersey hotel, yawning through a lecture on hydrangeas put on by the local women’s auxiliary. But the greenhouse then becomes an examination theatre with Communist Party members observing a deadly demonstration of psychological conditioning, then slips back to the flower talk, until elements of both the conditioned cover story and the troubling memory of reality trespass into each other’s space, intermixing freely and cleverly. It’s the film’s showcase sequence, a bravura display, and it’s arguable that The Manchurian Candidate is never quite as good as it is in this scene.

It soon becomes apparent to Marco that something odd and unsettling happened to him – and more importantly, to Shaw – in Korea and that it may be part of a larger plot. The plot soon swallows not only Marco and Shaw but also Eleanor and Iselin as well as other primary figures in the Presidential campaign and threatens the very soul of American democracy. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer Lionel Lindon contrast the Iselins and their great congressional rival, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) with unmissable production design touches. The Iselins’ home is dotted with images and busts of Abraham Lincoln (including a Lincoln lamp whose shade is a stovepipe hat) like a souvenir shop, an overwrought attempt to establish their bonafides as defenders of liberty. When Shaw first meets Jordan (and his fetching daughter, whom the laconic Shaw falls for), their conversation is loomed over by an ostentatious American eagle above the Senator’s hearth. At one point, Jordan is framed in the place of the eagle’s body, so that its wings seem to stretch out from the Senator’s shoulders; a shocking later sequence at the Senator’s New York home likewise features an eagle and crest gazing down imperially on the scene.

Alongside the plot of Shaw’s conditioning and activation as a brainwashed assassin (achieved by the Queen of Diamonds in a game of solitaire, a trigger which proves dramatically unpredictable) in the service of the Soviets, there’s a half-formed, suggestive alternate psychological conditioning that may or may not be occuring as well. Marco, on his way up to New York City to meet with Shaw to discuss his dreams and their shared war history, encounters a future love interest on the train. Eugenie (Janet Leigh) speaks to him in an odd disjointed exchange over a cigarette between cars that, as Roger Ebert speculated, seems to be an exchange of passwords, or perhaps contains a veiled brainwashing activation code for Marco similar to Shaw’s Queen of Diamonds.

In the Communist examination theatre, Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dheigh) insists that Marco is necessary to the mission, though only Shaw is brainwashed into killing. What is Marco’s role? His investigations uncover how the Communists intended to use Shaw to elevate Iselin to the Presidency and his intervention re-writes Shaw’s pathways, re-routing his mission. What if Shaw’s final choice of targets – his brilliant, controlling, double-agent mother and buffoonish, Red Scaremongering Senator stepfather – were the intended targets all along, and Marco’s conditioning was meant to divert Shaw in their direction? Other embedded details might gesture in this direction: when Eugenie picks up Marco from the police station after a karate dust-up with Chunjin (Henry Silva), Shaw’s Korean cook and valet who has an obscure connection to the mystery around the patrol, they drive by a moviehouse whose marquee advertises a showing of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Shaw is very much a puppet on strings, but are we to understand that Marco could be as well? This may be an over-reading of a merely awkward conversation between strangers on a train that kicks off an innocuous romantic subplot, and Frankenheimer himself denied that any such implication was intended. Such a plan seems a bit over-elaborate at any rate, but only slightly more so than the the brainwashing conspiracy that we’re meant to accept in the main plot strand.

Allowing its audience to indulge in interpretive theories of this sort, giving them space to read into subtexts and countertexts, marks The Manchurian Candidate as a modern cinematic experience, more akin to a Christopher Nolan movie than even the immediate contemporaneous thriller reference point: the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a highly intelligent and slightly disorienting film with a wry sense of satirical humour and plentiful skepticism about the American ideological project. This, and much more, makes it a very fine piece of work. Even, dare we say, a “classic”.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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