Ever since Watergate increased the paranoia level in American politics, just about everyone who has run for president has at some point been called a "Manchurian candidate." It is not a compliment. It means the speaker believes that this person has been programmed by evildoers -- communists, terrorists, whoever -- to seek public office, gain power, and then unleash the enemy's nefarious plans from within. What it really means, of course, is that the speaker doesn't like or trust the candidate. Hard evidence that Obama or Bush or McCain or Clinton or anyone else was actually brainwashed is difficult to come by. Brainwashers are stealthy that way.
But while no real "Manchurian candidates" have been confirmed, the 1962 film that popularized the term remains suspenseful and darkly comic. Much about politics has changed since then, but it's surprising (and maybe scary) to see how many things are exactly the same. What is The Manchurian Candidate? Is it a great movie, or merely one whose title has entered common parlance?
The praise: It was nominated for two Oscars, one for Angela Lansbury's supporting performance and one for the film editing. Lansbury also won a Golden Globe; director John Frankenheimer was nominated for one, along with a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. The film appeared at No. 67 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 best American movies ever made, though it didn't rank at all on the revised list in 2007. Perhaps the 2004 remake had soured voters on it.
Writing for Variety, the film critic Vincent Canby called it that "rare" film that "works in all departments, with story, production and performance so well blended that the end effect is one of nearly complete satisfaction." The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was much less enthusiastic, greatly bothered by the film's basic implausibility -- but the paper still included the film (and Crowther's ho-hum review) in its Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.
The context: The film was based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, whose also wrote the novel Prizzi's Honor. John Frankenheimer, a prolific and well respected director of live television dramas throughout the 1950s, had just moved to the silver screen and was proving to be every bit as productive as he had been in TV. He directed 11 films in the 1960s, including three released in 1962 alone: All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, and, in October, The Manchurian Candidate.
Frankenheimer and producer/screenwriter George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch, Breakfast at Tiffany's) had bought the rights to Condon's novel after no one else in Hollywood wanted it, and were able to get funding for the production once they signed Frank Sinatra as the star. Laurence Harvey (The Alamo, Summer and Smoke), Janet Leigh (Psycho), and Angela Lansbury also came aboard, though Frankenheimer had to fight for Lansbury, whom he'd worked with in All Fall Down. She was supposed to play Laurence Harvey's mother but was only three years older than him. She got the part, an Oscar nomination, and an enduring legacy for playing one of the most conniving mothers in all of filmdom. (Odd that she'd be too young for a role, considering she is one of those actresses, like Betty White, who seem to have been old ladies ever since the 1960s. Lansbury was only 37 when Manchurian Candidate came out, but she was a jowly 37.)
The film is set in the early 1950s, and 1962 audiences vividly remembered the atmosphere at the time. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist hunts had turned some people paranoid, and The Manchurian Candidate satirizes both communism and anti-communist hysteria. In place of McCarthy is a Sen. Iselin (James Gregory), a buffoon controlled entirely by his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, Eleanor (Lansbury), who has him declaring that he has a list of communists who have infiltrated the State Department. Just how many names are on the list varies; Eleanor eventually settles on 57 after seeing a Heinz ketchup bottle.
McCarthyism was over by the time the film came out -- McCarthy himself had died in 1957 -- and plenty of Americans had found his particular brand of anti-communist hysteria laughable even while it was happening. But the Cold War was still as frosty as ever, and there was legitimate cause for concern about what the Soviets and the Chinese were up to. As fate would have it, The Manchurian Candidate was released to theaters smack-dab in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw tensions between America and the Soviet Union at their highest yet.
Given all this, it's perhaps no surprise that The Manchurian Candidate didn't do very well at the box office. Political thrillers about near-disasters may not have been what audiences wanted in a season of actual near-disasters. The fact that certain details of the film were eerily mirrored in the assassination of John F. Kennedy a year later only added to its infamy, and it wasn't until the 1970s -- when paranoid political thrillers were all the rage -- that it came to be fully appreciated.
The movie: A cold, unfriendly soldier named Raymond Shaw (Harvey) comes home from the Korean War a hero, having received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of his platoon members when they were ambushed by enemy forces. But Shaw's commander, Bennett Marco (Sinatra), is plagued by nightmares that suggest his and Shaw's memories of what happened in Korea might be faulty. These nightmares, which Frankenheimer shoots with unnerving matter-of-factness, show us that Shaw was hypnotized by Chinese communists and given post-hypnotic suggestions that now, two years later, he will have to carry out. Meanwhile, his right-wing mother (Lansbury) is coaching her idiot husband in his political career, scaring people with talk of a communist infiltration into the government.
But wait. Frankenheimer is making fun of anti-communist paranoia -- but in this story there really is a communist plot to take over America. So was the paranoia valid? What is the message here? The nice thing about satire is that you can have it both ways, mocking both the fearmongers and the fearful.
What it influenced: Some people believe it influenced Lee Harvey Oswald. John Loken's book Oswald's Trigger Films points out that The Manchurian Candidate played for a month in a movie theater that Oswald passed daily, and later at another Dallas theater near his apartment. (It was in this theater that Oswald was arrested for shooting JFK, but The Manchurian Candidate wasn't playing there anymore. That would have been creepy.) In early 1963, Oswald bought a rifle very similar to the one in the film. And then there's the whole business of, you know, shooting the president, which reminded some people of the movie.
The film wasn't shown very much for many years, and it was rumored that this was because Sinatra had used his clout to pull it from circulation after the JFK assassination. But Michael Schlesinger, who helped re-release the film in 1988, told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that the Sinatra story was bogus. Schlesinger said the movie was simply finished by the time JFK was killed (it had been out for a year, after all), and that the reason it was hard to find in the '70s and '80s was that Sinatra's lawyers had tangled with the studio over his share of the profits.
I already mentioned the term "Manchurian candidate" being part of the lexicon. Plenty of movies have parodied or borrowed the idea of a brainwashed sleeper agent carrying out assassinations, including Zoolander and The Naked Gun. Most movies where a would-be assassin hides in a high place at a crowded arena and lines up his target in his rifle sights owe something to The Manchurian Candidate, too, which set the standard for such scenarios.
In 2004, Jonathan Demme remade the film with Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role, Liev Schreiber as the Medal of Honor winner, and Meryl Streep taking over for Angela Lansbury. The story was modernized -- Persian Gulf War instead of Korea, and a nefarious corporation called Manchurian Global instead of communists -- but the plot remains basically the same.
The 2005 film Domino, starring Keira Knightley as a bounty hunter, was based on the real life of Domino Harvey, daughter of Laurence Harvey, who plays Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. The movie shows Domino watching a scene from her dad's film on TV.
What to look for: Frankheimer had learned from his years in TV how to break out of the visual constraints of the medium, using unexpected camera angles and other techniques to keep things from getting boring. One of his favorite devices is to have someone's face in close-up while more action, still in focus, happens in the background. Watch also for the nonchalant way he cuts back and forth between reality and fiction in the hypnotism sequences.
There is a scene where Sinatra confronts Harvey in a hotel room with a deck of cards, all of them queen of diamonds. Some of the shots are slightly out of focus, which many commenters praised for showing us Harvey's altered state of mind. Not so, says the director on the DVD commentary track. The blurriness was unintentional -- but those were Sinatra's best takes, acting-wise, so Frankenheimer used them anyway.
The climactic scene, staged at a political convention, might seem familiar if you've seen Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In both cases, an assassination attempt is going to be made at a precise moment that has already been spelled out for the audience, so we're breathlessly waiting for that point to arrive, wondering if anyone will stop it in time.
There is a karate fight between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva, noteworthy for being one of the very first martial-arts fights to be featured in an American movie. Why Sinatra's character would know karate is not explained, nor do we know why Silva, an American-born actor of Sicilian and Spanish descent, was cast as a Korean.
Pay attention to the Janet Leigh character. She plays a woman that Sinatra's character meets on a train. Roger Ebert has theories about what she's up to (linked below), but don't read about them until you've seen the film.
What's the big deal: This isn't one of those classic films where you have to try really hard to enjoy it. It's pretty entertaining on its own, particularly if you get where the satire is coming from and can appreciate a darkly comic political thriller. It moves more slowly than most modern films do, especially in the climactic scene -- which would surely be cut to about one-fourth its length if it were released today -- but the movie is surprisingly spry for its time. We even see a splatter of blood on the wall when a character gets shot in the head, a common sight today but unusually graphic for 1962.
The film stands out as one of the best paranoid political thrillers ever made, expertly balancing satire and suspense in a way that has rarely been matched. Come to think of it, how many films even try to blend parody and thrills? And how often does it work? Gotta give Frankenheimer props for that.
Further reading: To avoid major spoilers, don't read these until after you've seen the movie.
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay includes his theories about Janet Leigh's character.
David Walsh, at the, um, World Socialist Web Site (I know!), has a thoughtful essay describing the politics of Frankenheimer's films.
Tim Dirks has a thorough entry on the movie in his "Greatest Films" series.
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Eric D. Snider (website) makes it habit not to trust any candidate, especially a Manchurian one.