The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Screenplay : George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer (based on the novel by Richard Condon)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Frank Sinatra (Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Rosie), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Iselin), Henry Silva (Chunjin), James Gregory (Senator John Iselin), Leslie Parrish (Jocie Jordon), John McGiver (Senator Thomas Jordon)
Political thriller or political satire? "The Manchurian Candidate" is both, and although it was made in 1962, it has lost none of its edge or any of its biting attacks on the American political circus. It feels just as taut, just as scathing, and just as paranoid as it did thirty-five years ago.
"The Manchurian Candidate" is mostly a cinematic backlash against the absurdities of the McCarthy hearings and the anti-Communist feeding frenzy of the fifties. The story concerns a group of American soldiers during the Korean War who are ambushed and taken prisoner by the Red Chinese for three days. During this time, they are completely brainwashed and made into Communists pawns. When they are released, they have no idea what has happened. One of the soldiers, an unappealing man named Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is given the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the platoon, even though he is actually a programmed Communist assassin, unable to resist their orders.
Another member of the platoon, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) begins to have recurring nightmares about the brainwashing sessions. Once his suspicions are aroused, he begins to investigate, eventually unearthing an insidious plot involving the Chinese, the Russians, and Shaw's McCathyesque step-father, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), who is really just the spineless puppet of Shaw's power hungry mother (Angela Lansbury). When Iselin openly accuses the Department of Defense of being filled with Communists, he later has confer with his wife about the exact number of card-carrying Reds he "knows about."
The strength of "The Manchurian Candidate" is its ability to incorporate such biting social satire into such a great thriller. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the film is taut with suspense because it creates an atmosphere of pure paranoia. No one is who he seems, and even though some scenes don't seem to make much sense (especially the subplot involving Sinatra's romantic involvement with a mysterious woman played by Janet Leigh), I have the suspicion that these scenes exist just to make the audience feel as confused and paranoid as the characters on screen do.
The film also has an interesting history, because it was pulled out of the public circle after its initial theatrical release. There are a handful of theories as to why this happened. Some say Sinatra, who bought the movie rights, didn't want to film to be overplayed, while others say that the political climate in America after the assassination of JFK in 1963 didn't allow for such a politically charged film to be in circulation.
The fact is, "The Manchurian Candidate" is an incredibly politically charge film. It is as enthralling as it is preposterous. It delights in playing up the American fears about Communists by taking all the stereotypes and making them larger than life. The Communists are sneaky, underhanded dogs who mock the American dream by making a Medal of Honor winner into their political assassin. The whole brainwashing scheme is so far-fetched that it enters a whole other realm of satire.
What's sad is that people during the fifties, scared to death of the Reds and whipped into a frenzy by Senator McCarthy, really believed in such things. Richard Condon, author of the novel the film was based on, and George Axelrod, the screenwriter, understood this, and crafted a superb thriller based on these ridiculous fears. The result is an unexpectedly witty film that thrills as much as it jabs.
©1997 James Kendrick