GREAT FILMS: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Directed by John Frankenheimer
The political thriller genre has become stumped in a field of mediocrity recently, never able to escape the disease of recycled plot points and predictability. To be fair, it’s hard to be exceptional within that specific category of films without being a bit foggy and convoluted, since most audience members don’t possess the political savvy to truly understand all of the concepts within the story. The Manchurian Candidate pulls off the perfect balance between intelligence and exuberance, while containing one of the smartest screenplays ever written, and because of that, it is the beacon of political thrillers, unmatched by any movie before or since.
The film tells the story of a captured platoon of American GIs during The Korean War. Upon return to the United States, one member of the platoon, Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) receives the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic escape and rescue of his fellow soldiers. Raymond comes home to cheers, and is greeted by his meddling mother (Angela Lansbury) and his dim-witted step-father Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory). Possessing an icy personality, and a strong disdain for both his mother and her husband, Raymond quickly decides to work for the newspaper for Johnny's biggest journalistic rival.
Maj. Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), also a member of Raymond's platoon, is able to find a job within the military upon his return, but he is plagued by terrible nightmares, where he's sitting with his fellow soldiers (and Raymond) amongst a group of older women discussing horticulture. As the dream continues, though, the older women turn into Korean political scientists, discussing how they have successfully brainwashed the entire platoon. The dream always end the same way: Raymond Shaw gets out of his seat, and murders two of his fellow soldiers--mysteriously enough, the only two soldiers who did not survive capture. Marco details his dreams to the military, but after little investigation, they conclude simply that he is suffering from a delayed Post-Traumatic Stress disorder, and send him to work in the Public Relations department, so he can relax.
Around the same time, Raymond Shaw begins to be greeted by sinister phone calls, asking him to play Solitaire. Raymond plays until he encounters a red Queen, and after that, he has become activated to enforce the murders of a number of inconspicuous puppet-masters with obvious political agendas. Of course, Raymond is never consciously aware of his violent deeds, and because of that, his brain-washers see him as the perfect weapon. Still tormented by dreams, Marco sees Raymond Shaw, and as he slowly begins to befriend Raymond, he begins to discover what Raymond is programmed to do. The climax of the plan is unknown to Marco, though, and working against the clock, he attempts to save Raymond from his discreet controllers before Raymond executes something horrible.
Today, it seems almost impossible that the film's original audiences in the early 1960's were not too fond of it. All sorts of things are thrown at the viewers: hypnosis, intrigue, tension, and one of the very first choreographed fight scenes in a non-martial arts film. It's sufficient to mention that many of the things that director John Frankenheimer displays on the screen were unlike anything ever seen in American cinemas. Sure, The Manchurian Candidate was not the first movie to address McCarthy-era paranoia, but it's the manner in which the film deals with this particularly mistrustful moment in our country's history; the film throws it themes around almost playfully, to the point that many film enthusiasts at the time (like, for example, The New Yorker's Pauline Kael) to consider the movie a farce or a satire.
Is The Manchurian Candidate a farce or satire? I don't think so, but I also don't think that it does a wonderful film any good to box it into any particular corner of genre or classification. It's pretty obvious that the political aspects of the film generate the most disinterest, because it is only used to set up the curious plot points of brainwashing and corruption. It's the characters, of which there are many, that really make this film fascinating. Amongst Shaw, Marco, and Shaw's Mother, there is Josie, Raymond's lover; Rosie, Marco's newly-acquainted girlfriend; and also Thomas Jordan, a senator, Josie's father, and Johnny Iselin's main political rival.
All of them, in their own particular way, enrich this monumental film. They best represent the film's moral ambiguity, which is another reason why the film has only become popular within recent decades. No character, no matter how delicate or ferocious is assumed innocent or fragile, and not till the film's rising climax (which, despite the film's age, I won't reveal here, since it is still one of cinema's most under-viewed classics) do any of them become clear in their motives. You could say that the film goes out of its way to trick you, but I give George Axelrod's script a lot more credit than that.
As two anguished military officers, both Harvey and Sinatra are spectacular. Lawrence Harvey's Raymond Shaw is parts unfeeling bastard, and parts socially-awkward, sympathetic figure. Sinatra, though never the best-formed actor throughout his work in films, uses his blue-eyed charm to its fullest potential to plug life into the otherwise weary Maj. Marco. Of course, the most infamous performance in the film belongs to the great Angela Lansbury, who invests such conniving schemes and foul play into Mrs. Iselin that in her intermittent moments, she grasps the screen absolutely. Nominated for an Academy Award, Lansbury's memorable performance creates of the best, most layered movie villains of all time.
I believe The Manchurian Candidate gets its proper due these days, though its exclusion from AFI's most recent 100 American Films list was quite troubling (seeing as they were able to make room for Titanic, after all). What's not a debate, though, is The Manchurian Candidate's unbelievable influence on cinema afterward. Unfortunately, most contemporary moviegoers will think of the unparalleled remake in 2004, by the usually superb director Jonathon Demme. The 2004 film was uninteresting in all of the ways the original was special, and hope is that despite the remake's atrociousness, it compelled many to see the original.
What unfolds in the film's complex and clever conclusion is the work of a first-rate political strategist, and it does what few movie endings are able to do: it actually surprises you. Not all of the characters get what they deserve, but some do. That said, a resolution involving anything different from the film's consistent murky themes would have been a disappointment, indeed. Even today, The Manchurian Candidate stands as one of the more brilliantly executed suspense films of all time.