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Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Premise: Former prisoner of war Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns from Korea as a war hero. But his fellow soldiers suffer from nightmares of being abducted and brainwashed and an intelligence officer (Frank Sinatra) suspects that Shaw is actually the pawn of a Communist plot.

What Works: The American psyche is uniquely paranoid about the integrity of our freedom and individuality and human beings generally have an innate fear of someone or something taking over our faculties. The Manchurian Candidate plays on those fears in a way that few motion pictures have and the movie is at its best when it dramatizes that struggle for integrity and control. This struggle plays out in the parental relationship between war hero Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, and his mother Eleanor, played by Angela Lansbury. Raymond Shaw is introduced as a decorated veteran receiving a hero’s welcome at the airport. At first he comes across as an ungrateful brat but Shaw is revealed to be a much more complex character. Actor Laurence Harvey has a challenging role to play in that Shaw is an unlikable guy. However, Shaw knows he’s unlikable and that self-awareness is exactly what makes him empathetic to the audience. As more about Shaw’s history and family are revealed and as the control over his body and mind forces him to become an unwitting tool of murder Shaw is ever more engaging and even pitiable. The change in the audience’s understanding of Shaw occurs alongside the gradual revelation of his mother, played by Angela Lansbury. The actress is cast in an uncharacteristically villainous role as a woman who first appears to be an ambitious political wife and is later revealed to be something much worse. Lansbury’s performance is unnerving on a Freudian level; she is a mother who is willing to sell out her own son in exchange for power and that cuts against every instinct viewers have about the relationship between parents and their children. This parental betrayal is paralleled in the film’s political conspiracy. The Manchurian Candidate was a subversive film when it opened in 1962. The picture was released when memories of the House Un-American Activities Committee were still fresh. The Manchurian Candidate preyed on the fears of the Red Scare but it also ribbed the people who exploited those fears for political gain; the senator played by James Gregory is clearly based upon real life Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a contemporary audience, The Manchurian Candidate still plays as an engrossing conspiracy thriller and as a story of a man struggling for self-control against the political forces trying to reduce him to a pawn.

What Doesn’t: The weakest link of The Manchurian Candidate is the lead character, Major Bennett Marco, played by Frank Sinatra. Part of the problem is Sinatra’s performance; throughout the first half of the movie Sinatra is terrifically paranoid as Marco struggles with his secret. But once he recovers his suppressed memories, Sinatra’s performance becomes more relaxed instead of winding tighter. That’s true of the rest of the movie. The Manchurian Candidate does not play up its mystery. It’s obvious what has happened to these men and the characters don’t have to work very hard to discover the truth. The romantic relationship between Marco and a woman played by Janet Leigh is also underutilized. Why she would pursue a guy who is so clearly preoccupied with psychological trauma and disinterested in her doesn’t make much sense and the relationship is never more than a Hollywood contrivance. Notably, a lot of these problems were fixed in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate which is in many respects a superior movie.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes interviews, a commentary track, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: The original Manchurian Candidate was a product of a particular time and it was highly unusual in 1962 both thematically and cinematically. For those reasons alone it is significant. The film remains an intelligent and subversive thriller that unsettles in the way it taps into unconscious fears about authority and autonomy.

Episode: #605 (July 31, 2016)