John Frankenheimer’s Cold War conspiracy masterpiece feels as chillingly plausible now as it ever did.
Note: contains mild spoilers.
This is one of the great Cold War conspiracy thrillers, with a narrative that seemed far fetched until John Kennedy was assassinated within a year of its release, and ideas of sleeper agents, brainwashing, cover-ups and political coups no longer seemed so absurd. In fact, the film is so reminiscent of that assassination that it was pulled from circulation and hardly seen until the end of the 1980s, when it found a new audience and the critical praise that it was long overdue (interestingly, Frank Sinatra also starred in another predictive political assassination film, Suddenly, and that too was banished from circulation for several years post-Kennedy).
The film is an interesting mass of contradictions – on the one hand, it’s a dramatic tale that feeds into the anti-Commie paranoia that America was only just emerging from; on the other, it’s a barbed satire of those very fears, with a Joseph McCarthy-like politician and his ambitious wife stoking Communist fears in a cynical attempt to manipulate the public and position themselves to seize power as the result of political assassination. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
The film opens in 1952, with Sgt Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) leading his men into an ambush during the Korean War. We next see him exiting a plane, hailed as a war hero and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly saving the lives of nine men in his troop – a photo opportunity that his ambitious mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and step-father, US senator John Iselin (James Gregory) can’t resist, despite his obvious discomfort and contempt for the pair. Iselin is an ignorant blowhard who makes deliberately vacuous claims about Communist infiltration to further his career, but it’s Eleanor who is pulling the strings, manipulating him into a position where he stops seeming ludicrous and becomes a leadership contender.
Meanwhile, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having constant nightmares about that night in Korea, revealing what really happened – the soldiers were captured and brainwashed, with Shaw programmed to kill on behalf of the Russians. Once he realises that the nightmares are more than just a fantasy and might actually be an authentic memory, he sets out to find out how Shaw has been programmed and what his mission is.
Sweatily tense, The Manchurian Candidate is one of the most fascinating political thrillers you’ll ever see. It might seem a mistake to reveal the truth about the programming s early on, but the film isn’t concerned with keeping that a mystery – it’s not a case of who the robot is, but rather what his mission is, and this is slowly uncovered in a convincing series of revelations. When we finally discover that Shaw’s own mother is behind the plot – cleverly disguised as a Commie-hating far-right patriot, but instead the leader of the fifth column, playing a very long game to manipulate her corrupt but essentially stupid husband into the White House – it’s not a huge surprise, and it soon becomes clear that everyone is a pawn in her power play, even her Russian masters. And while she expresses genuine regret that it is her own son who was chosen to be the brainwashed killer, she is still going to go ahead with her mission, using his to murder his own father in law and new wife (a genuinely shocking moment) when they threaten to get in her way. She’s a genuine monster – the Dr Frankenstein of the film, manipulating her tortured, friendless son and making him (in his own words) ‘unlovable’ long before the Communists got their hands on him. It’s only when he starts to break free of her control that he becomes human.
This is a film packed with excellent performances and sharp dialogue. Harvey’s English accent rather throws you for a while – it’s unexplained and somewhat incongruous, given that he is clearly supposed to be American. But there’s no faulting the intensity and power of his performance, as the cold and unlikeable Shaw is humanised by the very act of having his life manipulated, with every chance of happiness snatched from him. He’s measured, twitchy and increasingly terrified, and ensures that you feel genuine sympathy for him. As his foil, Sinatra is also on top form, a man tortured and self-critical, and who clearly sees that it could have just as easily been him in Shaw’s position. Janet Leigh has a fairly thankless role as Sinatra’s love interest, a character that remained underused and underdeveloped – but when she has a chance to do something with the role, she’s excellent. There’s a fantastic, weird train conversation when the pair first meet that sounds as though it is entirely in code and immediately makes you wonder who this woman is and what her role in the proceedings will be (as it is, she doesn’t have one).
But it’s Lansbury who is the most impressive here. One of the great monstrous women of cinema, Eleanor has no redeeming features, but she’s fascinating to watch. Lansbury brings a surprising amount of humour to the role (her interactions with Gregory are great), making her coldness as the truth comes out all the more chilling. She also gets the best dialogue in her final scene with Harvey and ends it with a shockingly ambiguous kiss between them that hints at all sorts of issues going on with these characters that we have not been privy to.
Director John Frankenheimer keeps the tension high throughout, but allows the film breathing space and never quite loses sight of the satirical, absurdist edge of the story. The scenes of the brainwashed soldiers thinking that they are attending a lecture by and for a middle-aged women’s group rather than a collection of high ranking Russian and Korean military men is perfectly shot and edited, as we switch from perception to reality and back. He also makes great use of sweat-heavy close-ups to later crank up the suspense and feelings of paranoia, and his gritty, pseudo-documentary style learned from years of live TV work comes to the fore here, bringing a sense of realism and authenticity to the film.
The Manchurian Candidate is one of the essential American films of the 1960s, and while the Cold War aspects might date it, the sense of political manipulation and paranoia feels more relevant now than it probably did at the time. Its influence has been seen far and wide with other films about sleeper cells and mind control, though few other films or TV shows have ever managed to make a line of dialogue as seemingly innocuous as “why don’t you pass the time with a game of solitaire” seem so utterly chilling. Must-see cinema.
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Excellent article! Couldn’t agree more. Sinatra is one of the few popular singers to have such strong acting chops. Leigh is wasted in this but brilliant at the same time (their relationship feels very believable). And I love that a few years later, James Gregory was General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
It’s a good film to remind yourself there was much more to Angela Lansbury than Murder She Wrote, which is the only thing she was in that seems to get endlessly repeated.
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