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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Posted on the 30 December 2015 by Christopher Saunders

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

"Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"

One of Hollywood's most prescient films, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) anticipated a decade of paranoia on and off-screen. John Frankenheimer adapts Richard Condon's novel with a fascinating fusion of tension and absurdity. Whether viewed as thriller or satire, it's a home run.
Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) wins the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Korea. He returns home to America, finding that his mother (Angela Lansbury) married Red-baiting Senator Iselin (James Gregory). Shaw's commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is haunted by bizarre nightmares and Shaw's erratic behavior. Marco unravels a Communist conspiracy to brainwash American soldiers and implant their agent in the White House.
The Manchurian Candidate encapsulates Red Scare absurdity. Tales of brainwashed American POWs proliferated after the Korean War, in turn inspiring CIA experiments like MKULTRA. Joseph McCarthy finds an obvious analog in Senator Iselin, who conjures 57 "known Communists" by glancing at a ketchup bottle. The crafty Commies can rent office buildings, kill Senators and plant agents without anyone noticing. In Condon's world, Reds and Red-baiters unite to destroy America. It's a unified conspiracy theory skewering Bolshevik and Bircher alike.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

"Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?"

Frankenheimer walks a razor's edge between comedy and existential terror. Smothered by a Hitchcockian mother, incited to murder by playing cards and code words, Shaw's drawn into a waking nightmare. Marco's efforts reach an impasse when he encounters a lover (Janet Leigh) muttering inscrutable suggestions. Is she an agent herself? The humorous brainwashing scenes culminate in blood splashing on a Stalin poster. Never settling on a tone, Candidate disturbs our footing.
The direction couches surreal elements in realistic staging. Frankenheimer stages a "garden party" with the lecturers transforming from flower-loving biddies to commissars (or from white to black, when imagined by James Edwards!). Iselin's rants play live and on television, simultaneously statesman and buffoon - a contrast highlighted by ever-present Lincoln icons. It culminates in an extraordinary ending, intercutting Shaw's preparations, Marco's searching and a blaring national anthem, anticipating The Day of the Jackal and The Parallax View.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

"Put away your Penguin Freud, Diana. And your crystal ball."

Frank Sinatra scores by playing absolutely straight, his resolution providing Candidate's dramatic center. Laurence Harvey's stiff hauteur proves well-suited to his character, his arrogance melting into understated, slow-burn terror. Angela Lansbury's shrewish scheming steals the show: her outbursts prove a cover for deep-seated deviousness. Second-billed Janet Leigh's overshadowed by Leslie Parrish as Shaw's ill-fated fiancé.
Frankenheimer seeds minor roles with ace character talent. James Gregory is the buffoonish Iselin, eating scenery while whimpering about Eleanor's intimidation. Henry Silva plays a treacherous Korean, engaging Sinatra in a prolonged martial arts duel; James Edwards plays Shaw's squad mate. Best of all, there's Khigh Dheigh as a Chinese functionary, who treats impending apocalypse as a lark: "There's nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burdens of the day!"

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

"His brain has only been washed... it has been dry cleaned!"

Retroactively, The Manchurian Candidate became more chilling than funny. We can still laugh at Dr. Strangelove because nuclear holocaust never happened. But Candidate became reality in the '60s and '70s, with assassinations and revelation of CIA skullduggery fracturing America's psyche.

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