Pros: Pointed political commentary
Cons: Am hazy about the Iselin/communist connection, The Janet Leigh character adds little
John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" is a fascinating Cold War thriller that I've been meaning to review for some time, but somehow keep getting stopped. No more. Made at a time the McCarthy Era was in recent memory and the Cold War was still very much cold, "The Manchurian Candidate" had interesting things to say about both the dangers of communist subversives and America's extreme reaction to them. In this current era, the film takes on an extra meaning.
The year is 1952. The setting: Korea. Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is one of a regiment of U.S. soldiers fighting in Korea. Their commanding officer is SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a cold efficient man who keeps his distance from his men.
While out on patrol one night, SSgt. Shaw and his men are led into an ambush by their traitorous Korean guide. Shaw and his men are taken prisoner by Communist forces. Months later, Shaw and his men manage to make their daring escape from behind enemy lines. Back in America, SSgt. Shaw and his platoon are hailed as heroes. Raymond Shaw in particular is given a medal for his incredible leadership in leading his regiment to safety.
But months later, something strange starts happening. Several former members of Raymond's regiment, including Maj. Marco, start having nightmares of events during their capture. And the nightmares are not of events which they seem to recall happening.
In it, Bennett Marco recalls Raymond and his men being brainwashed in front of a crowd of Soviet and Chinese scientists. Bennett also recalls Raymond being coerced into performing horrific acts, including murdering two of his soldiers while hypnotized.
Upon learning that other persons in Raymond Shaw's regimen are having the same nightmares, Maj. Marco decides to investigate further. However, even Marco has no idea the depth of what it is he is about to uncover.
Marco's suspicions are aroused when he goes to visit Raymond, only to be greeted by Raymond's Korean cook, who just happens to be the same guide who betrayed them during the Korean war. It seems that somebody wants to keep an eye on Raymond. A fantastic karate fight ensues.
Gradually, the truth is revealed. It seems that while they were prisoners, Raymond Shaw and his regimen were taken to Red China where they were brainwashed by their Marxist-Leninist captors. Raymond has been conditioned into a sleeper assassin, ready to kill persons in political power at his captors' bidding. Only Raymond doesn't realize it. Raymond has been hypnotized along with the rest of his regimen to forget about his experiences, replacing them with false memories of their daring escape.
Raymond the assassin comes to life when the communist agent controlling him call him up on the phone and ask him to play a game of solitaire. The trigger seems to be when Raymond uncovers the queen of diamonds. Raymond is then at the mercy of the agent's requests, but has no memory of the acts he has committed afterwords. Raymond is an assassin who doesn't realize he is an assassin. Maj. Marco must some how uncover the plot behind Raymond before he can be manipulated into carrying out his role.
Raymond meanwhile has some family issues. His overbearing mother, whom he hates, has recently married the reactionary Senator John Iselin. Senator Iselin is a Joseph McCarthy-like politician who makes a name for himself by making outlandish claims of having a list of 207 members of the Communist Party working within certain political parties. Or is it 152 members? Or 57 members? The number he gives keeps changing.
John Iselin is a dangerous and ruthless man out for power, and Mrs. Iselin, the real brains behind Iselin's campaign, is almost as ruthless and power hungry as her husband in her quest for power. Both base their political campaign on discrediting their opponents are Communist sympathizers, rather than on actual issues (eg. eliminating poverty, the economy, social issues). In any other time, Senator Iselin never would have stood a chance in his run for president, but in America amidst the red scare, Iselin's anti-communist crusade sounds good to most Americans.
What is so fascinating about this thriller is how it differs from the other Cold War thrillers made at the time. "The Manchurian Candidate" is unusually intelligent in that it has things to say about the dangers of Stalinism and McCarthyism at the same time. We see Chinese and Soviet agents spying on America, and fervent McCarthy like politicians using Red Scare hysteria to further their political careers. Director Frankenheimer and writer George Axlerod understood that both communists and anti-communists are capable of deceit and manipulation.
This is a message that was certainly ahead of its time. The knowledge that enemies can come wrapped up both in a foreign flag, as well as the stars and stripes. Within a few years though people would come to see this as a chilling reality. As people witnessed the assassinations of JFK, MLK, the Vietnam war, and the Watergate scandal, America would finally come to realize their politicians were also capable of evil.
It's also almost eerie how "The Manchurian Candidate" foreshadows some of the events of today. Over a decade after the Cold War has ended, people are once again terrified of the enemies among us. Terrorists have replaced communists as our primary fear. And once again a dangerous politician has been able to capitalize off our fears. His name is George W. Bush and he is one of the biggest morons ever to be elected to the U.S. presidency.
Bush has managed to create massive unemployment in the U.S., give tax breaks to the rich, and destroy America's relations with the world. All the while he has managed to remain extremely popular. 9/11 seems to have been one of the best things ever to happen to old George Dubya. Bush has been able to divert attention from problems at home simply by including terrorism in every speech. Bush is proof that politicians can be popular just by capitalizing off peoples fears, rather than any particular abilities. It seems McCarthy-like politicians still exist today and people still rally behind them.
What's also interesting about the film is how it foreshadowed Kennedy's assassination. I doubt if even the filmmakers realized how on-the-mark they were about reactionary government forces targeting progressive political leaders within the American government.
Just a few years earlier, a film like "The Manchurian Candidate" probably couldn't have been made. Political topics were considered hot potatoes in Hollywood in the fifties. However, "The Manchurian Candidate" was made in the early sixties when Kennedy was president and the Hollywood blacklist had just been repealed. A more progressive era was emerging as people began to question basic assumptions about the Cold War. Reportedly, JFK himself approved the making of this film.
The talented John Frankenheimer does an excellent job behind the camera. The black & white photography is very well shot, giving the film a cold, claustrophobic feel. I especially like way Frankenheimer shoots the darkly humorous scenes where Raymond, Marco, and the rest of the soldiers are being brainwashed in front of a Soviet and Chinese audience. Of course in their hypnotized state, the soldiers think they are really at a gardening convention listening to a speech by sweet old ladies. Frankenheimer has fun alternating shots between the old ladies (what the soldiers' see) and the Marxist scientists (what's actually happening).
Some of the performances in this film:
Frank Sinatra as Maj. Marco, the soldier plagued by recurring dreams. Sinatra was pretty good, if not spectacular. He makes a likeable hero as the officer who manages to crack the case. Sinatra after all was an intuitive actor, not a trained one.
Laurence Harvey is perfect as SSgt. Raymond Shaw, the cold unlikeable soldier who doesn't realize he is a brainwashed assassin. Raymond may appear cold and bitter, but then who wouldn't be growing up with a woman like Mrs. Iselin? Raymond is only slightly less mother dominated than Norman Bates in "Psycho". As we see as the film progresses though, Raymond is actually quite capable of love and affection when it comes to Jocie Jordan, daughter of Senator Tom Jordan. If only his mother would let him be.
Janet Leigh is unfortunately a letdown as Rosie Chaney, the woman who shows and interest in Maj. Marco. I couldn't figure out what her role in the film was. For some reason she takes a shine to Marco on the train and even gives Marco her address and phone number. She even dumps her fiancee the same day. Nice, but why? Is Frank Sinatra really that good looking? Perhaps someone of the female gender can help me out there.
James Gregory is great as Sen. John Iselin, the McCarthy-like politician out for power. Gregory has obviously studied McCarthy's real life television speeches and interrogation tactics. His impersonation of McCarthy is uncanny.
Angela Lansbury is maybe the standout performance here. She is outstanding as Mrs. Iselin, Raymond's ruthless overbearing mother. It's clear that she cares nothing for her son and is just as much out for control as her husband, if not more so. Mrs. Iselin likes to slander people as communists simply because they disagree with her, something that was a common tactic at the time the film was made. The ultimate irony is she is perfectly willing work with communist agents in manipulating Raymond if it will help her husband's campaign. Mrs. Iselin really cares more about power than stopping communism.
That brings me to a flaw I noticed in the story. What exactly do the communist agents hope to achieve by getting Raymond to kill moderate political candidates? Why do they want Sen. Iselin, an anti-communist to be elected? I couldn't quite figure that out. Maybe the filmmakers were doing a bit of political commentary, perhaps suggesting that even ruthless anti-communists are willing to collaborate with the enemy if it will get them into a position of power. Still, I felt that could be a bit clearer.
"The Manchurian Candidate" is an intelligent and riveting political thriller that was way ahead of its time. Current events make it well worth seeking out today.