The Manchurian Candidate is a heady, political thriller from a heady, political time. Released in 1962, the film is set a decade prior, in 1952, yet still manages to tell a tale that rings recognizable for the past, present, and future; often prophetically ahead of its time, it dealt with political anxiety, conflicting ideologies, individual free-will, assassination, and conspiracy, creating a lasting and poignant statement in a rapidly changing world.
If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about!
The poster, quoted above, is pretty correct in proclaiming that the first five minutes of the film are essential. That’s not to say that other movies cram dead weight into those opening moments, but in The Manchurian Candidate, the landscape of our knowledge is constantly shifting, and each piece of information is slowly woven into our consciousness as the film progresses. In those first five minutes, we learn that Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is a wholly unlikeable member of his platoon, yet after the troops are captured and held captive, he returns to the United States credited as a beloved war hero for helping them to escape. Figuring out the reality that links these two moments is the key, for both characters and audience, to learning the truth.
Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), another member of the platoon, senses something is off upon his return. His vivid nightmares depict a scene that transforms in a disorienting fashion from a meeting of New Jersey gardening enthusiasts to a gathering of high-ranked communist brass who are bragging about the brilliance of their new brainwashing methods… which seems rather suspicious when you think about it. Furthermore, in this dream he sees Shaw nonchalantly kill two of his fellow soldiers upon command, and these two murders happen to be committed against the two men supposedly killed on their mission. This vision, if true, doesn’t quite fit with Marco’s initial report of Shaw as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” but does fit with his sense that… well, frankly, he just plain doesn’t like Shaw, despite the complimentary phrases he feels compelled to keep repeating.
Meanwhile, political powers on the American side are also in motion, as Shaw’s mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) is aiding his step-father John Iselin’s (James Gregory) campaign for the vice presidential nomination, using Shaw’s new hero status to their advantage. Or perhaps more accurately, to her advantage—Eleanor’s clearly the brains of this operation, in more ways than one, and it ultimately becomes clear that Senator Iselin is a stepping stone for her as well. Lansbury’s performance here is stellar, playing Mrs. Iselin with a confident gravitas that masks the fact that, in actuality, she was only three years older than the actor who played her on-screen son.
The visual style of the film is incredibly striking, and part of the reason watching it feels so fresh even today. The photography is crisp and elegant, the focus and framing used masterfully to communicate the moods and themes of the film. One exemplary scene shows Mrs. Iselin watching and looming over a television broadcast in the foreground, with the actual action that the TV is depicting going on in the background behind her. This is a deep, gorgeous shot that also tells us a lot about Eleanor’s behind-the-scenes influence, as well as suggesting a newfound importance for television in the political sphere. There’s also great, sometimes humorous, sometimes ironic, use of patriotic motifs and imagery throughout the film, emphasized by the heightened, nationalistic score.
Politically, the movie is fascinating, as it swings both ways against American ideological anxieties: communism, of course, was looming as a threat at this time—the film literally premiered during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But on the opposite side, we also see a take-down of right-wing McCarthyism, as evidenced both by the bumbling Senator Iselin (who is unable to remember exactly how many communists are in the US government, just that they are there), as well as the fact that ultimately (spoiler) it turns out to be the McCarthy-esque figures themselves that are working to install communism in the United States.
Though not entirely unusual for the time, the film was unavailable for years after its initial theatrical run, not really resurfacing until a 1987 anniversary screening at the New York Film Festival. The proximity of the film’s release to the assassination of JFK led many to speculate that it had been buried because of the similarity to that incident. That rumor was disavowed by everyone from Sinatra to Sony’s director of repertory film, but the persistence of that legend may have at least contributed to the film’s cult favorite status today.
The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliantly subversive political thriller that also incorporates elements of horror, drama, sci-fi, and romance genres, and does so with an inventive visual style both from the camera and the editing room. It’s an offbeat, often nightmarish example of a late-stage studio film that gets the benefits of a big-name cast, an experienced director, and a production company ready to take a few chances.
This post is a part of Movies Silently’s Snoopathon! Today is the last day, so head over to the master list to see all the great entries!