Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller, based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel,
is more relevant today than it has been in the intervening years since its
original, timely release. Back then, we were in the midst of the Cold War and
treading treacherous waters with the Soviet Union. The picture originally hit
the theaters during the thirteen-day
Cuban Missile Crisis of October, so it served as a cautionary tale, a
propaganda piece, and a scary, suspenseful nail-biter. After the Cold War
ended, The Manchurian Candidate maintained
its reputation as an excellent piece of cinema, but its political ramifications
diminished. Now that seems to have changed with the cantankerous, mistrustful
climate of this year’s U.S. presidential election shenanigans. Candidate currently speaks volumes.
Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Shaw (Laurence Harvey) head up an army
platoon during the Korean War. They are captured by the Soviets, drugged, and
taken to Manchuria, China, where they are brainwashed. Shaw, in particular,
becomes a deadly sleeper-assassin for the Communists. A crack shot with a
sniper rifle, Shaw is programmed to obey any command after he views a queen of
diamonds playing card, usually presented to him during a game of solitaire. The
platoon is released with the false memories that Shaw saved their lives. Back
home, the other members from the platoon suffer from recurring, debilitating
nightmares they don’t understand until Marco—now a major—decides to do
something about it. Meanwhile, Shaw is under the control of his domineering
mother (Angela Lansbury), who is determined to get Shaw’s step-father, a
seriously right-wing, conservative McCarthy-like senator (James Gregory), the
nomination for president.
makes the movie so caustic today is that the hateful rhetoric spouted by the
fictional Republicans in the film is frighteningly similar to what we’re
hearing in the current election cycle. It’s a familiar tune: pick a
scapegoat—any scapegoat (in the picture’s case, Communists)—and exaggerate the
threat to scare an ignorant public for a political advantage. The campaign
climate of hate and finger-pointing depicted in the film hits uncomfortably
close to the contemporary atmosphere.
co-produced the movie with screenwriter George Axelrod, and it stands tall in
the director’s body of work. The story is told with a tense, underlying sense
of dread that perfectly captures the paranoia of the era—and today. Frankenheimer’s depiction of the brainwashing
demonstration to the Soviet and Chinese delegates is surreal. The soldiers
believe they’re sitting at a floral garden party in which proper old ladies are
discussing horticulture, when in fact the women are uniformed, male Communist
agents. The bizarre incongruity and parallel editing of the scene is masterful
(the picture received an Oscar nomination for Film Editing as well).
The exciting fight sequence between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva is said to be the first depiction of a karate battle in a mainstream Hollywood film. Sinatra broke his hand during the filming of this intense scene.
is very effective as the “straight man” of the tale, and Harvey is suitably
creepy as the brainwashed killer, although the actor’s Britishness is sometimes
difficult to ignore. The movie-stealer, though, is Lansbury, who was nominated
for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. “Mrs. Iselin” is a mother
worthy of Hitchcock, a true villain of Cruella de Vil proportions, and Lansbury
makes her very chilling indeed. Interestingly, the actress was only three years
older than Harvey, but we have no problem believing she’s his mother.
other glamorous blondes appear in the film. Janet Leigh looks fabulous as Marco’s
love interest, but in the overall arc of the story, hers is a somewhat
unnecessary character. The scene in which Sinatra and Leigh meet on a train is
the only eye-roll-producing bit in the picture, for she’s gives out her address
and phone number within minutes of meeting this obviously disturbed guy who
can’t even light a cigarette himself. The other beauty is Leslie Parrish, who
plays Harvey’s girlfriend. She is sparkling,
and certainly warrants more screen time. While Parrish made many movies, she is
mostly known for a trove of 1960s television work in such shows as Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mannix.
new special edition features a restored 4K digital transfer of the film with an
uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There’s an audio commentary by Frankenheimer from
1997. Supplements include a new interview with Lansbury, who is amusing and
candid with her memories of making the film; a new interview with filmmaker
Errol Morris, a fan of the movie, talking about its strengths and influences; a
new interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the brainwashing scene; a
vintage filmed conversation between Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and Axelrod from
1987; and the trailer. The booklet contains an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
one of the best thrillers from the 1960s. Considering what’s going on in
America now, you might want to pop the disk into the Blu-ray player instead of
watching the latest presidential candidate debate. You’ll assuredly find it
much more entertaining.