The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
There are instances when history can play cruel tricks on films. Some titles destined for greatness may sink into insignificance because some trivial event that makes them irrelevant to the public. But there are other examples - films that reached immortality due to some events they couldn't even dream about. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, 1962 political thriller directed by John Frankehnheimer, is one such film.
The plot, based on the novel by Bill Condon, begins in 1952 during Korean War. Small American unit, led by Captain Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra), is led to ambush by treacherous guide/interpreter Chunjin (played by Henry Silva). Marco and his men are captured by Soviet elite unit, shipped to Manchuria and subjected to three days of brainwashing. They are injected with false memories of heroic escape during which utterly unpopular Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) showed enough bravery to get Congressional Medal of Honour. Shaw's tyrannical mother (played by Angela Lansbury) and her husband, right-wing senator John Iselin (played by James Gregory), try to use this medal for their own ambitious political agenda, but Shaw doesn't want to have anything with it. Two years later, Marco and other survivors from the unit are plagued by nightmares. Marco, who was promoted to the rank of major and now works in military intelligence, suspects that Shaw has been brainwashed into becoming sleeper assassin for Communist bloc.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE today enjoys enviable reputation of 1960s classic and one of Hollywood's few masterpieces in political thriller genre. It is also the best known title in the filmography of John Frankenheimer, director who would later become hailed as the master of that particular genre.
To a certain extent, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is worthy of its reputation. Frankenheimer, one of the first directors to gain the experience in the new medium of television, introduced many innovative techniques and showed great talent in this film. One of the best examples of Frankenheimer's talent can be seen at the very beginning when the whole process of brainwashing is explained to audience in one of the most shocking and most disturbing scenes in the history of cinema. Because of that, the pace of the film never suffers from Condon's complex and often cryptic plot; the audience is intrigued by the multitude of interesting and colourful characters, as well as their unconventional interactions. The end scene is also very effective, because Frankhenheimer makes it look like documentary footage and thus helps audience to suspend the disbelief.
Another reason why the audience can accept this film is in the fine acting. One of the examples is Frank Sinatra, who provides quality of every-day regular person to his character and thus allows audience to accept the complex plot, which is mostly seen through his eyes. Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, almost goes over the top by playing her diabolical character, but, thankfully, she never crosses the line that separates overacting from truly powerful performance. Laurence Harvey, whose role is hardest, wasn't so fortunate casting choice - his British accent is at odds with American character; he handles this complicated role as best as he could. Same can be said of Janet Leigh, whose character appears only to have regular Hollywood female star on the film's poster.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is very good film, but it is nevertheless a product of its time and many elements of its cryptic plot are going to be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with Cold War America. George Axelrod's script could be interpreted as a reaction of left-leaning liberal Hollywood to right-wing rhetoric and paranoia of McCarthy era. This motive is used with little subtlety - one of the most pathetic characters in the film is obviously modelled on McCarthy, and his worst enemy is a senator that supports noble liberal causes. The script goes even further - it not only mocks McCarthy's anti-Communist paranoia, but makes a case that Communism and anti-Communism fuel each other in the symbiotic relationship at the expense of liberal democracy. In other words, fighting Red Menace through repression would deprive USA from its traditional liberties - the very thing that makes the America superior to its ideological adversary.
Unfortunately, those intriguing ideas could be only glimpsed through often convoluted plot that takes too many liberties with viewers' common sense and logic. It is good acting and superb direction that raises THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE from the average. But it took something else to make this film a classic - Kennedy assassination, with which many details of the film's plot have a disturbing similarity. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE maintained its legendary status because of that tragedy and its long-time effect on American collective psyche. However, even when taken out of its historic context, this film is a thought-provoking piece of quality filmmaking that deserves recommendation.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)