• Director: John Frankenheimer
  • Writers: George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer, based on the novel by Richard Condon
  • Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, and Khigh Diegh
  • Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress – Angela Lansbury, Best Film Editing), AFI 1997 Top 100 list (#67)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Cable Subscription to Cinemax, Buy or rent with Amazon Video or Apple TV

The Manchurian Candidate is, in basically all of its specifics, extremely rooted in its very specific time and place, 1962 America. This is a movie deeply, deeply rooted in the Red Scare, with one major character obviously a direct analog for Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It also, not for nothing, stars Frank Sinatra, of all people. There are several Communist characters, all of whom are evil, remorseless villains, all part of a conspiracy to destroy America. Yet in its generalities, this hardly feels like a 1962 movie. It slips in and out of reality, dances into flashbacks, freely cuts back and forth between different characters’ views of reality. And it’s not as if we live in a world free of conspiracy theories now. The idea that there’s a giant secret cabal trying to bring down the government may be just as far fetched now, and yet, you know, as the zeitgeist goes…

The basic plot of The Manchurian Candidate involves two soldiers whose patrol in the Korean War goes awry. Captain Bennett Marco (Sinatra) and the rest of his platoon testify that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) saved all their lives after a patrol went awry, and he gets the Medal of Honor. What we realize much sooner than any of the characters is that they were actually kidnapped and brainwashed by the communists, and that Shaw is a sleeper agent who could be triggered at any time. Meanwhile, his smothering mother (Angela Lansbury) schemes for her husband (Shaw’s step-father), Senator Iselin (James Gregory), to be nominated for the vice-presidency on the basis of his crusade against communists in government. Marco has dreams of his time in Korea that he gradually realizes are real memories. He has to figure out what Shaw’s deal is before he does whatever he’s supposed to do.

The thing to understand is that none of this is come at directly. This movie seems to take place inside the mind of a conspiracy theorist. It isn’t just that the basic type of brainwashing posited here is clearly just not a real thing. That’s fine as far as it goes. Even the dialogue is bizarre, suggesting, somehow, more, undiscovered conspiracies beyond the one we know about. In particular, Marco’s relationship with a beautiful woman he meets on a train (Janet Leigh) makes absolutely no sense unless she’s some sort of Russian plant, but that reveal never happens. Here’s their first conversation: “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” “This is Delaware.” “I know, I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state.” What.

Adding to this aura is Harvey’s performance as a cold mid-Atlantic scion losing his mind, all clipped, angry, monosyllables in a deep voice. I have never seen Harvey in anything before, but it feels like a very modern performance for 1962. He was born in Lithuania and grew up in South Africa, and had a relatively brief career as a movie star that lasted for basically the first half of the sixties. He died from stomach cancer in 1973, at the age of 43. This is also probably the definitive pre-Murder She Wrote role for Angela Lansbury, as Shaw’s conniving mother who he loathes. She has incestuous feelings for him that include an infamous on-the-mouth kiss. In the book, I’m told, things went quite a bit further.

It may come as a surprise to some of my millennial brethren that Frank Sinatra had an acting career, and an even bigger one that he was actually pretty good at it. He even won an Oscar for his performance in From Here to Eternity, and in this movie if you didn’t know he wasn’t a trained actor going in I don’t think it would tip you off. And perhaps it helps that he’s not so famous anymore that it’s impossible to see past his celebrity, the way that maybe it would have been at the time. However, this doesn’t mean he was without his limitation. In some later scenes where Marco and Shaw are sitting across a table from each other, Marco’s face is often shown out of focus. Director John Frankenheimer received praise for showing the scene from Shaw’s distorted point of view. He later confessed that Sinatra only got the scene right in one take, so he had to use that one, even though it was out of focus.

Frankenheimer himself was in the midst of a long career that included several interesting “issue movies” but was much lower profile than many of his contemporaries. Yesterday’s featured director, William Friedkin, may have directed The French Connection, but Frankenheimer directed The French Connection II. Here, he effortlessly slides between perspectives in a way that contributes to our disorientation but is never actually unclear. Some of the movie’s best known scenes are the “dream sequences” where the scientist leading the brainwashing of the soldiers (Khigh Diegh) shows off his work to his superiors, who the soldiers see as eminent ladies at a meeting of the garden club. One touch I found interesting was that, when it’s a Black soldier having the memory, all the ladies he sees are Black.

Another way in which The Manchurian Candidate feels very on-point in 2020 is in its view that the two ends of the spectrum are basically the same. It is the unrepentant position of this movie that anti-Communist demagogues actually do more to help the Communists than anyone else, and must be stopped just as much. Even Frank Sinatra says so fairly directly, which seems surprisingly frank for a big studio movie in 1962. Those demagogues range from Lansbury’s conniving woman, who would take any position if it led to more power, to Gregory’s Senator Iselin, who is a dumb, bumbling fool completely under his wife’s control. In one scene that would have been as pointed as an arrow at the time, he can’t remember how many Communists he is supposed to say are currently in the State Department, then looks at a ketchup bottle. Smash cut to him yelling that there are currently 57 Communists in the state department. The message is clear: he’s pulling nonsense out of his ass, and people are just buying it because they would rather live in a world where there are Communist conspiracies in the government than in one with nuance.

The Manchurian Candidate was entirely out of circulation for 25 years, from 1963 until 1988, which may have both helped it (by creating pent up demand) and hurt it (by meaning less people saw it) in terms of its legacy. Frank Sinatra bought the rights to the movie himself, not long after its release (this was easier in the days before home video and streaming, I think). The rumor was that it was because Sinatra was worried about the movie’s content after the JFK assassination (particularly the final sequence of an attempted assassination at a party convention). In fact, according to Frankenheimer, Sinatra bought the movie because he was having a dispute about royalties with United Artists, and decided that if he wasn’t going to make money off the movie, no one would. But it is back in circulation, and available on streaming. In 2004, it even received a perfectly fine but fairly forgettable remake at the hands of Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, with Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role, Meryl Streep in the Lansbury role, and the usual very vague sinister corporate interests in the role of the communists. But honestly, just watch the 1962 version, which actually has stuff to say. It’s not as dated as you might think it is based on the one paragraph description. Probably.

A final word here on Leslie Parrish, who plays Shaw’s extremely sexy, but doomed, love interest Jocelyn. She is a very interesting Wikipedia dive. Not long after this movie, she went into politics and basically started the presidential campaign of a little known senator named Eugene McCarthy. After McCarthy was essentially shut out of the 1968 Democratic Convention, she apparently had some involvement in the riots that took place outside. In 1973 she ran Tom Bradley’s successful campaign to become the first Black mayor of Los Angeles. In 1974 she started a public TV operation to cover civic events that eventually turned into C-SPAN. All through this, she kept making acting appearances. Also in 1973, she was Associate Producer of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, during the production of which it was somehow her job to “care for the film’s real-life seagulls inside her room at the Holiday Inn.” She went on to marry to author of the book, Richard Bach, and helped start multiple wildlife sanctuaries.

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