Mystery drama. Cold-War political farce. Spine-tingling thriller. Read it how you will, 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate" takes us for a wild, Wonderland ride through the mother of all conspiracy theories.
Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Condon, who viewed his work as satire, the movie was written by George Axelrod ("The Seven-Year Itch," "Bus Stop," "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), and directed by John Frankenheimer ("Birdman of Alcatraz," "Seven Days in May," "Black Sunday"), who have it both ways--serious and satiric. Frankly, I think Frankenheimer topped himself with "Seven Days in May," for me still the greatest conspiracy-theory movie ever made; but with "The Manchurian Candidate" he fashioned what many folks think is the quintessential paranoid mystery classic, as apparently so did the American Film Institute, voting it number sixty-seven on their list of 100 all-time best movies.
Yet "The Manchurian Candidate" probably wouldn't have gotten made at all if it weren't for its star, Frank Sinatra. Studios were reluctant to touch the politically sensitive book, dealing as it does with the Soviet brainwashing of an American citizen into becoming an instant assassin, studios fearing it might interfere with the U.S. Government's relations with Russia at a crucial period in history. But Sinatra was a friend of then-President John F. Kennedy, and when he asked the President what he thought about the idea of making the movie, Kennedy said to go for it. Ironically, when Kennedy was shot a year or so later, the studio and Sinatra insisted the movie be removed from circulation, and for over a quarter of a century it remained withdrawn, not appearing again until its rerelease in 1988.
In the film, Sinatra plays Major Ben Marco, the leader of an American patrol captured in Korea in 1952. During this time the squad is turned over to the Russians, who transport them to Manchuria and brainwash them into thinking that they wiped out an entire squad of North Koreans and fled to safety. They are conditioned to believe that one of them, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), saved all their lives and delivered them back to safety single-handedly. Because of the squad's account of his bravery, Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
What is not known to anyone but the Russians (and the audience) is that Shaw was programmed during his capture to be a killer, an assassin who will follow any command given him whenever he's triggered to do so by seeing the queen of hearts in a deck of cards. In three test situations leading up to his final assignment, Shaw is ordered to murder people around him and does so unquestioningly. What the Russians ultimately have in store for him is one of the film's many surprises.
Ah, but when the squad return to the States and several years pass by, some of the men start having nightmares, weird dreams about Shaw killing one or more of their number. Sinatra's character is among the men tormented by strange dreams, and because he is promoted to the army's Intelligence Division, he eventually has access to pursue what these dreams could signify.
In the meantime, we get to know Shaw a little better. By coincidence or no, his mother (Angela Lansbury) is married to an ultraconservative, right-wing nutcase U.S. Senator (James Gregory), patterned after the real-life, red-baiting Joe McCarthy; the stepfather is a quack who goes around accusing anyone who disagrees with of him of being a Communist. But he's a fool and a drunk, and it's really Shaw's mother who manipulates him, just as she manipulates her son. When Shaw falls in love with the daughter (Leslie Parrish) of a liberal, left-wing senator (John McGiver), the mother has a conniption and insists her son break it off. He cannot seem to resist her bidding any more than he can resist the dictates of his Communist masters.
Sinatra is perfectly cast as the heroic but tortured Major Marco, a man who first thinks he might be going mad and then slowly catches on that something outside himself is amiss. It's one of Sinatra's two or three best film roles. Laurence Harvey is equally good as the seemingly indomitable Shaw, a hardnose with few or no friends, who seems tough and self composed on the outside yet is easily twisted around his mother's clinging finger as well as the Communists'. Harvey portrays a character of strength and weakness simultaneously, a neat accomplishment.
But the real standout in the show is Angela Lansbury, who was nominated for, but did not win, a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar. (She did win a Golden Globe, but who remembers?) Lansbury is brilliant as the nasty, evil, sinister, conniving mother who has her own personal plans for her son as well as for her lamebrain senator husband. Her son constantly resents her, yet he ceaselessly complies with her will. It's only toward the end of the film, when we see the mother plant a big wet one on the son's lips, that we begin to understand the full import of the situation.
Yet another part of the film's fine madness is that Ms. Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey when she played his mother, and nobody seems to notice! Still, Hitchcock beat Frankenheimer on that front a few years earlier by casting Jessie Royce Landis as Cary Grant's mother in "North By Northwest." Landis and Grant were the same age.
None of the film makes the least bit of logical sense, of course. It's not meant to. But while it's happening, it seems rational enough. One of the beauties of the script is that no matter how high it's piled, we go along with it. But, really, a whole patrol is completely brainwashed in only a few days? Shaw is programmed to obey any command he's given to murder at any time? The mother is Lady Macbeth? The stepfather senator is an idiot? Within the same political party there is an ultraconservative right-winger and an ultraliberal left-winger?
Yet as a symbolic fable and lampoon, it all works. Frankenheimer and company actually have us believing that Shaw is not only ready to murder on command, but as the movie moves forward that he is able to do so in brutally efficient fashion. Yes, there are events that are perhaps a tad too easy to see coming. Yes, there is perhaps too much given away at the beginning that might have served to build the suspense a bit more if saved for later. And, yes, there is a subplot concerning Major Marco's meeting and falling in love with a beautiful young woman (Janet Leigh) that seems almost wholly extraneous. But, overall, the film has as much impact today as it had when it was made. Probably more impact today, since much of the film's hyperbole has turned out to be at least in part intriguingly possible. Let us not forget Lee Harvey Oswald and company.
Here's a good sign: MGM announce on the keep case that the widescreen aspect ratio of this movie is 1.75:1, and that's exactly what it measures across my TV screen. Truth in advertising! The movie was supposedly released to theaters in a 1.85:1 ratio, but perhaps the studio was taking into account a normal television's overscanning when they printed the dimensions on the box. Or maybe somebody at the studio simply took a tape measure to his own monitor screen and said, well, let's tell it like it is. I don't know, but it's a refreshing bit of candor.
Moving on, the picture displays some good black-and-white contrasts, at least most of the time. Occasionally, the video goes soft, and in at least one scene where Shaw jumps into a lake, the picture begins to flicker noticeably. There is little or no serious grain present, though, just a fine residue that is faint enough to give the image a realistic texture, and there is hardly an age speck in sight.
The movie's original, theatrical-release monaural soundtrack is available, as is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. The multichannel sound makes its presence known early on in the rear channels when we hear machine-gun fire from the back or sides of the room. There is a solid front-channel stereo spread, too, with the inevitable helicopter flyover making an impressive sonic picture. However, not all is perfect. When the engineers decide to change the location of a speaker's voice--for instance, from the center to one side or another--the voice suddenly appears to be in an entirely different aural environment; it's somewhat disconcerting. Voices can also sound a little hard and metallic, and there is a low-level background noise that intrudes upon the quieter moments.
A small but useful assortment of bonus items accompany the film on this Special Edition disc. The first item is an audio commentary with the director, the late John Frankenheimer. Next, there's a 1988 conversation with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer, lasting about seven minutes; followed by two new featurettes. "Queen of Diamonds" is a fourteen-minute featurette with Angela Lansbury explaining her role in the movie; and "A Little Solitaire" is a thirteen-minute featurette with writer/director William Friedkin explaining why the film is to him a bone fide classic. Lastly, there are thirty-six scene selections, a photo gallery, a booklet insert of trivia and production notes, a widescreen theatrical trailer, and some looks at other MGM releases. English and Spanish are the spoken language choices, with English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.
Agreed, "The Manchurian Candidate" is pretty far out there in terms of plot and character, and neither the book's author nor the filmmakers expect us to believe any of it for a minute. Yet while it's happening, it all seems reasonable enough, just as Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" a few years later seems reasonable enough as it's unfolding, if more comic. It is only when one stops and thinks about what's happening that the two movies unravel into hilarious exaggeration and spoof.
Still, a year on from this film, President Kennedy was shot by an assassin or assassins whom many believe may have been trained in ways not entirely dissimilar to what is portrayed in this film. So who's to say what is reality and what is not. "The Manchurian Candidate" remains a great mystery, a thought-provoking suspense story, and a good bit of fun.