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The Manchurian Candidate

Directed by John Frankenheimer with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh and James Edwards, black and white, 126 minutes, 1962

Blue-ray cover

Cover of Blue-ray edition of "The Manchurian Candidate"

By Carter B. Horsley

This thriller about a brainwashed assassin is a spectacular movie that is full of surprises, suspense and great sophistication. Based on Richard Condon's book of the same title, it is a devastating attack on the politics of the Cold War and the McCarthy era.

The movie has fantastic acting performances especially by Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra.

For conspiracy theorists, it is worth noting that the year after this chilling film was released President Kennedy was assassinated and this film was subsequently withdrawn from circulation for about 25 years.

In the Korean War, an American platoon is ambushed and captured and eventually released. The movie starts with the ambush and then shows the return of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, played by Harvey, as a war hero who has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is greeted by his mother, played by Lansbury, and her husband and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin, played by James Gregory.

Harvey clearly detests his stepfather and contemptuous of his mother and her right-wing beliefs. He plans to become a journalist.

Another member of the captured platoon, Bennett Marco, played by Sinatra, has nightmares in which the platoon attends a meeting of a women's garden club. So disturbing are his nightmares that he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is reassigned to public relations duty. He senses that something is wrong when he knows that Sgt. Shaw is not very likable despite the fact that he testified that he was the kindest and most wonderful person when his award was being considered. As a public relations specialist, Marco is present at a Congressional hearing at which Senator Iselin charges that there are Communists in the government. At one point, the Senator tells his wife he has trouble remembering how many Communists to mention in his speeches and the camera shows her looking at a ketchup bottle on the table and the next scene the Senator says there are exactly "57" Communists, clearly based on the varieties promoted by the ketchup manufacturer. The Senator, we soon learn, is about to get the Republican nomination for vice president in the forthcoming Presidential election.

When another member of the platoon, played by James Edwards, reports similar nightmares to Army intelligence, Marco is assigned to check up on Shaw. It is interesting that in his nightmares, Edwards, who is black, sees similar women at the garden club but they are black.

Marco reconstructs his nightmare as he begins to remember more details that include seeing Shaw kill cold-bloodedly two members of his platoons on the orders of the some Soviet or Manchurian leader and that the members of the "garden club" included members of the Central Committee and military personnel.

Meanwhile, Khigh Diegh, who was one of the lead interrogators during the brainwashing of the platoon, is sent to the United States to turn over control of Shaw to the head of the Communist operations for the East Coast, who insists that Shaw, who has been brainwashed to be an assassin who will have no memory of his triggered actions, be put to the test. Diegh, who was a prominent radio personality on the subject of parapsychology in real life, agrees and Shaw calmly kills his editor at the journal where he has been working.

Shaw hires a Korean member of his former platoon as a cook and servant and when Marco visits Shaw he runs into him and remembers his role in entrapping the platoon and they have a formidable karate fight. Subsequently, Marco revisits Shaw who is quite contemptuous of him and a snob, but he explains that he was once was "lovable" when he fell in love with the daughter, played with pleasant charm by Leslie Parrish, of Senator Thomas Jordan, played nicely by John McGiver, after she rescues him after he is bitten by a snake. Senator Jordan, a liberal, is an arch enemy of the Iselins and successfully had sued Shaw's mother for libel. When Shaw decides to marry Senator Jordan's daughter, his mother agrees to give a costume ball and invite them. At the ball, she confronts Senator Jordan and asks whether he will support her husband's nomination for vice president at the forthcoming national political convention. Senator Jordan not only declines but promises to wage a fight against his nomination.

The brainwashing scheme for Shaw involved his playing a card game of solitaire until he turned up the Queen of Diamonds at which point he was "triggered" to respond to commands. At one point, Shaw goes to the bar at Jilly's, a New York restaurant that was popular with Sinatra in real life, and the bartender is telling a story to some other bar patrons about someone who should play solitaire rather than poker. Shaw orders a deck of cards. The bartender continues his story and mentions that one person told another to go jump in a lake. As Marco walks in to meet Shaw, Shaw bolts out the door and dashes off to the boathouse pond in Central Park and goes directly out onto the pier and without hesitating walks into the water. In the audio commentary on the DVD version of the film, Frankenheimer notes that it was a frigid winter day and there was ice on the pond, adding that he thought Harvey's work was fabulous and that no one could portray a snob as well as he.

It works out that Shaw's American "controller" is his mother and she tells him to play solitaire and then orders him to kill Senator Jordan. Shaw goes to the Senator's home and confronts him in the kitchen as he is about to pour himself a glass of milk. He shoots him in the heart through the carton of milk. In an audio commentary by Director Frankenheimer on the DVD version of the film, Frankenheimer comments that he wanted to avoid too much gore, explaining the shot through the carton of milk. Shaw has been trained to kill anyone who witnesses his assassinations and when the Senator's daughter comes into the room he turns and without hesitation kills her with a single shot.

Marco eventually figures out that the Queen of Diamonds in the game of solitaire is Shaw's trigger and arranges for a deck of 52 Queens of Diamonds and confronts Shaw with it to deprogram him. Shaw is shaken but not convinced and Sinatra tells him to contact him the moment he receives his orders. It is the day of the acceptance speeches at the political convention at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Marco, who has not figured out who is supposed to be Shaw's target, waits for Shaw's call but it does not come and he dashes off the Garden where speeches are already underway.

Shaw's mother has summoned him and orders him to shoot the Presidential nominee at a precise moment in his speech. She also tells him that she is outraged that he had been picked as her assassin, revealing the plan that her husband will become the ploy of the Soviet bloc and that her ultraconservative stance was merely a sham.

At the Garden, Marco suddenly realizes where Shaw might be hiding and desperately tries to reach him in a light booth high in the arena's rafters.

The ending is thrilling….

There are a few problems with the film's plot. Firstly, if the Soviets were such brilliant brainwashers, why would two members of the platoon remember enough to cause Shaw to be put under Marco's surveillance. Secondly, why would Marco let Shaw remain on the loose after supposedly deprogramming him. Thirdly, would Marco really have enough time to locate Shaw in the Garden?

Despite such nitpicking, the film itself never falters and is unflinchingly fascinating, bizarre, and suspenseful.

Senator Iselin's buffonery appears now a little exaggerated, but in fact it was not too great a stretch for those old enough to remember the days of Red-baiting and the hysteria of the McCarthy Era. While some critics, such as Pauline Kael, have described the movie as a political satire, it was not satire but a really scary thriller whose similarities to President Kennedy's assassination a year after its release led conceivably to its being withdraw from distribution for many years apparently at the insistence of Frank Sinatra, who, according to Frankenheimer was instrumental in its being made.

The film is generally believed to have been the first to depict the McCarthy Era in a critical light as well as the first to use karate in a significant way.

The most incongruous part of the film was not the surreal brainwashing, or cariactures of McCarthy, or the wickedness of Shaw's mother, but the role of Rosie, played by Janet Leigh, who seduces Marco on a train from Washington to New York. The dialogue between them is quite surreal and preposterous but acted with conviction. She bails Marco out of jail after his fight with the Shaw's Korean servant, played convincingly by the always menacing and memorable Henry Silva.

Presumably Janet Leigh is in the movie to provide "love interest" and Frankenheimer states in his commentary that he considered her one of the most beautiful women in the movies.

In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert provides an intriguing interpretation. He suggests that Marco himself might be another brainwashed agent/assassin and that Rosie is his controller. That theory goes a long way to explaining the quite strange "pick-up" relationship, but nonetheless seems a bit too-farfetched for an already far-fetched story.

This riveting film deserved many Oscars, especially for Angela Lansbury, whose sinister performance is extraordinary. David Amram composed the score for the film.

Richard Condon is a quite extraordinary writer and his other credits include "Winter Kills," which was also about a Presidential assassination. Frankenheimer made an even scarier movie than this, "Seconds," and many years later would still be making such fine films as "Ronin" (see The City Review article). In his commentary, Frankenheimer emphasizes his use of deep-focus, wide-angle lens and lauds the screenplay by George Axelrod, who also co-produced the movie with him.

The DVD edition of this movie also includes interviews with the director, writer Axelrod and Sinatra. In his commentary, Frankenheimer notes that all the major studios had turned the film down and it was only because of Sinatra's enthusiasm for it that it was made.

Thrillers that carry strong political messages such as "Fail-Safe," (see The City Review article), "The Battle of Algiers" (see The City Review article), "Seven Days in May," "Executive Decision," "The Parallax View," "Z" are relatively rare and this is the "mother" of them all, which is remarkable for its pre-conspiracy-theory date.

In 2004, a remake of this film by director Jonathan Demme starred Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra Role and Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role. It took several liberties with the original film and while Washington and Streep were, as usual, excellent, the film lacked the tension of the original.


This film is ranked 27th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films, 61st in the Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 Films poll as of April 9, 2001, and 67th in the American Film Institute's list of top 100 American films


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