The Manchurian Candidate
- Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco
- Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw
- Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin
- Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney
- James Gregory as Senator John Iselin
A most unusual and highly compelling slice of Cold War paranoia and trickery, The Manchurian Candidate still holds intense power today, for its winding plot, direction and acting. With various switches in tone and much food for thought, it’s a movie that definitely burns into the brain with its intricate plot and terrifying notions.
During the Korean War, a platoon of U.S. soldiers, headed by the distant Raymond Shaw and included Captain Bennett Marco, their group is ambushed. After the war, they return to life in America, but something is amiss. For starters, Raymond is given the Medal of Honor, though we later see that he was a loner in his company and that while the men all say that “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”, there is something not right about it. The main person who it impacts is Marco, now a captain, who experiences a recurring nightmare of his dazed platoon being observed by Chinese and Russian agents, as a cold Raymond murders two of their members. Delving deeper, Marco comes to realise that the platoon was brainwashed while in captivity, with particular attention lavished upon Raymond. Yet while he has these parts of what looks like an elaborate Communist conspiracy, it’s getting it into some semblance of reality and reason that proves difficult for him to understand. At first not helped by Army Intelligence, when a fellow member of the squad speaks of the same thing, he receives some backing. Marco isn’t going down without a fight, as he rushes to uncover sinister machinations that continue to grow more complex. Meanwhile, Raymond’s mother Eleanor Iselin begins to use her pernicious influence to further her zealous and easily led husband John Iselin’s campaign. She is linked to something dark, but to explain it would be to spoil it. With memories eventually slotting into place, Marco knows that Raymond is unwittingly being commanded and primed to do something terrible. But can Marco put the pieces together before something truly horrifying can take place?
John Frankenheimer crafts this political thriller with a considerable amount of unusual tension, layering events through a dreamlike haze, yet still making it in the realms of reality when it comes to the underhand tactics of power angle. His off kilter approach to such dynamite material is rapid and complex, trusting the audience to pay attention and follow the labyrinthine plot at play. It’s a daring high wire act keeping all the contradicting parts of irony and terror going, but Frankenheimer is up to the task and does it with intelligence. The Manchurian Candidate is a film filled with political manipulations, dastardly ploys for power and the things people are willing to do to gain a foothold in government. While it’s all shot through the eyes of the Cold War, the atmosphere of it is still very apparent and topical today. This suggests that The Manchurian Candidate was a film ahead of its time in what it depicted and how it visualized it. And talking of visuals, the surreal touches and how it bleeds into reality are strikingly evoked. Repeating motifs of Queen of Hearts playing cards, rhyming phrases and unusual tricks are all in there to tease us. A prime example of the effectiveness of The Manchurian Candidate is the dream/flashback of Marco. In it, the camera starts turning and we witness his troops sitting and listening to what seems to be a lecture on plants given by a posh lady. As the camera continues its journey, it cunningly reveals that it is a brainwashing exercise by Communist agents. Such sly precision and the overlapping cuts between the two extremes are marvellously structured and disquieting. Much can also be said about the unnerving close-ups and deep focus, which in black and white, really stay with you. This is a movie that is genuinely unpredictable from scene to scene with its ever-changing tonality. From surreal to hard-hitting, baffling to cynically up front, The Manchurian Candidate keeps you on your toes with its intricacies and corkscrew plot. Twisting and turning away is the order of the day and with unusual and intentionally mysterious parts that are scattered in there, it is a brain teaser of the highest order. One can definitely say that this is a movie that is rewarding on repeat viewings, as you’re bound to discover something you hadn’t thought of the first time. Certain areas like the unusual scene between Marco and a mysterious woman named Eugenie where they communicate almost in code, are kept ambiguous and esoteric, ensuring your rapt attention and providing the overall feeling of a complex puzzle box that the film greatly projects. If ever there was a movie that provoked thoughts, it was The Manchurian Candidate. As for the music, it has a slowly percolating menace to it that strums away in the background and uses haunting repetition to enhance the feeling of hypnosis.
A simply marvellous cast of actors flesh out this shocking and impactful movie. Frank Sinatra leads the way, projecting a tormented yet determined manner as the crusading Major. Playing against his usual persona of cool and suave, Sinatra finds an exemplary change of pace that shows of his dramatic muscles. Often times, we are perplexed as he is in all this conspiracy and web-spinning, but his unwavering desire and desperation is what truly makes Sinatra ideal in this role. Laurence Harvey’s detached and remote demeanor fit perfectly with his character of Raymond, who is brainwashed into a remorseless killer for sinister purposes. Yet Harvey finds real moments of pathos and sympathy beneath the aloofness, contributing a tragic layer to the character. Yet it’s Angela Lansbury who is the person you remember most for her startling performance as the mother from hell. At first seeming to be just overly smothering, slowly and subtly her power crazed motives and single-minded persistence come through in chilling effect. Mrs. Eleanor Iselin is a master manipulator who pulls the strings of everyone, delivered with gusto and alarming coldness by the great Lansbury. Angela Lansbury formidably plays this woman as a shocking, monstrous and calculating harridan, insistent on getting what she wants and doing everything it takes to get it. For those who mainly think of Lansbury for her motherly and sweet roles, her performance here should make you re-asses that due to its jaw dropping impact and delicious evil. Janet Leigh appears as a most enigmatic lady, who you aren’t sure what to make of. Her scenes with Sinatra have a most unusual and eerie feeling as they raise so many questions, which is part of the beauty of it. James Gregory aces it as the buffoon and bombastic Senator, manipulated like a marionette by his wife for her own gain.
Menacingly suspenseful, darkly cynical and still timely after all these years, The Manchurian Candidate is a classic piece of mounting psychological tension and political satire That triumphs, complete with supreme direction and excellent acting.