Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: "The Manchurian Candidate" Eternally Fantastic, Chilling

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 16 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – B&W
Running time:  126 minutes (2 hours, 6 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  John Frankenheimer
WRITER:  George Axelrod (based upon the novel by Richard Condon)
PRODUCERS:  George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Lionel Lindon (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Ferris Webster
COMPOSER:  David Amram
Academy Award nominee

DRAMA/THRILLER with elements of war

Starring:  Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, and Khigh Dhiegh

The subject of this movie review is The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 suspense thriller and drama film from producer-director John Frankenheimer and producer-writer George Axelrod.  The movie is based on the book, The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller from author Richard Condon that was first published in 1959.  The movie focuses on a former Korean War prisoner of war (POW) who believes that Communists brainwashed a fellow prisoner into becoming a political assassin.

Some film critics and a larger movie audience rediscovered The Manchurian Candidate in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and since then, so much about the film’s themes and both its political and social relevance have been beaten into the ground.  As far as its quality as a film goes, it is a fine example of the beauty of black and white film and a excellent example of how film can deal with issues of memory and identity in so many novel and inventive ways.  I do want to make it clear that I recommend this film because of its wonderful cast and because it is a fantastic suspense thriller that has an intriguing mystery story.

Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) comes to believe that Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a member of his former platoon during the Korean Conflict who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, has been brainwashed by enemies of the United States.  Shaw is the stepson of the red-baiting, media-manipulator, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), and the son of the too-ambitious-for-husband Mrs. Iselin (Angela Landsbury).  Because of the political confusion around Shaw, Bennett is unable to figure out exactly who the operators are, but he has ideas that he must play across a chessboard of shifting landscapes to discover who controls Shaw.

Directed by John Frankenheimer from a screenplay by George Axelrod, The Manchurian Candidate may, in certain political climates, seem quite relevant, but the power of its images will always remain strong.  From the opening scene of Shaw rousting his men out of a Korean brothel to the taunt cat and mouse games of psychological manipulation, the film is a haunting dream in which everything is what it seems and is even more than we might imagine.

I’ve always been fascinated by the scenes of the American soldiers being brainwashed and observed by a cabal of communists.  In one sense, the soldiers realize that they are in a large room where military type personnel are observing them, but another part of their minds registers that they are all guests at a flower club social.  In fact, while the white soldiers believe that the club members are mostly old white ladies, the lone black soldier sees the same club’s membership as haughty, well-dressed black women.

For most of the film, the only character that the audience can rely on is Shaw; we know he’s been brainwashed, and later we discover that the communists trained him to be an assassin.  The identities and motives of the other characters shift and are blurry.  Sinatra’s Bennett goes from a haunted veteran with memory problems in one half of the film to spy smasher in the next, but it’s a fine performance.  He makes us trust Bennett because we eventually have to lean on him, as he becomes the only stable element in the film.

The Manchurian Candidate is blessed with fine performances.  Although Shaw is a bit stiff throughout, he sells the film’s early brainwashing scenes, and he again becomes a strong presence at the end of the film.  Angela Landsbury gives one of the great supporting performances ever, and she does it in a quiet, subtle manner.  Her character might seem bold and obvious, but when I think about, I realize what a crafty snake she was and how she hid her serpentine ways.  In fact, there is a scene where Shaw first meets his future wife (Leslie Parrish) in which something happens that is virtually a metaphor for what Mrs. Iselin is and what her goals are.

Frankenheimer created what many consider to be a masterpiece, and it is indeed very good, as well as being visually, a gorgeous film.  I’ve always loved the dreamlike quality of black and white films.  Without the aid of color, a good director, like Frankenheimer, had to be accurate and quite efficient in shooting his film.  It was important that what was on the screen be able to move the story forward without the benefit of color as an identifying element.

When I think of how The Manchurian Candidate’s relevance resonates with audiences even to the present day, I also think of how this wonderful fantasy reveals so much about the mystery behind the face of a person.  I think of how people are often less than what I think they are, and how often they are more than what they seem.  The Manchurian Candidate is like a strange dream told in color, but we are only able to see it in black and white.  It reveals a truism about life:  reality is everything it seems, more or less.

9 of 10

1963 Academy Awards, USA:  2 nominations: “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Angela Lansbury) and “Best Film Editing” (Ferris Webster)

1963 Golden Globes, USA:  1 win: “Best Supporting Actress” (Angela Lansbury); 1 nomination: “Best Motion Picture Director” (John Frankenheimer)

1963 BAFTA Awards:  1 nomination: “Best Film from any Source” (USA)

1994 National Film Preservation Board, USA:  National Film Registry

Updated:  Sunday, November 10, 2013

The text is copyright © 2013 Leroy Douresseaux. All Rights Reserved. Contact this site for syndication rights and fees.

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