03 February 2006

100 films: The Manchurian Candidate

manchurian candidate
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starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury
written by: George Axelrod, from the novel by Richard Condon
directed by: John Frankenheimer
NR, 126 min, 1962, USA

SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), stepson of U.S. Senator John Iselin, returns from the Korean War as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. The members of his platoon, to a man, swear that "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." Only he isn't. Not even close. So when Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can't shake a recurring dream that Shaw killed two members of their platoon while they were prisoners of war, he investigates.

The Manchurian Candidate is one of those films that can't seem to stay out of the spotlight, yet is frequently ignored. Richard Condon's novel was viewed by a great number of people as being too touchy of a political subject to be portrayed on film.[1] Not surprisingly, the film was censored in the Communist section of Europe, and when reports came out that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposedly inspired by the film, it was pulled from circulation[2] and later suppressed by Sinatra himself after the rights reverted to him.[3]

Yet, despite all this controversy, the film has faded enough from our collective memories that Jonathan Demme found it necessary to remake the film in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber.[4] This is the sort of thing to be expected for a film that hasn't aged well or was never all that well-known in the first place, but John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate resonates well today, despite having its roots in Cold War propaganda. In fact, it could be argued that the original feels more politically urgent today than the remake. Therefore, the original has aged extremely well, even as its villains haven't, or the remake is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Or both.

It's the opening sequences of The Manchurian Candidate that draw us in so effectively, giving us just enough information to make us realize that something is amiss. We meet Raymond Shaw as a man hated by his men, who are then taken captive when their guide turns out to be a Communist agent. Shaw is then being decorated with a Congressional Medal of Honor he doesn't seem to want. Then, in Marco's stunning dream sequence, we watch as a brainwashed Shaw kills two members of his patrol in cold blood as the rest of his men sit and watch, absolutely convinced they are sitting through a meeting of a ladies garden club meeting in New Jersey. But when Marco, after describing his dream to his superiors, is asked how he personally feels about Shaw, he describes him as "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being" he's ever known. If that isn't enough to grab your attention, then you may just be a lost cause.[5]

From there, the film continues to twist and turn as it reveals level after level of corruption and deception, all the while maintaining the audience's suspension of disbelief. Shaw has been chosen as the brainwashed assassin partly because of who he is. If used properly he can be a weapon beyond suspicion and therefore ideal for high-profile assignments such as killing political leaders. But the plan is not perfect. Shaw is accidentally triggered by the conversation of a bartender, allowing Marco to deduce the mechanisms by which the weapon operates.

A lot of the weight of this film rests on the primary actors, who turn in great performances across the board. Laurence Harvey uses his ability to be almost zombie-like to great effect, but is able to show a depth to his character that most actors would not be able to find, for it is deep and repressed and barely a flicker, but it is there and it is vital to the film. Angela Lansbury earned her third Oscar nomination[6] for the difficult role of Shaw's mother, and James Gregory does an entertaining riff on McCarthyism as Sen. Iselin, but Frank Sinatra is our protagonist and the film depends on his character. We tend to forget that Sinatra was once viewed as a legitimate actor. He won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (1953), was nominated for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and here is a compelling lead. There's more dramatic weight to his performance than you'd expect and with his natural charisma, he's an easy protagonist to get behind.

Above all, this is John Frankenheimer's masterpiece. The dream sequence in the garden club is one of the greatest in all of cinema and the rest of film follows suit, revealing the plot much as you'd play a game of solitaire--one card at a time--and it's only when you get to the hardest cards to reach that the whole thing comes together. That is, if you can avoid the Queen of Diamonds.

[1] As the story goes, when Sinatra broached the subject with John F. Kennedy, JFK's main concern was finding an actress who could convincingly play the mother.

[2] Not true.

[3] Also not true.

[4] This, of course, was a terrible idea that resulted in a terrible movie. On its own, the remake is a lackluster, convoluted thriller, but compared to the original, is nothing short of an abomination.

[5] Or as the original posters, in a rare instance of the hype being accurate, read, "If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won't know what it's all about! When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!"

[6] The other two were: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Gaslight (1944). She later went on to star in the TV series Murder, She Wrote.