“Who is the power behind the Manchurian candidate?” went the slogan that once advertised the classic political thriller. The answer would be at once shocking and morbidly universal.
The phrase “Manchurian candidate” has been part of American popular culture since 1959, with the publication of Richard Condon’s best-selling Cold War novel of the same name. Because of its theme of assassination, none of the studios would consider turning the novel into a movie. In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the help of star Frank Sinatra, it did reach the big screen, where it flopped. A year later, President Kennedy was assassinated, making the movie ominous: some conspiracy theorists claimed it influenced Lee Harvey Oswald. It stayed buried until its re-release in 1988, the year George H.W. Bush was elected President, when it became an instant cult classic.
It’s 1952 in Korea. A nine-man platoon is betrayed by its Korean interpreter (Henry Silva), handed over to Russian and Chinese enemies, and airlifted to a secret location in Manchuria. The platoon is led by book-loving Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Private First Class Raymond Shaw (British actor Laurence Harvey), a supercilious, upper-class snit whom everyone hates. Members endure days of intense brainwashing, especially Raymond, who’s trained as an assassin. The proof of his programming takes place in an assembly hall filled with Communist officials. But the soldiers think they’re the guests at a garden-party lecture on hydrangeas given by elderly women in frilly summer frocks. Reality intercuts with hallucinations, building a terrifying tension that’s almost too much to bear.
Back in the U.S., Raymond is dismayed to learn he’s been awarded the Medal of Honor, an accomplishment, no doubt, maneuvered by his politically powerful mother, the notorious anti-Communist Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (London-born Angela Lansbury, Oscar-nominated for her reptilian performance). Mrs. Iselin’s late husband was Raymond’s father, a fact Raymond must repeatedly remind everyone. Her current husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), is a buffoonish Sen. Joseph McCarthy clone who’s always claiming government employees are Communists, but can never remember how many there are. (The number settled on is 57, courtesy of a Heinz ketchup bottle.) The scenes featuring Sen. Iselin, screaming his drunken anti-Communist tirades in Congress as his wife pulls his strings, provide the movie’s most biting satire.
As the story develops, we learn — but Raymond does not — that his handler is none other than his mother. He detests her, not only for her incestuous threats, but because she broke up his teenage romance with his beloved girlfriend Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish at her most radiant). Raymond’s mother’s trigger is the Queen of Diamonds playing card. When he sees it, he goes into a trance and does whatever he’s told. Sometimes the trigger happens by accident, as when he’s directed by a stranger to “go jump in a lake” and he does — miserably funny. As his Chinese programmer laughed, “His brain has not only been washed, as they say … it has been dry-cleaned.”
Meanwhile the seven members of the platoon who survived and returned home are having terrible nightmares about what happened in Korea, and who Raymond Shaw really is. Major Marco, now an Army Intelligence officer, is so distraught that his superiors force him to take a vacation. On a train, he meets an alluring stranger, Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh), who flirts outrageously with him. She speaks such strange patter that legions of film historians can’t figure out if she’s just daffy or somehow giving Major Marco cues as if she is his handler.
Step by horrifying step, Raymond responds in a daze to the orders to kill given to him by the Queen of Diamonds. His ultimate goal is to assassinate a presidential nominee so that the future vice-presidential nominee, now Senator Iselin himself, will take his place — in essence the long-sought after “Manchurian candidate” — and Mrs. Iselin, of course, will become the real power in the Oval Office. Major Marco races to stop Raymond’s killer bullets, but he is always one step behind. No one, it seems, can really overcome the combined power of brainwashing and a controlling mother, unless, unpredictably, it might be the memory of love.
The Manchurian Candidate is a grab-you-by-the-throat thriller with life-and-death demands, twists and action (including one of the first karate fights on film), romance, broken dreams, betrayal and bravery. Frankenheimer, trained in television, brings all the tricks he learned on the small screen — heavy use of patriotic symbols, shifts in time, shocking reveals, punchy dialogue, and stylish black-and-white imagery. He selected and guided a perfect cast: each member would later recount this film as his or her favorite. That alone makes the film timeless. Its hauntingly recurrent theme doubles the effect.
The Manchurian Candidate
Quick Take: Dreadfully realistic and satirical Cold War political thriller.
Special Appeal: One of cinema’s most repulsive villains — a doting mother.
Players: Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, Leslie Parrish, Henry Silva, James Gregory. Director: John Frankenheimer (Seven Days in May,1964)
When: Sunday, March 12, 2pm.
Where: Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society at Lake Pointe Landing, 828-697-7310.
Classic B&W. 1962, 126 minutes. Courtesy captioned.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.