“The Manchurian Candidate” 1962
D– John Frankenheimer
W– George Axelrod
D.P.- Lionel Lindon
I‘m going to reprint a brief plot synopsis of the film, but my main focus will be to highlight a few of my favorite pictorial moments from the film, and to discuss a few plot points, and how they relate to the novel by Richard Condon, which I’ve just read. The sections in boldface are by film critic Roger Ebert. The rest is mine.
So here we go.
“The picture plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.”
— Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (1992)
“…The Manchurian Candidate was a bold venture in 1962, with its flashy technique and political themes. Now re-released…its mobile camera and fluid editing still dazzle. And its story of Cold War intrigue, murky East-West dealings, assassination, brainwashing — and the idea of a glorified cue-card reader playing president — resonates today like never before.”
— Desson Howe, Washington Post (February 12, 1988)
“Here is a movie that was made more than 25 years ago, and it feels as if it were made yesterday. Not a moment of The Manchurian Candidate lacks edge and tension and a cynical spin. And what’s even more surprising is how the film now plays as a political comedy, as well as a thriller… For more than 25 years, memories of The Manchurian Candidate have tantalized those who saw it at the time…
“Was it really as good as it seemed? It was.”
— Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (March 11, 1988)
The title of “The Manchurian Candidate” has entered everyday speech as shorthand for a brainwashed sleeper, a subject who has been hypnotized and instructed to act when his controllers pull the psychological trigger. In the movie, an American patrol is captured by Chinese communists during the Korean War, and one soldier is programmed to become an assassin; two years later, he’s ordered to kill a presidential candidate. That such programming is impossible has not prevented it from being absorbed as fact; this movie, released in 1962, has influenced American history by forever coloring speculation about Lee Harvey Oswald. Would the speculation about Oswald’s background and motives have been as fevered without the film as a template?
The film has become so linked with the Kennedy assassination that a legend has grown up around it. Frank Sinatra, the film’s star, purchased the rights and kept it out of release from 1964 until 1988, and the story goes that he was inspired by remorse after Kennedy’s death. Sinatra says it was the high point of his acting career; nobody mentions why it was unseen for 24 years.
Seen today, “The Manchurian Candidate” feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist act, “rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.” The plot cheerfully divides blame between right and left; it provides a right-wing demagogue named Sen. John Iselin, who is clearly modeled on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and makes him the puppet of his draconian wife, who is in league with foreign communists. The plan: Use anti-communist hysteria as a cover for a communist takeover.- Roger Ebert
In fact, the whole Right wing McCarthy paranoia of the late 1950’s is deftly skewered in this film. The Iselins are portrayed as obvious right wing demagogues. There is even a scene where the Iselins are argueing over dinner about how many communists that Senator Iselin is suppose to say are in the state department. Iselin is totally controlled by his wife. He’s nothing more than a moron puppet for her power mad ambitions. He’s too dim to remember a number himself, so she, with obvious revulsion, notices the ketchup he’s plowing onto his steak. In the next scene, The idiot Senator says that there are 57 varieties of communists in the state department. How’s that for product placement?
Another interesting use of visual symbolism used in the film is the presence of Abraham Lincoln iconography whenever we see the Iselins. Their various homes and offices are filled with Lincoln, as you can see in the visual exhibit below. Frankenheimer obviously wanted it clear which side of the political spectrum his villains were coming from. In former times, Lincoln was the primary symbol of the Republican party.
The film trusts its viewers to follow its twisting, surrealistic plot, especially in the way fragmented memories of the Korean brainwashing leak into the nightmares of the survivors of that patrol. A flashback shows us what happened: After being hypnotized by their Chinese captors, they think they’re attending a meeting of a garden club in a New Jersey hotel, while we see their communist hypnotist lecturing a room of other party officials. To show how strong the programming is, he orders Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Harvey) to strangle one of the Americans and shoot another; the film’s point of view cuts freely between the different versions of reality.-Roger Ebert
The dream sequence was one of the most amazing pieces of virtuosity film editing ever done. According to Frankenheimer, they shot the same scene four times, with four different combinations of circumstance. there was
· #1 the actual incident, in the Manchurian amphitheatre with Yen-lo, the Chinese psychiatrist/brainwasher, and the Chinese and Russian military brass.
· #2 the brainwashed platoon with the imaginary ladies garden club in New Jersey
· #3 the brainwashed platoon with the new jersey garden setting, replacing the ladies with Yen-lo and the Russians and Chinese
· #4 the brainwashed platoon juxtaposing yen-lo/Russian and Chinese personnel with Black New Jersey ladies (representing the Black platoon member’s nightmare)
Frankenheimer gave the initial editing attempt to George Axelrod, the writer, who assisted Film editor Ferris Webster and together they hammered out a dream sequence that seamlessly switched back and forth between versions of reality that was and is astounding. Frankenheimer never changed that initial edit. It was that perfect.
Back in the United States, Raymond is given the Medal of Honor and greeted by his smothering mother (Lansbury) and her second husband, the weak, alcoholic Sen. Iselin (James Gregory). It’s a running gag in the film that Raymond is constantly referred to as the senator’s son, and keeps repeating, “I am not his son.” Mrs. Iselin has incestuous feelings for Raymond, which in the novel lead them to bed, but in the movie are revealed through a famous full-lip kiss. Raymond hates her, hates himself and has a bitter speech about how he is not lovable.
Sinatra plays Maj. Bennett Marco, another member of the Korean patrol, whose fragmented nightmares lead him to suspect the brainwashing. He leads an Army investigation that determines Raymond may have been programmed as an assassin — but crucially fails to bring him in for questioning, because he believes Raymond’s romance with Jocelyn, daughter of a liberal senator, may cure him. The climax plays out inside Madison Square Garden, where Mrs. Iselin has ordered her son to shoot her party’s presidential candidate during his acceptance speech; Sen. Iselin, the vice presidential candidate, will catch his falling body and then, she says, deliver “the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years.”-Roger Ebert
Marco gets to Raymond and smashes his mental programming, allowing Raymond to shoot and kill his Mother and the Senator instead.
The assasination scene, pictured below, is one of the most realistically filmed scenes in movie history. It’s extremely creepy how the shaky, cinema verite look foreshadowed the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assasination and the Assasination of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The film moves freely between realism and surrealism. Frankenheimer shows Iselin at a press conference and Senate hearing, with details lifted directly from the Army-McCarthy hearings; as Iselin waves a list of “card-carrying communists,” TV sets in the foreground show the same scene being carried on the news. Yet other scenes are from Raymond’s disturbed point of view, especially when his hypnotic trigger (the Queen of Diamonds) appears in a solitaire game. There’s a scene where Sinatra’s character holds up a deck full of queens while trying to deprogram Raymond; it’s a little out of focus, and Frankenheimer confesses on the commentary track that although Sinatra supplied several other takes, they weren’t as good, so he went with the flawed one, only to be praised for the unfocused shot showing Raymond’s disturbed perceptions.-Roger Ebert
Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Iselin was nominated for an Oscar. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest slights in movie history that she lost it. Completely unforgivable. I’m sure that Patty Duke is wonderful in “The Miracle Worker”, but please! Lansbury so inhabits Mrs Iselin and informs her every move with such malevolence. It’s a performance which works on multiple levels. There’s so much unspoken emotion going on in her face, and in her body language. She seeths and exudes such evil.
Fierce, focused, contemptuous of the husband she treats like a puppet, she has, we gather, plotted with the Russians and Chinese to use the Red Scare of “Iselinism” to get him into office, where she will run things from behind the scenes. But it comes as a shocking surprise that her own son has been programmed as the assassin. That so enrages her that, in another turn of the corkscrew plot, she tells him: “When I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.”-Roger Ebert
Frankenheimer uses a heightened visual style to underline the byzantine complexity of his story. There are tilt shots, odd angles, and the use of deep focus for his favorite composition, in which a face is seen in closeup in the foreground while action takes place behind it in the middle distance.
This look is matched by Axelrod’s dialogue, which often jumps the tracks of reality. Consider the peculiar first meeting between the Sinatra character and Rosie (Janet Leigh), who will become his fiancee. He’s so shaky on a train that he can’t light a cigarette. She follows him to the platform between cars, lights his cigarette, and then says, “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” “This is Delaware,” Sinatra says, and she replies: “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.”
Soon she has broken off an engagement and taken up with Marco, leaving us to wonder what in the hell that dialogue was about. Was it in code? Was Marco hallucinating? It seems strange that the Chinese brainwashed the entire patrol, but needed only Raymond as an assassin. Why, then, spare the others with their nightmares and suspicions? Is Sinatra’s Maj. Marco another Manchurian sleeper, and is Rosie his controller? If you look at their scenes carefully, you find that she broke off her engagement immediately after their awkward train meeting and before their first date. Reflect on the scene where she talks about Marco beating up “a very large Korean gentlemen,” and ask yourself what she means when she calls this man, who she has never seen, “the general.” I don’t know. Maybe Rosie just talks funny. It would be a nice touch, though, for this screwball story to have another layer circling beneath.-Roger Ebert
In the book, Rosie is clearly not a sleeper agent. In fact, her odd behavior is never really explained, but one weird bit of dialogue is. When he first meets her on the train, Marco asks her “Are you Arabic?” Now, it’s really strange for him to be asking the very white, W.A.S.P.ish Rosie as portrayed by Janet Leigh this. It leads you to suspect it may be some kind of subconcious pre-planted code. In the book, however, Rosie is described as having extremely sharp,exotic arabic features. So that explains it.Frankenheimer should have deleted that line, as it only served to confuse the viewer.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a “classic” but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released. “It may be,” Pauline Kael wrote at the time, “the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood.” Yes, because it satirizes no particular target — left, right, foreign, domestic — but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.