The Criterion Collection Review | The Manchurian Candidate
It’s always tempting to look at political thrillers from ages past, and apply their dated politics to whatever is happening currently in the news. A good political film will accurately reflect the politics of their day, allowing us to dissect, analyze, and greatly understand the present through academic speculation. A great political film, however, will accurately represent the politics of their day, but will perhaps also shine through to something constant and universal about the movement and unchanging habits of rulership.
John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, recently given a Blu-ray brush-up by the venerable Criterion Collection, can be read on both levels. On the one hand, it’s a story of McCarthyism run amok, the mistrust surrounding every post-WWII conflict that American inserted itself into, and the ever-mutating tactics of warfare as seen from a slowly-disillusioning early ’60s public. America’s 1950s are typically seen as an historical period of plenty, robust economic health, and a boom of babies following a crippling depression and cathartic World War. By the early ’60s, however, the bloom was coming off the rose. Korea was long over, and we were beginning to see that it had left scars. We were in an uneasy state.
The Manchurian Candidate captures that uncertainty and prods at those scars. Laurence Harvey – sweaty, embittered, unhinged – plays one of a battalion of soldiers who have returned from the Korean War to be decorated by America. But these soldiers are not proud. They are wounded, damaged, suffering from nightmares. They are cynical about wartime accolades. We learn early on that all of these soldiers had been captured, hypnotized, and brainwashed by the Chinese during the war, and that Harvey in particular has been primed to be a mindless assassin, provided he sees and hears the right triggers. The Korean War, the film argues, wasn’t done with these people. They carry the violence with them. In a more modern film (from, say, the 1970s) the psychology would have been more literal. But it could be seen as brainwashing either way.
The exposition sequence – wherein the hypnosis is explained – is one of the more brilliantly filmed sequences in ’60s cinema. We see Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and all the other soldiers sitting on a stage observing a lecture on flower arrangement given by a dowdy bourgeois woman. The camera pans around the room, and we see many other such women watching. When we pan back to the podium, we now see portraits of Mao and Stalin. The woman has been replaced by a Chinese scientist. It turns out, these soldiers are being demonstrated for Communist onlookers, but see something entirely different. The figures in the sequence shift uneasily from one reality to the next, the dialogue between the two overlapping.
Sinatra plays the film’s protagonist, the soldier who is trying to figure out what is wrong with the Harvey character, and what sort of plot he may be involved in, a plot that involves Harvey’s wicked and oddly incestuous mother, played by Angela Lansbury in full-on villainess mode. Those familiar with Lansbury as merely a kindly matron or Mrs. Potts will be shocked to see her streak of dark evil and discomfiting sexuality here. She sports a bulletproof hairdo, and seems to have no qualms feeding her own son into a twisted conspiracy of hypnosis and assassination.
The Manchurian Candidate is striking in its hard edge. This is not a slick, subtle dissection of modern politics. This is a fist to the face. It doesn’t bother to sand down its hard corners. It’s a refreshingly brusque form of storytelling that dispenses with grace and goes for the throat. One can tell that Frankenheimer did not expect his film to be a hit, as he doesn’t mollycoddle or add the mannered sheen of self-affected prestige. This is a sweaty, blistering, forthrightly upsetting film.
Sinatra, perhaps infamously, purchased the rights to The Manchurian Candidate in 1964 and deliberately kept it out of release for 24 years. It’s constantly posited that the film is a direct allusion to the Kennedy assassination, and many critics have seen it as an oblique prediction of that event. Sinatra’s cloistering of it doesn’t help that assessment. Although when it was finally released in 1988, it felt striking in its relevance to the then-hot Cold War.
Which is why The Manchurian Candidate also feels modern and salient today. There is something universal about the insidious mistrust of those in power. The paranoia presented in The Manchurian Candidate is now just a natural part of modern American political discourse. What’s more, the film is, ultimately, about war and its consequences. A soldier is encouraged to fight and kill and die for their country. They are seen, however, as machines by those in charge. Their minds are erased. They are mouthpieces for various causes. And they will be disposed of. The tragedy of the Harvey character is how he was cast aside, even while being constantly told he was a hero. This is something any soldier of any era can likely relate to.
Top Image: MGM
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.