Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classical Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate [1962]

The Manchurian Candidate is a film so brilliant that its title has now passed into everyday lexicon. In a fantastic opening sequence set in 1952, an American patrol squad in the Korean War are abducted by Soviet agents, flown to Manchuria, brainwashed and returned. Their charmless platoon sergeant, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, is now a hero in their minds. Thanks to their fake memories he is given the Medal of Honour for saving their lives.

But he has, in fact, been turned into a Soviet Mole within the American establishment, ready to become an assassin at just the sight of a coded queen in a pack of cards!

Because people never leave everyday objects with possible hidden messages lying around…

Two years after their capture, Harvey is activated and ordered to kill a presidential candidate. That no such brain programming is possible has not prevented it being absorbed as fact and is testament to the film’s prowess.

‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is astutely directed by John Frankenheimer, a sharp filmmaker who had previously been working on live TV drama- (because all dramas on television were once live and doesn’t that just sound like the best fun in the world? Can you imagine the actors in Downton Abbey running from set to set?) Author of the hit comedy film The Seven Year Itch, George Axelrod, adapted the story from an ingenious, deadpan novel by Richard Condon.

Released in 1962, the film has forever coloured American history by becoming linked to President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Much speculation about shooter Lee Harvey Oswald’s background and motives were sparked by this film’s central premise.

Which, again, is not possible.

And yet… the film’s star Frank Sinatra purchased the rights to the film in 1964 and kept it from circulation until 1988- which, legend has it, was inspired by remorse after Kennedy’s death!

Uh no, sorry to disabuse you, but Sinatra actually had a dispute with United Artists about the profits and decided it would earn no money for the studio or anyone else.

Because cutting off your nose to spite your face is the sort of thing you can do when you’re so rich you could just by another, gold plated, nose!

It is at least now available on DVD and, in my mind, is a highlight of Sinatra’s acting career. The film also manages to be astonishingly modern with a bitingly astringent political satire and uncannily contemporary story. The villains of the piece plan to exploit a terrorist act to rally the nation to hysteria and sweep into the White House with martial law. Rather kindly, the plot cheerfully divides the blame between the political right and left as the baddies use anti-communist hysteria as a cover for a communist takeover.

This is a clever film that trusts its viewers to be just as intelligent to follow the twisting, surrealistic plot- especially in the way fragmented memories of the Korean brainwashing leak into the nightmares of the survivors. This is how Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco, another member of the brainwashed group, begins to suspect something is off. Angela Lansbury, playing Raymond’s mother and nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, is one of the greatest villains of movie history… but I’m refusing to give too much away as this is one film you really, really, really, must see!