#233) The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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#233) The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

OR “Everybody Loathes Raymond”

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Written by George Axelrod. Based on the novel by Richard Condon.

Class of 1994

The Plot: After being captured during the Korean War, a U.S. platoon returns home and Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is given the Medal of Honor for saving his team. A few years later, the platoon’s commander Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has a recurring nightmare where he and the other soldiers are brainwashed by leaders of Communist China. He soon discovers that those dreams were real, and that Raymond is a sleeper agent programmed to assassinate any political figures that get in the way of his stepfather Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) and domineering mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury). Marco must stop Raymond before this plot destroys American democracy. And if political thrillers aren’t your thing, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the work of Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra, praises Harvey and Lansbury in particular, and quotes Pauline Kael’s description of the film as “the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.”

But Does It Really?: Damn it, why are there so many prescient political movies on this list? The film has always been praised for its realism, but “The Manchurian Candidate” may be more relevant now than ever before. Axelrod and  Frankenheimer expertly deliver a story about the trances (literal and otherwise) that politics can cast. Add in a perfect ensemble, with a central performance by a never-better Sinatra, and you’ve got a film with some staying power. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Shout Outs: At one point a driving shot features a theater marquee for “Pinocchio”, which may or may not be an anachronism (the 1940 film was re-released in both 1954 and 1962).

Everybody Gets One: Laurence Harvey, TV actor James Gregory, and Leslie Parrish, who was a few years away from her major political activism opposing the Vietnam War.

Wow, That’s Dated: Oh you know, just the usual casual racism and sexism that I have come to expect from movies of this era. [Sigh]

Seriously, Oscars?: Receiving good-to-mixed critical reviews and moderate box-office success, “The Manchurian Candidate” garnered two Oscar nominations. Ferris Webster lost Best Editing to Anne V. Coates’ legendary work in “Lawrence of Arabia”, while Angela Lansbury, the presumed frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress, lost to Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker”. Duke is that film’s co-lead, but you can’t have a 16-year-old compete with Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, so category fraud it is! Even more appalling, John Frankenheimer was never nominated for an Oscar.

Other notes

  • These guys weren’t the only ones brainwashed during the Korean War: two subjects nicknamed “Hawkeye” and “Trapper” were conditioned to pull elaborate pranks, chase skirts, and mumble overlapping dialogue.
  • Laurence Harvey was born in Lithuania, raised in South Africa, and studied acting in London. I bring all of this up for one reason: is he making any effort to hide his accent? At least Angela Lansbury is trying to flatten hers to sound more American. Laurence Harvey went to the Leslie Howard School of Invisible Accents.
  • The initial revolving shot of the garden club is great. In fact that whole sequence has a great disorienting quality to it. A+ everyone.
  • Kudos to Frankenheimer for casting African-American actors like Joe Adams and James Edwards in roles where their race is not an issue. Unfortunately this is balanced out with non-Chinese actors playing Chinese characters with several racial slurs thrown at them.
  • Shoutout to Janet Leigh, who gets nothing to do in this film. Her character has no connection to the plot, any hint of dimension in the novel was eliminated from the screenplay, and to add insult to injury, Tony Curtis served her their divorce papers on the set of this film! That all being said, Leigh spoke highly of her experience on this film, praising Frankenheimer and Sinatra for helping her get the character.
  • I greatly enjoyed the movie’s one joke (“57”).
  • “The Manchurian Candidate” is the last movie I expected to see on my “Die Hard” not-Christmas list.
  • Today in Production Code censorship: Raymond calls his stepfather a “son of a numbskull”. Really takes the bite out of that scene.
  • So even back then politicians responded to gun violence with “thoughts and prayers”? [Deep Exhale]
  • Speaking of, “The Manchurian Candidate” made the NFR the same year as the Zapruder film. Did the 1994 NFR committee need a hug?
  • Sinatra knew that his first take was always his best, so he typically only did one take of a scene. When a camera gaffe made Marco out of focus for his big scene with Raymond in the hotel room, a second take was shot, but was deemed inferior to take one. So the first take, and Sinatra’s blurred face, made the final cut. Most film scholars justify the choice as Raymond’s blurred vision, which doesn’t make a lick of sense. For starters, the camera’s not even from his POV.
  • Almost every iconic moment from this movie happens in the final 20 minutes. Angela Lansbury in particular doesn’t really get to grandstand until then. She is, of course, perfection in her best film role.
  • Why isn’t that kiss in the “Cinema Paradiso” montage?
  • No spoilers, but my jaw dropped at that ending. Which is amazing considering I know I had it spoiled for me at some point, but I was so enthralled with the film in the moment I completely forgot.

Legacy

  • The film was successful, but contrary to rumors, it was not removed from circulation following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The film’s copyright reverted to Frank Sinatra in 1972, and it appeared sporadically on television for the next few years. A 25th anniversary reissue led to the film being rediscovered and reappraised by a new generation of filmgoers.
  • Everyone has spoofed the main plot of this film, because political assassinations are hilarious! See “Zoolander”, “Naked Gun”, and “The Simpsons” for just a few examples.
  • Don’t worry; they remade the film in 2004. It had the pedigree, critics liked it (especially Streep), and it did okay for a political thriller, but we’re still talking about the original 56 years later.

Bonus Clip: While performing in “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway in 2009, Angela Lansbury dropped by “Theater Talk” to discuss the show and her career. The conversation turns to “The Manchurian Candidate” at about 15:30, and features her concise response to seeing the 2004 version.

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