Nominated for 2 OSCARS:
Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Angela Lansbury
Best Film Editing, Ferris Webster
A former Korean War POW is brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin. But another former prisoner may know how to save him.
You will never look at a Queen of Diamonds the same way after one viewing of The Manchurian Candidate. Granted you will not become an assassin for a group attempting to overthrow the American government. And one cannot imagine having Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin for a mother. But John Frankenheimer’s political thriller has a way of sticking with you long after the closing credits.
Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), an unpopular soldier, is leading his troops, including Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) into combat during the Korean War. The outfit is captured by the Chinese and is subjected to brainwashing in a magnificently shot sequence that would seem at home in a movie being made today. The Communists have a particular interest in Raymond because he is the stepson of Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), a Red-baiting blowhard based heavily on Joseph McCarthy with Presidential aspirations. After their brainwashing is complete, the unsuspecting men return home as conquering heroes - Raymond is even honored with a Medal of Honor - but with recurring nightmares about their time in captivity.
To further describe the film’s labyrinthine plot would be an injustice. It is easy to become sidetracked by questions by some seeming inconsistencies (we never learn why she is working with the Communists if her ultimate goal is to destroy them) or how elements of the plot mirror Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the romantic subplot between Raymond and a Senator’s daughter is unnecessary). The Manchurian Candidate is a triumph of mood. And that mood is paranoia. How else to explain an utterly incomprehensible scene on a train between Sinatra’s Marco and Eugenie played by Janet Leigh?
The Manchurian Candidate ably constructs the paranoia that pervaded American culture under the shadow of a nuclear world divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union appeared to be an implacable foe driven by ideological zealotry. (Dr. Yen Lo, Raymond’s “handler,” joking about shopping at Macy’s notwithstanding.) A stealth Soviet agent becoming President, under the guise of being an anti-Communist, plays directly on these fears.
The other unforgettable aspect of The Manchurian Candidate is Angela Lansbury’s performance. Frankenheimer successfully fought the studio to cast Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin, despite the fact that she was too young for the part. (She was only three years older than Harvey, playing her son.) Lansbury portrays a woman brimming with resentment and fury, scheming to use her own son as the instrument of her revenge. Watching the scene where Mrs. Iselin explains her motives to her son Raymond, complete with a kiss on the lips, it is impossible not to have a shiver run up the spine. The role is simply unimaginable with any other actress. For those who are only familiar with Lansbury’s as Jessica Fletcher on television’s Murder, She Wrote, this performance must be seen to appreciate her extraordinary talent.
At the end of the film Marco reads Raymond’s Medal of Honor citation. Although the original Medal was awarded based upon a false cover supplied by the Communists, the audience realizes that Raymond’s true heroism comes through thwarting the Communist plot despite not having control over his mind or soul. Marco states: “Poor friendless, friendless Raymond. He was wearing his medal when he died.” Our greatest achievements, come not from our popular decisions or physical bravery, but rather from overcoming our spiritual frailties in order to live (and maybe even die) for others.
The Manchurian Candidate has maintained its power long after the Communist threat has receded because it is so knowing about how the political process can be manipulated. A plot in which Communists are taking over the American government by posing as anti-Communists reflects the subterfuge that dominates the current political culture. The most frightening part of The Manchurian Candidate is that it may not just be an atmospheric thriller with scientifically improbable brainwashing but rather that an all too accurate depiction of the American political system.