The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Manchurian Candidate is one of few films to really portray communism as a sinister force, compared to many other films which even if they don’t portray communism in a favourable light, they fail to go the whole hog. In the director’s commentary for The Manchurian Candidate, director John Frankenheimer states the film is a response to Joseph McCarthy but goes into no details regarding this or any of the political themes present in the film but rather talking about the technical aspects of the film. With all due respect to the highly talented director, this leads me to believe he is not fully aware or interested in the thematic significance of this film he directed.

From one angle it appears The Manchurian Candidate, whether intentionally or not is a validation of McCarthy and the Hollywood blacklist. The Manchurian Candidate shows communism infiltrating the higher echelons of US society, all the way up to brainwashing a candidate for the US Presidency and his wife while at the same time making anti-communists look like a bunch of paranoid loons. However, one of the major characters in the film, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) is a cartoon-like version of Joseph McCarthy – a puppet of his wife Eleanor Iselin Is of whom is secretly a communist infiltrator (as revealed in a twist near the film’s end) passing as a rabid anti-communist. Not the brightest tool in the shed, Senator Iselin keeps giving the media different numbers on how many communists are in the Defence Department and eventually settles on 57 – being the only number he can remember in a clever reference to Heinz tomato ketchup. At the end of the day, it appears The Manchurian Candidate is trying to have its cake and eat it too in taking down both communism and McCarthyism all at once.

Well in the interest of advancing an agenda one is hamstrung by the fact that the communists in the film are using methods which are science fiction as brainwashing (mind control) does not actually exist in the real world. As Jon Mixon of Slate.com sums it up:

There is no scientific proof that brainwashing (a theoretical form of mind control) exists or is even possible. The term itself is no longer used by mental health professionals (well, reputable professionals, that is), and no peer-reviewed experiments or studies have been done that demonstrate that it is even possible.

Terrorist groups, cults, religions, and others seeking to influence people often look for those experiencing personal or professional setbacks and offer them sources of comfort, financial or moral support, or (at first) a nonjudgmental audience that will listen to their problems. As the person grows closer to the group, he becomes aware that to remain in the group he has to align his public statements, words, and actions with those of group. If he doesn’t, then he is ostracized from the group or increased pressure is placed upon him to do so.

Many people don’t do this and leave the group entirely. Some remain with the group and mimic the necessary public displays, words, and actions but don’t really believe the group’s core message. A relatively small number of people do believe the message, and they make up the backbone of the organization. They aren’t “brainwashed”—they simply chose to believe that the group meets most or all of their wants and needs.

Protagonist Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) does not fall under that category but really is an individual who’s mind has been put under the control of others, making The Manchurian Candidate is a borderline science fiction movie. That said, if brainwashing was real is there any reason to believe The Soviet Union of Mao’s China would have not taken advantage of it? You can decide.

It’s Angela Lansbury who steals the show as quintessential highly controlling, domineering mother Eleanor Iselin, who has a tendency to call anyone she disagrees with a communist, even when they are a Republican (rings a bell in the modern-day culture war). The movie doesn’t state if the Iselin’s are Republicans or Democrats. The regular appearance of bust and portraits of Abraham Lincoln in their home as well as people (including Mr Iselin) dressed as Honest Abe at their party may hint to them being Republicans. However, there did exist a conservative, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party back then so their party allegiance could go either way.

Laurence Harvey is an actor with a real dignified aura to him (and in comparison to Sinatra, it’s clear who the superior actor is). Raymond Shaw is real a snob and sour puss, “not loveable” as he memorably describes himself. He even almost turns into Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when becoming drunk and ranting about Christmas with his mid-Atlantic accent. Likewise, I feel the casting of Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest Eugénie Rose Chaney to be a determent to the film, not out of any wrongdoing by the actress, but for a minor part which only has a small bearing on the plot, having a major actress cast in the part comes off a waste. Angela Lansbury and even the portly, comic-looking John McGiver play roles of far greater significance yet are billed lower – an unknown actress would have been better suited to the role. The Manchurian Candidate is also one of the earliest films to feature black actors in which their race has no bearing on the plot with the desegregated military present in the film and James Edwards in the small but memorable role of Cpl. Allen Melvin.

Frankenheimer directed some of the most visually striking black & white films ever made with Lionel Lindon providing the cinematography for The Manchurian Candidate. Those dreams sequences are a master class in editing and set design (not to mention the unease that comes from having a gun directly pointed at the audience). Also observe how the murder of Mr Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), is very similar to the murder of Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. The scenes from both movies take place at night in the victim’s bedroom as they are lying in bed reading. Both are wearing a robe, have a chessboard, statues of animals and candles next to their beds and both are about to be murdered. I can only guess this scene really stood out for Ridley Scott.

The Manchurian Candidate is fascinating if imperfect political thriller. One has to suspend their disbelief when watching the film, no more so than when Shaw just happens to be in a bar when the bartender in a conversation with patrons just happens to say the trigger phrase “play a little solitaire” – a remarkable coincidence to say the least. The film’s climax is the blueprint for the political, conspiracy thriller in which a sniper plans to take out a candidate in a convention arena amongst all the electioneering apparel and giant posters and the candidates, and all this one year before the untimely demise of JFK.