|The Manchurian Candidate, once a political bad dream...|
The Manchurian Candidate was considered a provocative political shocker when first released November 24, 1962. Like A Face in the Crowd five years before and Network 14 years after, The Manchurian Candidate, while applauded as audacious, was also considered a farfetched political scenario. However, the new political reality emerged swiftly, when the controversial Kennedy assassination shattered the United States on November 22, 1963. From then on, assassinations, unending scandals, and the ever-polarizing politics of the last 55 years have left this country cynical.
Aside from satirical targets that are current as ever—campaign mudslinging, faux-patriotism, commie-baiting, politicized torture, controlled-pawn candidates, strange political bedfellows—The Manchurian Candidate remains relevant because of its lean storytelling and almost documentary style black and white filming. For that, credit goes to television-trained director John Frankenheimer, faithfully following Richard Condon’s satiric and prophetic novel.
While The Manchurian Candidate works as a suspense melodrama or political drama, it’s really a black comedy, though the humor admittedly is the gallows variety. It’s no accident that George Axelrod, famed for sexy comedies like The Seven Year Itch, wrote the script. But then, some people don’t get the nightmare humor of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, either.
|Director John Frankenheimer in 1962,|
The plot of The Manchurian Candidate has many truly twisted turns, which I’ll try not to reveal too much about, for those who haven’t seen this cult classic turned true film classic.
During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are captured by Soviets and taken to Manchuria. Let’s just say that part of their stay at the Hotel Manchuria includes free brainwashing. Cut to the film’s present—very early ‘60s USA—the soldiers who returned are experiencing horrifying dreams and display inexplicable behavior. Major Marco Bennett, deeply affected, is determined to figure out why these nightmares are occurring and how it is tied to Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw. He is a fellow soldier that the regiment feels compelled to automatically express admiration for, though he was universally despised by them.
Raymond is a priggish rich kid, determined to break away from his mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin, and her political tool of a husband, Johnny Iselin. Eleanor’s ambition is to get Johnny on the ticket as the vice-president nominee at that summer’s presidential convention. The political wife from hell is willing to use any means necessary, including using her son’s war hero status, and oh, so much more. The film is a hair-raising race for Ben Marco to get to the bottom of what happened in Manchuria and what it is currently doing to Raymond Shaw.
|Despite appearances, Frank Sinatra's aces as Bennett Marco.|
|Frank Sinatra as Ben Marco, fighting sleepless nights with some heavy reading!|
|Laurence Harvey as the tortured Raymond Shaw.|
|Remember this actor from Hawaii Five-0? Scary here, too!|
John McGiver, another great familiar face, seemed to be in every TV show and movie of my childhood. Here, he plays Thomas Jordan, the Iselins’ political nemesis. McGiver is both slyly humorous, with that great, distinctive voice of his, and also the voice of decency, as he denounces the sleazy Iselins.
Leslie Parrish, an unfamiliar face to me, was a popular starlet in the early ‘60s. She is appealing as Jocelyn Jordan, Thomas’ daughter and Raymond’s true love. Parrish offers some rays of romantic light when Raymond rediscovers her, and some heartfelt tragedy with her fate.
|Henry Silva and Frank Sinatra pulling some pretty smooth martial arts moves!|
|Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh having some very awkward first date chat!|
Janet Leigh is another breath of fresh air in this hot house atmosphere of villains and diabolical corruption. As Rosie, Leigh comes out of nowhere, to first offer Ben Marco comfort, and then falls in love with him at warp-speed. Their first scene together on a train is infamous for its bizarre dialogue. Some viewers believe that their conversation is so stilted as to be coded, and that Leigh’s Josie is an agent for the U.S., assigned to keep tabs on Marco. That doesn’t pan out as the film progresses, but it’s an interesting theory. My thought is that since movie dramas must always have a romantic interest, director Frankenheimer turned the classic “meet-cute” of the hero and leading lady on its ear. Whatever the case, Sinatra and Leigh have a warm rapport that off-sets the movie’s cool toughness. I once watched TCM’s Robert Osborne interview Janet Leigh. Janet recalled with great emotion, despite decades that had passed, how then-husband Tony Curtis announced that he was leaving her, the morning before she filmed the train scene. Leigh said that Frank was great, gently guiding her through that extended, dramatically tricky scene. When I watch Janet Leigh in movies from this era—warm, intelligent, no-nonsense, talented, lovely, with that crisp, unique voice—I wonder why the hell Hitchcock didn’t use her again after Psycho.
|James Gregory as the doltish politician &Angela Lansbury as the scheming wife. Why, that's never happened in real life!|
I saved the best for last: the greatest performance in The Manchurian Candidate is Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Shaw Iselin. As the ultimate political wife, Lansbury got one of the great supporting actress roles ever—and Angela gives it everything she’s got. People who think of Angela Lansbury as kindly, owl-like Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote or Teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will be in for a surprise. Lansbury was only 36 when she played Laurence Harvey’s monster mommie—and only three years older than Larry! Movie and theater critics have always lamented that Lansbury should have been a big movie star, but frankly, I can see why she didn’t. Do I smell the Internet torches being lit? Here’s the deal: Angela always looked older and was not conventionally beautiful in golden age Hollywood, where youth and beauty were all. And is showbiz really all that different today? Lansbury always reminded me of Bette Davis, who fought a similar casting bias by sheer strength of personality and will. Angie was often cast older—she played Hedy Lamarr’s older sister in Samson and Delilah and had just played Elvis’ mother in Blue Hawaii the year before. Lansbury most definitely looks matronly and motherly in Manchurian, especially next to whippet-lean Laurence Harvey.
|Lansbury checked her ego at the door when she played Larry's mother.|
I’ve always been fascinated how women in Hollywood were cast in terms of age. By all rights, an older actress like Bette Davis would have been awesome as Harvey’s awful mother. But the surprise factor would have been nil, since Davis was renowned for playing villains. Sinatra suggested Lucille Ball—a fascinating thought, since Ball was domineering off-camera. But audiences only knew her as lovable Lucy, and such casting could have blown up in the Manchurian makers’ faces. Frankenheimer had already worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down and decided Angela’s acting would carry her.
The rest is showbiz history, as Lansbury gave an instantly legendary supporting actress performance. Angela surely would have won an Oscar that year, but like Bette Davis, was shut out by a performance from the screen version of The Miracle Worker—with Lansbury, it was for Patty Duke’s remarkable turn as young Helen Keller.
|Angela Lansbury was 36 when she starred in 'The Manchurian Candidate.'|
Lansbury is quoted as saying The Manchurian Candidate is the most important film in her career. Angela is brilliant, and like Bette, was great at being both villainous, yet riveting. As Eleanor, the power behind the politician, Angela Lansbury is ambitious, crass, loud, domineering, funny, and as the master plan is revealed, utterly chilling.
For me, The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best films of the 1960s. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, always amazed at how this dark satire predicted our nation’s political future. Or perhaps The Manchurian Candidate just pulled back the curtain on what was already happening in the Cold War political scene. Either way, The Manchurian Candidate paints a scary picture, in the guise of satire, of what politicians will do for power.