In anticipation of the recent remake, I viewed the original 1962 version of "The Manchurian Candidate" with great interest. Coming on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and looking ahead to the GOP party, the timeliness of this political thriller could not be better.
Directed by John Frankenheimer, it stars Lawrence Harvey as Sgt. Raymond Shaw, who returns from the Korean War alarmed to find himself highly decorated with medals and honors. He's also highly irritated with his power-hungry mother, played with eviscerating flair by Angela Lansbury. For starters, Mom is married to Senator Iselin, a loud-mouthed, know-nothing politician who is primarily a henpecked pawn for Mom's underhanded schemes. The Senator is played by James Gregory, the growly-voiced actor better known as the lovable Inspector Luger on the mid-70s TV show, "Barney Miller."
We soon meet Captain Bennett Marco who also survived the war thanks to a daring rescue from Sgt. Shaw. When Marco experiences disturbing dreams upon his return, we're concerned, but when it happens to a fellow soldier that Shaw also 'saved', the plot thickens. Frank Sinatra portrays Marco in what could easily be called the finest acting performance of his career. Sure, he gets the girl in the end – Janet Leigh, no less – but this is by no means a love story.
The brilliant dream sequences offer one of the most calm, chilling illustrations of cinematic evil ever. We attend a Ladies Garden Club meeting; a bright, cheery room is filled with kindly, sweet, old women and one of them speaks before a panel of filthy, tired, hypnotized soldiers, including Shaw and Marco. As the lady speaks, the scene shifts back and forth to a room of Communist intelligentsia – mostly Chinese and Russian – in the same set up. It is here we see the fatal powers of the mind demonstrated.
I haven't seen the remake with Denzel and Meryl but the original had me on the edge of my seat; I probably blinked a grand total of four times. The film takes patience and focus, like a well-written suspense novel. While "The Manchurian Candidate" was clearly made amidst Cold War paranoia, its backroom shenanigans and emotional manipulations are appropriate for any political era. The brainwashing makes it particularly applicable to the present-day Bush Administration – whoops! Did I say that out loud?
Frankenheimer gave us a gritty, thought piece and its black and white cinematography made the shadows seem all the more threatening and secretive. As the audience, we fear Sgt. Shaw (his subconscious, actually) while at the same time, pity him - his Oedipus complex has quite a grip. Meanwhile, the mighty Mrs. Iselin swings her lethal maternal power like a heavy sword, getting bloodier by the minute.
"The Manchurian Candidate" reminds us that not all battle weapons are made of metal and gun powder – some are made of flesh and fear and when these weapons explode, nothing is ever the same again.
© 2004 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 8/4/04
The Manchurian Candidate (Original)
USA - 1962