The Manchurian Candidate Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of the bona fide American classic, The Manchurian Candidate. This is the first of four reviews of films by the recently deceased John Frankenheimer.

John Frankenheimer, who died last weekend, had a patchy career but was, at his best, one of the true greats of American filmmaking. In a filmography which includes great thrillers such as Seven Days In May, Seconds and French Connection 2, he constantly demonstrated an ability to combine high-octane entertainment with thoughtful characterisation and this was evident in his first big critical success The Manchurian Candidate. One of the most unusual films to have ever emerged from Hollywood, it was withdrawn in 1963 after the assassination of John F.Kennedy – the storyline sharing some tenuous parallels with real life events – but was re-released to enormous acclaim in 1988.

At first, the film seems quite to be covering quite familiar Red-baiting territory. Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Harvey) and his platoon are captured by Communist forces during the Korean War but appear to escape with only two casualties and are greeted in America as heroes. Shaw is presented with the Medal of Honour during a ceremony organised by his appalling mother (Lansbury) and her second husband, rabidly anti-communist Senator John Iselin (Gregory). But Raymond’s generally unsavoury personality catches everyone out and his refusal to be gracious annoys his mother, who has planned the whole thing as a boost for her husband’s chances of becoming a Vice-Presidential nominee during the upcoming convention season. There seems to be some confusion as to what actually happened in Korea and this is compounded when one of the other soldiers, Captain Bennett Marco (Sinatra) begins experiencing a strange recurring dream. He dreams that he and the rest of the men are sitting in the lobby of a hotel listening to a ladies’ group lecture on hydrangeas. But we see the reality that this illusion covers; Marco, Shaw and the others are sitting in a laboratory in Manchuria where they are being brainwashed by a genial scientist Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh). Shaw, after making an elaborate set of hand gestures, is commanded to kill two of the men and does so – the same two men who have been reported missing in action during the escape for which Shaw has been commended. Marco feels this dream is the true picture of what happened in Korea and his suspicions increase when he discovers that his only possible answer to the question, “What kind of a man is Raymond Shaw ?” is warmly affectionate; Marco is well aware, along with the rest of the platoon, that Shaw is a cold, hard bastard and totally unable to get close to anybody. Marco attempts to discover exactly what the dream signifies and what Shaw was doing with his hands but finds out that the truth is considerably more sinister than he could have suspected – and what began as a standard anti-communist parable turns into one of the cleverest satires on American politics ever put on film.

It would be very unsporting to give any more of the plot away. The script by George Axelrod, based on the successful novel by Richard Condon, is a small masterpiece of construction which becomes wilder and funnier with each new twist. We are in the realm of jet black comedy here and a lesser screenwriter would have overplayed his hand, but Axelrod keeps the story and dialogue on a knife edge between satire and realism. The characters of Marco and Shaw are dead straight and believably portrayed by Sinatra and Harvey – both on top form with Harvey in particular doing his best work on screen – but around them, Axelrod places a series of deliciously observed grotesques who are immediately identifiable and only slightly exaggerated. Johnny Iselin is as sharp a parody of Joe McCarthy as you’ll see, slow wit giving way to rabble-rousing rhetoric whenever a microphone is placed in his vicinity, and James Gregory’s performance is, like the rest of the film, perfectly pitched. His indecision as to how many Communists are supposedly lurking in the Defence Department is a great running gag – the final number being decided on after a fortuitous incident at breakfast. The minor characters include a nicely observed Liberal senator, played by John McGiver – all wind and not enough piss – and a variety of thick-headed military types. But the jewel in the crown of Axelrod’s script is Raymond’s mother, brilliantly played by the undervalued Angela Lansbury. One of the great screen monsters, Mrs Iselin is as terrifyingly convincing a creature as you never want to meet. At first appearing merely annoyingly fussy at Raymond’s homecoming, she finally reveals her true colours in one of the classic screen monologues where she justifies her actions with terrifyingly rational calm. Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for this part and she should have received one because it’s such a clever, insightful performance. She refuses to play the woman for easy laughs or as a ranting hysteric, preferring to get right into the cold heart of the matter. As a consequence, she is simply unforgettable. Lansbury has been rarely seen since, except on the dire TV slop of “Murder She Wrote”, but this performance gives her a secure place in the gallery of screen horrors.

John Frankenheimer, working with remarkable freedom – largely thanks to the support of Sinatra, who defended him to the hilt – gave the first real sign of his talents on this movie. He’s a very confident, sleek director who knows exactly how to pace this sort of blackly funny thriller so that you’re not given too much time to pick holes in the plot. The Manchurian Candidate allows him to indulge his love of surreal asides, notably in the dream sequence which is a small classic of misdirection, especially when the genteel ladies in the hotel lobby begin to spout bizarrely displaced Communist rhetoric. The central playing card metaphor is well done too and I love the mad daring of dressing Jocie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), Shaw’s cruelly manipulated sweetheart, in a giant red queen costume. en. The movie is full of wildly silly diversions that wouldn’t even begin to work in a different context but which are entirely appropriate in this unique product of a meeting of minds between Frankenheimer and Axelrod. Just when you think the film might begin to flag, when Marco is sent on vacation and meets a cool blonde played by Janet Leigh, cliches like femme fatale and dumb blonde are turned on their heads when she turns out to be intelligent, helpful and insightful. Frankenheimer, whose films are generally fast moving and slickly edited, isn’t afraid to shoot long two-shots during which Sinatra and Leigh are allowed to flirt and exploit the potent chemistry between them. As a result, Leigh is able to build a memorably character out of a role which isn’t really very substantial. Most of all, the film has a satirical kick which makes it seem alive and vibrant, even forty years later when most of the political targets have long since fallen into disrepute.

Some viewers find the film confusing, which it isn’t if you concentrate, and others object to having their sympathies tugged about with such abandon. In my view, this is one of the strengths of the movie. Just when we think Raymond Shaw is a heartless bastard we discover the truth behind his love affair with Jocie and how it was callously ruined by his mother. Certainties are constantly being undercut and one’s first reaction to events is rarely the last. In particular, the politics of the film are fascinating. It appears at first to be right wing propaganda of the crudest sort, depicting the Commies are laughing sadists. Then we get to America and we seem to be watching a leftist satire on right-wing Anti-Communist hysteria. Then it appears our first reaction might have been right, but then…. and so on, until every conceivable political slant has been flirted with, rejected and satirised. This is a film which renders the bland certainties of politics ludicrous – and, which unfortunately tends to impact on some of Frankenheimer’s other political thrillers, making them seem rather unsophisticated in comparison. Better still, this astute juggling act is achieved within the context of a very exciting, beautifully tense suspense movie which has a final act that is as riveting as you could wish for. Frankenheimer could not possibly have wished for a better memorial than this movie. It’s a bona fide classic.

The Disc

Although the MGM disc of the film isn’t a fully fledged “Special Edition”, it’s a very good presentation of a film which is eminently rewatchable.

The film is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.75:1 transfer. It’s generally a very good picture with some minor flaws. There is a fair amount of grain here and there and a couple of instances of serious artifacting, but I thought that the overall quality was good. The monochrome cinematography looks very crisp with strong shadow detail and a good level of contrast. There is no obvious edge-enhancement and the image is generally less soft than the Region 1 version which seemed to lack fine detail.

The soundtrack is the original mono recording. No problems and this is perfectly acceptable without being especially striking.

There are a couple of interesting and valuable extra features. John Frankenheimer, always good value, provides a detailed and reasonably full commentary. This becomes a little sporadic towards the end but is worth a listen. His knowledge of the filmmaking process and his affection for his work is inspiring and it makes his death all the more regrettable since so few directors seem able to communicate their enthusiasm as well as this. We also get an interview with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra, filmed for the re-release of the movie in 1988, which tends towards obsequiousness, presumably due to nerves over Sinatra’s volatility, but which is also very amusing with some facts about the film I wasn’t previously aware of. Along with these features is the original trailer, interesting for featuring the music and no dialogue at all. The menus are accompanied by the music score and there are 24 chapter stops. The package also includes a booklet with some trivia about the film, a cast list and the chapter headings.

The Manchurian Candidate is one of the great American thrillers and is just as incisive, witty and inventive as it must have seemed in 1962. A must-see in fact, and MGM’s DVD is highly recommended.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 12, 2002

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