Before moving on to the review of this brilliant film by Frankenheimer, I would like to strongly emphasize that this film is phenomenally better than its recent remake in 2004.
The Manchurian Candidate is an intriguing, chilling, prophetically tragic, macabre and psychological thriller set in 1952 during the Korean War, in the backdrop of the Cold war era. The film is a satire on increasing McCarthyism and American obsession with communist conspiracy theories during the 50s. It features Frank Sinatra as General Bennett Marco, Laurence Harvey as Sergeant Raymond Shaw and the legendary Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin. It is difficult to classify the film into any one genre. It is a political drama, a horror film, science fiction film, war film, black comedy and tragedy, all combined together in a delicious mix. The film centres arounf a Korean War hero who is programmed\hypnotised as a sleeping agent to assassinate a Presidential candidate.
The multidimensional character of Mrs. Iselin as a pragmatic Soviet agent, an ambitious Senator’s wife and a cantankerous mother is excellently portrayed by Angela Lansbury, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. Her passion, which in the film is beautifully masked by her calm, dauntless, ruthless and nonchalant demeanour has made Mrs. Iselin a cult figure. Newsweek had selected her as one of the greatest villains in cinema history. Frank Sinatra plays the prototypal patriot, Major Marco, giving way to dry humour in the film. Laurence Harvey makes the cardboard cut character of Raymond Shaw more believable and manages to give glimpses of the helplessness and conflict beneath that emotionless, wooden and robotic mercenary. Janet Leigh as Major Marco’s love interest, the enigmatic Rosie, and James Gregory as the bumbling, McCarthy-ish, political buffoon ‘Johnny’ Iselin, who doesn’t need brainwashing from Mrs. Iselin to control him, also deliver good performances.
The film’s semi documentary nature came to light after the John F Kennedy assassination, which was hardly a year after the film’s release. JFK was allegedly gunned down by a robotically docile, brainwashed and trained assassin, which led many to speculate that the plot was frighteningly close to the truth; and the film was withdrawn from the theatres.
The brainwashing sequence has been superbly filmed, where the hypnotised soldiers are made to think they are at a ladies’ garden party and Raymond Shaw is made to carry out certain ‘operations’ to test his compatibility as a sleeper agent. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is Mrs. Iselin’s last conversation with her son, Raymond, in which she reveals her maternal love for the first time, by saying, “I never knew they would pick you Raymond” and vowing to get those “who did this to him”. The laconic and bizarre train conversation between Rosie and Marco is also a memorable one, although Marco was not being triggered as a sleeper agent; the conversation was taken from the Condon novel as it is.
Conclusively, the film truly deserves its place in American Institute’s “100 years 100 movies” owing to its daring, inventive and explosive plot, the taut cinematography and brilliant performances by Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra.