Written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” is a political thriller about an international conspiracy forged by communists during the Korean War to brainwash American soldiers for use as unwitting assassins. This was the first film I saw in 2019, and not knowing the general plot of the infamous film kept the tension intact as an audience member. I went into this movie with a clean slate and my viewing experience was all the better for it and I recommend seeing it that way if possible. However, this film has been around for a long time, therefore we will be covering spoilers. You’ve been warned. Frank Sinatra stars as Major Bennett Marco leading his team of soldiers through the horrors of war. After the dust settled Major Marco kept tabs on all of the men in his unit, especially after having suspiciously realistic fever dreams of their time in the war.
After returning from the war a hero, for saving his men from capture over enemy lines, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) was also experiencing an existential angst from similar nightmares. Though everyone back home seems to love and appreciate Shaw, he feels disconnected. He remembers being a more prickly and grumpy person that wasn’t particularly loved or appreciated. The film dives into the psychological profile of Shaw and how he operates as an individual, the relationships he has with those closest to him, and how he can be manipulated by emotional triggers. It then turns into a game of cat and mouse with Shaw working as an assassin for a foreign power without even realizing it, as Major Marco tracks down the clues his friend left in his bloody wake.
One of my favorite parts of the film were the brainwashing sequences and how the editing and cinematography inform the audience of the truth of the scene. Jumping back and forth between the perceptions of the captured soldiers and their manipulative masters was brilliant! The captured soldiers were on a stage, being presented to other potential “buyers” who were seen by the soldiers as little old grandmothers at a flower shop. I thought it was particularly clever when they switched to an African-American solder’s point-of-view where all of the grandmothers were also African-American. The performances were a lot of fun, they really pulled from the paranoia and suspicious nature of the heights of the Cold War. Frank Sinatra’s casting as Major Marco was a surprise for me, I had never looked into Sinatra’s acting history so I was unsure of his acting caliber going into the film, but he was surprisingly good for playing outside of his art medium. Khigh Dhiegh was particularly entertaining as Yen Lo, I like to think of him as the carnival barker of brainwashing experiments. Angela Lansbury portrays Raymond’s mother as a boundary crossing, overbearing, and self absorbed character with gilded power gleaming in her eyes. Alongside her is James Gregory as Senator John Iselin, Shaw’s stepfather and ‘useful bulldog’ for his mother’s manipulation. This triangle of relationships is immediately established when Shaw lands back in America only to be used for political gain by his mother for Senator Iselin’s campaign, nothing more patriotic than having a picture taken with a war hero thereby framing his support for the candidate- when in reality, Shaw despises Iselin and his mother’s authoritative political nature.
“The Manchurian Candidate” is a fascinating political thriller and a classic film that I highly recommend. If you’re looking for a snowstorm movie this winter- you can’t go wrong with this one!
Final Score: 52 Queens