The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Written by George Axelrod
Directed by John Frankenheimer
A platoon of U.S. soldiers fighting in Korea is abducted by Soviets and taken across the border into China. Then months later they are returning to the States with Sgt. Raymond Shaw receiving the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. However, the surviving members of his platoon are having strange nightmares of sitting among a ladies auxiliary meeting on flowers. The commanding officer, Captain Marco believes these dreams hide a secret about what really happened in Korea and truth behind Shaw’s heroism. Meanwhile, Shaw is pulled into the political ambitions of his mother, Eleanor and his stepfather, Senator Iselin. Shaw is also receiving strange phone calls that trigger weird behaviors. This rabbit hole will pull Marco and Shaw to ending neither of them can avoid.
The Manchurian Candidate is a film that has so embedded itself into the cultural psyche that it needs little introduction from me. It was added to the National Film Registry for its cultural significance. And this is deserved as the story being told has had far-reaching influences on the way we talk about politics today. The phrase “Manchurian candidate” has become used to refer to any politician people believe have been compromised by a foreign power. You can see how significant that is when watching the news these days. There is an argument to be made that the movie did a lot of harm, feeding the John Birchers who already had developed these sorts of false flag reactions, by making these ideas a part of the mainstream.
John Frankenheimer has always been one of those underrated American directors in my opinion. He made a significant number of really great films, but they seem to be relegated to the shelves when discussions about great American movies are discussed. I would love to spend some time doing a series of his work, mainly writing up a review for Seconds, a film you should check out if you haven’t already. Frankenheimer began as a television director, but even in that contained structure of filming he sought to expand the scope and shot outside the studio during a snowstorm as well as film the first single take live program on tv. You can see these exterior shots at work in Manchurian when Shaw is compelled to go jump in a frozen Central Park lake. There is also a pseudo-documentary style used during the Madison Square sequence, splicing stock footage with scenes filmed for the movie, using a handheld camera to create that real gritty feeling. You would later see such filmmaking become popular in the 1970s and used by directors like William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection).
Beyond the direction and style, we get outstanding performances from the cast. Frank Sinatra as Marco is quite a good performer, but it is still hard to see past the image of him as a crooner. Laurence Harvey is perfectly cast as Shaw and comes off as stiff and cold at first. You could easily mistake this for a lousy performance, but we get to know the character and learn he is naturally standoffish. The challenge to the audience is to find something likable about this annoying man. However, Axelrod’s script delivers some necessary background in the middle of the film about Shaw’s relationship with another senator’s daughter. You feel genuinely sorry for Shaw when you see how cruel his mother was in this scenario and continues to be in his life.
The Manchurian Candidate isn’t afraid to be dark and bleak. The ending is total tragedy, and the final scene is one of Marco’s heartbreak. The picture painted of American politics in the shadow of the Cold War isn’t one of hope. Remember, this is the same year of the Cuban Missile Crisis so fears about escalation was at its height. The Manchurian Candidate reflects this hopelessness. Shaw isn’t just programmed when his platoon encounters the Soviets. He has been programmed his entire life, by his mother and then by the military. He is a man without a self, and so his ends feel appropriate. A man with no soul, as the movie keeps refraining, is a hollow man, one who is already dead. The Manchurian Candidate is an artifact of its time and a reflection on Cold War paranoia but also a meditation on the loss of the individual in the face of blind ideology and a cult-like adherence to institutions of power.