It’s interesting to think that one of the most influential and contentious cinematic spy thrillers of all time only came about due to the personal intervention of one of the greatest popular singers of all time. Released in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate started life as a novel by Richard Condon in 1959, telling the story of how a young US Army officer, Raymond Shaw, is kidnapped by a Sino-Soviet team during the Korean War along with his platoon and brainwashed into becoming a sleeper assassin.
With no memory of these events he returns to the USA as a paper hero and resumes his life as the troubled, antagonistic stepson of a McCarthy-like US Senator. His murderous activities are triggered by a playing card, the Queen of Diamonds, upon sight of which he carries out the next action he is told to do with no memory of his doings afterwards. It soon becomes apparent his controller in the USA is his own mother, whom he despises, a monstrously ambitious socialite and deep-cover Soviet agent whose political ambitions far exceed those of her husband and whose goal is the assassination of a US Presidential candidate.
The film’s director John Frankenheimer was very keen to adapt the book in collaboration with screenwriter George Axelrod but despite both men acquiring the film rights no Hollywood studio would touch it. However they found out that Frank Sinatra was a huge fan of the book and was very keen to adapt it for the screen – as a vehicle for himself, of course. John F Kennedy also liked the book and was a close friend of Sinatra; with his blessing given to the proposed adaptation, Frankenheimer and Axelrod approached Sinatra whose attachement to the project ensured the film could be made.
Sinatra ended up playing the second male lead, Bennett Marco, Shaw’s second-in-command who later unravels the conspiracy, while the role of Shaw went to Laurence Harvey, one of the iconic “British” actors of the 1960s but who was actually born Zvi Mosheh Skikne in Lithuania and raised in South Africa.
The Manchurian Candidate would be one of the peaks of his career – the other being Jack Clayton’s seminal kitchen-sink drama Room at the Top three years earlier. Harvey was a handsome man with a brooding intensity and a hint of ruthless danger which suited the part of the unpopular, aloof Raymond Shaw. To 21st century eyes his spare acting style is strikingly modern and his performance could be compared to that of Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Soaring above the two formidable leading men, however, is the film’s female lead Angela Lansbury as the mother from Hell. Only three years older than Harvey, she was asked by Frankenheimer to play the part and it has become perhaps the greatest highlight of her very long and distinguished career.
Over the decades Dame Angela has been associated with a particular type of character, the vivacious, slightly scatty mature woman whose exterior affability hides an iron will and a core of pure adamantium; in the character of Mrs. Eleanor Iselin she takes these qualities to the extreme and her performance is now regarded as one of the greatest screen villains of all time. She rightly earned an Academy Award nomination which is remarkable considering she didn’t shy away from the incestuous elements of the story which, while toned down considerably from the book, are presented onscreen.
The film has had a somewhat chequered history: released in October 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis it achieved modest success and garnered two Oscar nominations, Lansbury for Best Supporting Actress and Ferris Webster for Best Film Editing. After the initial release had run its course the film was withdrawn in 1963, as was standard practice at the time, but there has since grown an unshakeable myth that the film was withdrawn on Sinatra’s insistence following the assassination of JFK in November of that year, but this has been disputed by studio representatives. By 1988 the long-out-of-print film’s reputation had become so strong that, following a successful festival screening, it was reissued by MGM to great acclaim and has since become a highly-regarded classic.
John Frankenheimer began his directing career in the world of live television drama, which in the 1950s in the USA was the most common form of televised drama. Actors would perform in a studio and the action would be captured live by several cameras in the same way that a modern soap opera is filmed. Frankenheimer honed his skills on hundreds of these transmissions over the years and became known as an actors’ director.
The Manchurian Candidate was Frankenheimer’s fourth feature film and his directorial style could best be described as theatrical, with editing and camerawork kept to a minimum and the actors are the primary means of conveying the plot, unlike the films of contemporaries such as Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock where images are paramount and the actors are merely chess pieces to be moved around in their carefully-constructed visual surroundings.
Notwithstanding that, Frankenheimer was happy to pay homage to Hitchcock in the finale as Shaw prepares to take the fatal shot. His origins in live television are also noticeable in a lack of technical finesse in some shots, often due to Sinatra’s refusal to do more than one take of a scene, although a more seasoned feature director would almost certainly have found ways to deliver a more polished end result.
Watching the film with modern eyes it is clearly influenced by the television drama of the time, with Frankenheimer’s filming techniques and the musical accompaniment very much in the televisual mould of the day; the opening flashbacks in particular could very easily be mistaken for something out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Reflecting the literary origin, Axelrod’s script is static, stagey and talky but the calibre of the performances is so high that this is never onerous. The talented cast were all stretched to the fullest and Harvey, Sinatra and Lansbury give career-best performances, though the downside of watching with a half century of perspective is that the racial impersonations are now somewhat jarring, even ludicrous with Caucasian actors taking on Eastern characters. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the well-known features of Puerto Rican actor Henry Silva as Chunjin, Shaw’s undercover Korean minder.
The picture quality on this Arrow Blu-ray edition of what was a relatively low budget feature is mostly excellent and any deficiencies can be mostly attributed to the aforementioned lack of finesse. The soundtrack and its musical element are instantly redolent of the early sixties and exhibit the same occasional quality issues as the images.
Although firmly of its time, for an early-sixties feature this is an audacious and ground-breaking psychological thriller which took Cold War paranoia to an intimate personal level beyond Kubrick’s later Dr Strangelove which operated on a much larger absurdist canvas. At its heart an existential drama masquerading as a spy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate employs a centuries-old dramatic trope that has become a mainstay of genre fiction in all its varieties, that of the person who discovers that they or their life are not what they thought they are.
For the dramatic purposes of the film the brainwashing programme to which Shaw and his men were subjected lasted only three days and produced astonishingly efficacious results, something way beyond anything that could be achieved at that time. The best psychologists of the fifties who thought such things were even possible considered it would take months, even years of intense conditioning to achieve such lasting results.
At the heart of this drama is a debate on what defines us as human beings. Are we a result of innate characteristics or social conditioning or both? Shaw, despite his elitist origins, is described by everyone who served with him as unpopular and unsympathetic, even arrogant. He feels only contempt towards his men and hatred towards his mother. However he also operates in the highest levels of American society with ease which requires a high level of social skills.
On the surface of the narrative, the conditioning he is subject to changes him into a cold-hearted killing machine but there is a suggestion that said conditioning only unlocked that which was hidden away in his sociopathic core, the monstrous child of a monstrous mother who needs her son’s particular set of skills to facilitate her political ambitions. By the finale, his programming is broken by Marco, and Shaw finally becomes a tragic anti-hero.
The extras on this disc are all taken from the archives and include a feature commentary by Frankenheimer recorded late in his life, his comments anecdotal and sporadic but insightful. There is a joint video interview recorded in 1988 with Sinatra, Axelrod and Frankenheimer at the time of the film’s reissue which is supplemented by two video interviews recorded for the 2004 DVD release. The first is with Angela Lansbury in which she is her customary thoughtful self, the second is with director William Friedkin who gives an appreciation of the film’s qualities. Rounding off the features is a 58-minute episode of the TV series The Directors from 2003, the year following Frankenheimer’s death, which respectfully surveys his career and features archive interviews with many of his collaborators, and bringing up the rear is a contemporary cinema trailer.