DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Manchurian Candidate

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh


By Alan Bacchus

John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate predated the trend of cynical political films of the 1970s by eight years or more. Born from deep distrust of the actions of the American intelligence community during the Cold War, and in the 1960s, at a time when John F. Kennedy was about to be assassinated by the same establishment, it was at the time shockingly prophetic and powerful. Today, the film's skewered notion of heroism feels as dark, scathing and dangerous to the establishment now as it did then.

Frank Sinatra is Major Bennett, the leader of a platoon of soldiers captured by Korean forces. However, the platoon fights its way home, eventually winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for Raymond Shaw (Harvey). But when a recurring bad dream reveals itself to Bennett as a brainwashing experiment by the Communists while in prison, he is compelled to uncover the details of an astonishing plot of political assassination and government subversion

The picture was famously pulled and its theatrical released delayed due to the unfortunate timing of the JFK assassination. And this was even before the conspiracy theory connected with the CIA was discovered. This is just the background context and historical relevance of the film. As a movie-going experience in the present, John Frankenheimer’s cooly stylish direction is still as exciting now as it was then. At the time it was his third film after a long and successful career directing during the Golden Era of Television in the '50s. After all that experience with practically helping invent the medium, Frankenheimer brought a hip freshness to the big screen. His sharp black and white photography used the moody tones of film noir, as well as the deep focus visual aesthetic of Orson Welles. His editing was sharp and predated many of the experimental techniques used later in the decade.

Looking back, few would argue that the lasting performance of the picture belongs to Angela Lansbury, the diabolical matriarch and puppet master of the big picture conspiracy at play. We can’t help but think of Mama Islen as a mix of Nancy Reagan and Joe Kennedy.

Watch the terrific editing in the dream sequences, during which Bennett and his troops are subjected to the terrifying brainwashing ordeal. Intercutting the two realities for the troops – the audience of communist officials watching the session in delight and the troop’s point of view of the elderly ladies book club – produces a delightfully terrifying scope of horror conducted by these powers that be.

The film magnificently reveals its cards carefully over its 126 minutes, ringing all the terror and suspense up to its violent and powerful climax in the end.

The Manchurian Candidate is available on Blu-ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.


Jonny said...

I absolutely love this film and it's loaded with symbolism and great set-pieces. Brainwashing sequence, the assassination attempt etc. You're right, Lansbury's performance is incredibly brilliant.

gordon said...

So much better than the remake. Angela Lansbury is incredible.