Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#85 - The Manchurian Candidate

BACK-STORY: “The Manchurian Candidate” is a political thriller released in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis which is appropriate because it taps into the Red Scare hysteria of that time. It is based on a novel by Richard Condon and is faithful to the book. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and showcases his style of unusual camera angles and symbolism (notice all the images of Lincoln). The movie was supposedly taken out of circulation because of its proximity to the Kennedy assassination. There is also the possibility that Oswald saw the film and was inspired by it.

OPENING: A truck pulls up to a bar/brothel and the unpopular Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) ruins the fun by demanding his men accompany him on a mission. On the mission, their South Korean guide (Henry Silva) walks them into an ambush. Although Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is skeptical of the tactical foolishness of proceeding single-file, he inexplicably follows the guide’s advice! The ambush is unrealistically easy with no shots fired.

SUMMARY: Back in the States, Shaw returns to acclaim as a Medal of Honor winner. His manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury – only three years older than Harvey!) and his buffoonish stepfather intend to use him to further the stepfather’s quest to become Vice President. Sen. Iselin is a Joseph McCarthy clone and in case you can’t figure that out he accuses the administration of harboring card-carrying communists (eventually settling on 57 because of a Heinz 57 bottle).

Marcos, now a Major, is having nightmares and begins to question whether the unlikeable Shaw is really “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”. Another of the survivors, a black soldier (the first significant moment in Hollywood that a black actor has a non-specific black role) is having the same nightmare. This results in the famous tour-de-force brainwashing scene where Frankenheimer intercuts shots of the evil commie brainwashers with a ladies’ garden club that the hypnotized men are perceiving. Shaw robotically strangles one of his mates on command from the garden club lecturer.

Shaw murders on of his squad while under hypnosis

The trigger mechanism for Shaw is the queen of hearts playing card. His brain-washer (Oriental villain-for-hire Khigh Dhiegh) gets him to prove himself by murdering his boss. This proves that normal Americans are weakened by “guilt and fear”, but not Shaw with his dry-cleaned brain.

Marcos meets a pretty blonde on a train. They have one of the strangest conversations in movie history. (Surprisingly taken directly from the novel.) She must be a communist operative, right? Wrong! Or maybe she is? But then again, … Oh hell, let’s just say that was one weird conversation. So weird that she falls in love with Marcos and immediately breaks up with her fiancé. This is apparently for real!

Marcos goes to Shaw’s and gets into a vicious karate fight (supposedly the first in screen history) with his valet who happens to be the guide. He does not recognize the guide, he just recognizes that Henry Silva is always a bad guy in movies (just kidding). (Sinatra broke a finger in the fight). Marcos gets Shaw drunk and Shaw pathetically recounts his romance with his mother’s most bitter political enemy’s daughter, Joycelyn Jordan. The pinko Sen. Jordan happens to be a neighbor of the red-baiting Iselins. It’s a small world. Mrs. Iselin breaks up this Romeo and Juliet union.

Shaw after walking off a pier

Mom invites Shaw to a costume party to trigger him via the queen of diamonds. Shocker – she is a communist agent and is going to use her son to overthrow the government! At the climactic moment of playing solitaire with him, she is called away. Guess who appears improbably costumed as the queen of hearts playing card? Joycelyn, wearing the most popular Halloween costume of 1953. Ray and Josie run off to marital bliss and they live happily ever after. Not really.

In another plot contrivance, Shaw returns home to confront his loathsome step-father which, of course, allows his mother to resume the solitaire game leading to Shaw murdering Sen. Jordan and guess who?

Marcos has figured out the card-connection and uses it to break the spell on Shaw, but then he unbelievably allows him to part company. Nothing to worry about, he’s cured! Shaw goes to his mother who outlines the assassination plan. She plants a decidedly unmotherly kiss on his lips (which is a lot less than she does in the novel).

the Queen of Hearts
FINAL SCENE: At a chaotic nominating convention in Madison Square Garden, Marcos frantically searches for Shaw. He is disguised as a priest and perches in a sniper’s nest high above the floor. He suspensefully waits for his cue to assassinate the presidential nominee thus propelling the gallant Sen. Iselin ("the Manchurian candidate") into the White House. Will Marcos get to him in time? I don’t recall. The scene is justifiably acclaimed as Frankenheimer parodies American conventions and our messy democratic process and channels Hitchcock to boot.


Action - 5

Acting - 9

Accuracy - 6

Realism - 5

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? This movie is less of a war movie than it is a political spy thriller. This means it would be more appealing to most females. There are three major female characters – a rarity for war movies. Each represents a different type of female. Momma Iselin is your typical incestuous bitch traitor. If your significant other can relate to her, break it off. Joycelyn Jordan is the girl next door who is too good to be true. Jenny is your enigmatic stranger on a train/enemy agent who falls madly in love with a shell-shocked ex-POW/her pawn. You could argue that all women fall into one of these stereotypes. Women viewers should be able to relate to one of the three.

CRITIQUE: Although lots of things have to fall into place, this is still an intriguing movie. There are some interesting plot twists that come as surprises to even the most jaded viewers. It is a perceptive indictment of the McCarthy era even though Sen. Iselin makes Joseph McCarthy look like a brainiac. One wonders if the producers would have had the guts to make the movie when McCarthy was at the height of his power.

The movie features two bravura scenes. The brainwashing scene is amazing. Cutting back and forth from the old ladies to the communist puppeteers is very effective. The cold-blooded murders of two comrades is chilling given the bonding that typically occurs in small combat units. The convention scene is very tense and suspenseful. Edge of your seat worthy. The film also leaves you with two memorable questions: what the hell was up with that train conversation and who the hell wear’s a queen of hearts playing card costume?

The acting is outstanding, especially Lansbury. She steals the show and justifiably was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (losing to Patty Duke of “The Miracle Worker”). Her character is one of the great villains in movie history. She is truly scary and despicable. If she reminds you of your mother, go immediately to a psychiatrist! Sinatra is better than usual and gave a finger to the movie. Wait, that did not come out right.

ACCURACY: The movie reinforces the belief that American POWs in Korea were brain-washed by their Chinese captors. This is a common misconception. In reality, the communists did not use the technique shown in the movie. There were American POWs who collaborated with their captors, but they did so mainly because of horrible conditions that could be mitigated by cooperating. This cooperation did not rise to the extremes of political assassination, but instead resulted in the famous false admissions to germ warfare. Some political indoctrination succeeded in the form of continuous monotonous lectures which resulted in parroting of communist dogma, but once the POWs were restored to an American environment the “brainwashing” was rinsed away. No POW is known to have pressed his new found love of communism on his homeland, much less used violence against the capitalist system. It is true that 21 American POWs refused repatriation after the war because they wanted to live under communism, but all but a couple eventually returned to America and not as sleeper agents.

With that said, the movie is not meant to be a tutorial on Korean War brain-washing. It is totally fictional and entertainingly so.

CONCLUSION: I am not sure if “The Manchurian Candidate” is really a war movie. It certainly fits more comfortably in the political thriller genre. As such, it has the usual unrealistic plot twists and unbelievably fortuitous occurrences (e.g., Joycelyn showing up in the queen of hearts costume). What would be faulted in a war movie is par for the course in a thriller. As a political thriller it is cracking entertainment full of suspense and great acting. As political satire, it is a devastating indictment of McCarthyism.


  1. I think I might watch this one some day. But not just now. I am a bit tired of all these "not really war movies". I watched and reviewed too many as well. That's what I appreciated about Pork Chop Hill. Genre-wise it is quite unambiguous.

  2. You are certainly right on both points. Although both are related to the Korean War, no two movies could be more dissimilar than "Manchurian Candidate" and "Pork Chop Hill". No one would ever call PCH anything but a war movie.

  3. just reading through the plot summary of this movie makes me remember how complex it was for its time. Even the director must have been paranoid. i thought Sinatra was better in this one then in From Here to Eternity. but he was a more experienced actor by this movie.
    The climax is great. the tortured look on Harveys face when he turns the gun on himself is effective. Interesting to compare this one to Warren Beatty in Parallax View which also has a very strong ending at a political convention.

  4. Movie critic Roger Ebert said in an essay that the movie was withdrawn from circulation, not because of the Kennedy assassination, but because of a dispute between the studio and Frank Sinatra (who claimed that he was owed a percentage of the profits).

  5. I would say it's a political thriller rather than a war movie. The two leading male characters are Korean War veterans, but so what? The two male leads in "White Christmas" were WWII veterans. (And the three male leads in "On the Town" were sailors.) The plot involves Cold War intrigue, but so did "From Russia with Love," and other spy stories. I'm not sure where to draw the line, but I think the definition should be narrower than just having characters who are international spies or saboteurs, or characters who are/were in the military.

    1. I agree, but it does have some scenes from during the war. It is definitely in that grey area. It also depends on whether you define the Cold War as a war, I suppose. There are several other movies on the list that are much more dubious than this one.


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