The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is one of the best 1970s movies of the 1960s. It’s combination of conspiracy, paranoia, and dour ending makes it fit right in with the political thrillers that became all the rage in the next decade: Three Days of the Condor,The Parallax View, Telefon, and more. Maybe the only movie further ahead of The Manchurian Candidate was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers said Commies would take over the country, metaphorically. The Manchurian Candidate said commies would take over our minds, literally.


The Manchurian Candidate

Besides having similar thematic elements, The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have other things in common. Familiar character actor Whit Bissell appears in both. Plus, both films had directors with a somewhat similar sensibility.

Don Siegel directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also the aforementioned Telefon). John Frankenheimer was captain of the good ship Manchurian Candidate. Seigel and Frankenheimer were pioneers of modern-day thrillers.

While Siegel finished up in the 1980s after giving us Dirty Harry and other Clint Eastwood films, Frankenheimer’s career stretched from the 1950s all the way to the 2000s.

Frankenheimer still had his fastball even in 1998 (Ronin) before passing on in 2002 (never mind that whole Island of Dr. Moreau debacle). Frankenheimer came from the world of television. This style is apparent in The Manchurian Candidate, as it was one of Frankenheimer’s first feature films.

A lot of the shots in The Manchurian Candidate seem more television than film in the way they are framed. Yet, moments of artistry do exist. For example, Frankenheimer shoots a press conference where a character speaks and is simultaneously shown on a TV monitor from a different angle while being watched over by his puppet master.

Likewise, Frankenheimer’s work on the brainwashing scenes are memorable. Most notable is where he pans around the room to change a garden club meeting for old ladies into a murderous demonstration overseen by high-level communist conspirators.

The Manchurian Writer

The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Richard Condon. Condon has had other novels adapted to the screen, such as Prizzi’s Honor. Condor was primarily a political novelist. His main theme was an abuse of power, especially political power. He started out as a publicity man for Disney, so maybe that is appropriate. He was also accused of plagiarizing sections of I, Claudius by Robert Graves in the writing of The Manchurian Candidate. The copying amounted to only a couple of paragraphs, though. Your average school paper does much more than that. Probably not so much anymore. Now AI writes the whole paper.

George Axelrod wrote the screenplay for The Manchurian Candidate. Other credits include The Seven Year Itch, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Holcroft Covenant. Beyond that, he wrote more than 400 TV and radio scripts.


The Manchurian Candidates

The Manchurian Candidate is a Frank Sinatra film, but Sinatra is easily overshadowed by other heavy hitters we will get to later.

Sinatra portrays a Korean War veteran who is part of a squad that has been unknowingly brainwashed after being captured. Or, a better way to put it is that Sinatra portrays Sinatra portraying a Korean War veteran who is part of a squad that has been unknowingly brainwashed after being captured.

Nothing about Sinatra’s performance stands out. He is the audience stand-in as he tries to piece together what happened and what it means. Through the process, Sinatra becomes involved with Janet Leigh in a completely unnecessary romantic relationship.

One would hope Leigh is part of the conspiracy, but she is mostly there for a bit of witty banter and as a sounding board for Sinatra to give some exposition to occasionally.


Other Candidates

Other supporting actors include Henry Silva, who I will forever remember as the cocaine-snorting killer in Sharky’s Machine.

Silva is notable for being part of a jujitsu fight with Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. The fight was likely all the rage in 1962. Bruce Lee didn’t come onto the scene until 1966 with The Green Hornet. Likewise, The Manchurian Candidate’s apartment-wrecking fisticuffs predated the rumble between Connery and Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963).

Well-known character actor James Gregory joins the party as a loud-mouthed, bombastic political candidate known for unsupported exaggerations that would fit right in today. Another character, played by John McGiver (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Apple Dumpling Gang) describes Gregory by saying that if he ever got into office, he would do more damage than a genuine Russian agent.

Khigh Alx Dheigh (The Mephisto Waltz, Hawaii Five-O) is a lot of fun as the overly-cheerful brainwashing doctor. The Face That Launched a Thousand Trips, Reggie Nalder (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and Barlow in Salem’s Lot) also briefly appears in the film.


Prime Candidate Laurence Harvey

The real stars of The Manchurian Candidate are Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.

Harvey did not have a huge career. He died of cancer in 1973 at the relatively young age of 45. Harvey comes off as three parts Daniel Craig and one part Jude Law.

In The Manchurian Candidate, Harvey is the leader of the brainwashed squad. He returns to the states as the browbeaten son of Landsbury and Gregory trying to carve his own niche. Harvey does a great job playing a man who is so uptight he could crimp steel pipes with his sphincter.

Yet, the character briefly comes to life during his courtship with a rival senator’s daughter. This enables Harvey to give a performance that displays genuine range. Between uptight and happy, he also gets to play a Terminator-esque killer, a brainwashed puppet and a man so supremely broken that he can never be put back together again.

Maybe this performance is what put Harvey on the radar of Orson Welles. Harvey did work on Welle’s lost film, The Deep, which was never finished. The Deep was eventually made as Dead Calm, starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, and a wackadoodle Billy Zane.


Prime Candidate Angela Lansbury

Whenever a great villain list appears, it seems like Darth Vader always comes in at number one. I would argue Vader is more iconic than great. He has a great look, certainly, but he doesn’t do many dastardly things in the movies, at least not in the original trilogy.

For example, Hans Gruber is a way better villain than Darth Vader. I would also throw out Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate as a better villain than Darth Vader.

Lansbury’s character is a hell beast, and her portrayal is perfect. At first, she appears to be an overly doting, meddling mother and overbearing wife. Gradually, she reveals that she is, in fact, a monster who would chew Vader up and spit him out. Her final words to her son, combined with a hint of incest, are absolutely chilling.

But now, we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me…

Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for The Miracle Worker that year, but Lansbury was nominated for her work on The Manchurian Candidate. What is more difficult, to play someone who is blind and deaf or to play someone who is blind and deaf to all morality?


Some Issues With The Candidates

Is The Manchurian Candidate a perfect film? No. It’s a pity that Dheigh’s character does not get a send-off, but one could argue it is unnecessary. Plus, it probably goes with the theme of movie by leaving him still out there, doing his jocular washing of the American mind.

Likewise, Sinatra’s character has a couple of why-did-he-make-that-decision moments. Some of that might be part of the theme, as well. For example, when Sinatra is in a rush to find the assassin at the climax of the film, he still stops for the national anthem. Is that a why-did-he-make-that-decision moment or is it to show that he is a product of programming, as well?

Finally, some voiceover breaks immersion, and the coda is unwelcome, as well. The movie would be better served to go out on a hard cut. Nevertheless, The Manchurian Candidate does have a great ending that hits a person right between the eyes. The original is certainly superior to the remake from 2004 starring Denzel Washington. A good number of things to like about that film exist, but the climax is softened.

A Worthy Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate is an interesting look into a period of time that doesn’t get much attention in movies — the Korean War era. At the same time, it was ahead of its time. Its mind-control scenes are simultaneously wacky and horrifying. Plus, it is not afraid to play rough with the audience. The Manchurian Candidate is a prime candidate for classic status.


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