The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Directed by: John Frankenheimer | 126 minutes | drama, romance, war, thriller | Actors: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh, James Edwards, Douglas Henderson, Albert Paulsen, Barry Kelley, Lloyd Corrigan, Madame Spivy
A man, a woman. They meet on the train. She offers him a light. So far nothing strange about this scene in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962). But as soon as the woman (Janet Leigh) starts talking, you start to feel dizzy. What exactly is she saying? This has got to be one of the most bizarre conversations between two strangers in movie history. Even before she starts talking, the scene feels curious. The man (Frank Sinatra in one of his best film roles) is nervous, sweats and tries to light his cigarette with a trembling hand. What’s wrong with him? That this woman appeals to him seems coincidental, but then again it is not. Mysteriously, she seems to suddenly appear and as soon as she starts talking, the man goes into a kind of trance. Or are we seeing things that aren’t there? Much has already been said and written about this particular scene halfway through ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Although director John Frankenheimer almost literally follows Richard Condon’s novella, he leaves enough to the imagination. Except for this curious scene, Janet Leigh’s contribution to the film seems negligible, or it must be that she unceremoniously breaks off her engagement within a day to be with Sinatra. But whether it is out of love or whether there is another motive – as further developed in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake – remains a mystery.
As in the political thriller ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, it is left more to the viewer’s interpretation. There are times when you think you are watching a David Lynch movie. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is trapped along with the insufferable Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and several other American soldiers during the war in Korea. They are taken by helicopter to another location, where they are brainwashed by some prominent Korean and Russian communists. After this event they are released and the American soldiers think they have escaped. They don’t remember anything about the brainwashing. After their return to the United States is given an extremely rare medal of honor. His villainous and manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) takes advantage of this and tries to exploit her son’s military feats and reputation in the campaign of her husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), Raymond’s stepfather whom he certainly does not want in the military. saddle wants to help. Marco has meanwhile been promoted to major. However, he is plagued by the same nightmare, in which he sees Shaw murder two American soldiers in the service of the communists. He travels to New York to meet and talk about Shaw. When Shaw tells him that another soldier is also having the same nightmare, something slowly dawns on him. Marco decides to investigate: what secrets are withheld by the government and the army? And what role does Shaw’s mother play in the story?
Let’s face it, the story is rather far-fetched. Frankenheimer and his team seem to be aware of this and therefore give it a strong satirical twist, making ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ not only an exciting political intrigue, but also a pitch black comedy. In addition, psychological elements are also added that give the film a third layer of depth. The fear of communism, brainwashed soldiers; it is typically a story of its time. The scenario sows plenty of confusion and the dialogues hardly clarify anything. All the more clever is that – no matter how ridiculous the story is – you go along with it. That is largely due to the cast, who do an excellent job. Lansbury and Harvey in particular play memorable roles, but Frank Sinatra also puts his best foot forward. The greatest strength of the film, however, is the stylish camera work and the tight direction. The often beautiful photography provides an intense, oppressive depth. By also showing the former soldiers Marco and Shaw with clammy, sweaty faces, this intensity only underlines. The dream scenes at the beginning are a good example of how the approach of Frankenheimer and cameraman Lionel Lindon can be terrifying.
It is a shame that this thriller has been shelved for more than 25 years due to a dispute between production house United Artists and star Frank Sinatra, so that the film has never been released on video. Fortunately, in the DVD and Blu-ray era, we can now fully enjoy this almost forgotten classic. A tight tempo, plenty of tension, excellent acting and a pleasantly paranoid atmosphere are the ingredients for an exciting afternoon or evening watching a movie and ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ has it all.