With elaborate conspiracy theories widely popular during the 2004 election year, it was inevitable that The Manchurian Candidate resurface in a modern update, presumably with more violence and sexual content and less Cold War politics. Early buzz indicates that the film may even be more "controversial" than Michael Moore's documentary since paranoid viewers are certain to apply their own political spin to the plot. But should Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep falter, we'll always have John Frankenheimer's magnificent 1962 version with Laurence Harvey's brilliant brainwashing portrayal and Angela Lansbury's iconic sinister villain. Taking advantage of the soon to be released update, MGM has re-issued the original in a new special edition DVD (that only adds two short featurettes to the previous DVD edition).
Producer-director Frankenheimer and producer-writer George Axelrod secured the rights to Richard Condon's 1959 novel relatively cheaply and first enlisted an enthusiastic Frank Sinatra in the project. Sinatra wisely chose the less nuanced role of Captain Marco, realizing that he didn't have the acting digs to handle Sergeant Raymond Shaw's role. Harvey fills those shoes impeccably, using his slight English accent to advantage since his character must remain aloof and unpleasant throughout most of the narrative—all the better suited to fit the solitaire card game metaphor. Most memorable, of course, is the perfect casting of Lansbury as Shaw's mother despite the fact that she was only a couple years older than Harvey. You'd never suspect that watching Lansbury's middle-aged body language through the black and white cinematography. It's impossible to imagine the movie that would have emerged had Sinatra's first choice of Lucille Ball been selected—Lansbury single-handedly transforms the Queen of Hearts into the personification of evil!
The film opens during the Korean War with stiff and unlikable Sergeant Shaw chasing his platoon from a brothel into night maneuvers. Their interpreter Chunjin (Henry Silva) leads them into a trap, and the patrol is knocked unconscious and shipped immediately across the border into Manchuria as prisoners of war. It turns out that their capturers are a coalition of Korean, Chinese, and Soviet Communists with a far larger plot than the immediate situation in Korea. This is revealed through a series of true landmark dream montages fairly early in the screenplay. The first one is absolutely breathtaking!
Favoring a wide angled lens, cinematographer Lionel Lindon rotates the camera a full 360 degrees to show the captured patrol surreally seated on stage as a matron lectures on the care of hydrangeas (the text heavily borrowed from a seed catalog). While the platoon appears rather disinterested and self-absorbed, the ladies in the audience seem enraptured, and we learn why at the end of the cycle. The images then deftly switch between the ladies and their real counterparts, led by a Manchurian parapsychologist (Khigh Dhiegh as Yen Lo) who has brainwashed and conditioned the patrol into believing that they are attending a lecture of the ladies auxiliary being held at a New Jersey hotel. The ladies turn out to be a group of Oriental and Soviet Communists, intently interested in the experiment.
Yen Lo's prize pupil appears to be Shaw, who has been a crack shot since childhood. He brags that Shaw's brain "has not only been washed, as they say; it has been dry cleaned." Hints are prevalent that Shaw is to be used as an assassin since he cannot give himself away with typically American symptoms of "guilt and fear" when set into motion through his program. An anonymous "American operator" is prominently mentioned, and the remainder of the patrol are programmed to automatically respond that "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life" whenever asked about their sergeant.
Obviously something happened with this platoon in Korea (or else there's no reason for the movie), so it's not a big surprise that great disparities exist between Captain Marco's account of Shaw's Congressional Medal of Honor behavior while on patrol and the reality. But how much can we believe the dream?
The same questions surround Raymond Shaw's tightly controlled existence. He's a man with issues for sure, who has only once been remotely lovable—the summer he fell in love with the daughter of his parents arch enemy. Step-father Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) aspires to greater glory through McCarthy-like bashing adversaries as Communists, all under the strict orders of his power mad wife (Lansbury), who serves as a cross between Lady MacBeth and Iago here. Due to 1962 restrictions an incestuous scene is greatly toned down, but unmistakably comes across in a crucial scene.
Plentiful shocks along the way have landed this suspenseful production into permanent memory despite its initial dismal box office receipts. Considered controversial at the time due to its blatant lampooning of McCarthyism (where Senator Iselin keeps changing the numbers of the "card-carrying Communists in the Defense Department" until settling on a Heinz ketchup aided figure) and its no holds barred anti-Communist plotline. It also anticipates the soon to come conspiracy theories that explode less than a year after its release when Kennedy is assassinated, and does so far more deftly than Oliver Stone could ever imagine. Coupled with his subsequent 1964 drama Seven Days in May, Frankenheimer easily ranks as the pre-eminent director of political intrigue.
Frankenheimer utilizes his television background to good advantage, even filming one press conference exactly the same way he produced televised events. Also the gritty appearance and intimacy of the black and white cinematography lend greater credibility to the film, helping the audience believe that the improbable plot really is plausible. Even though The Manchurian Candidate is tough to knock, it contains a few imperfections.
A relatively low budget prevents Frankenheimer from perfectly matching location shots of Madison Square Garden with sound stage footage and a few stock convention shots are amateurishly edited into the film. Those brief clips can be forgiven easily, but less so are the awkward scenes when Marco first meets up with Rosie Chaney (Janet Leigh) on the train to New York City. Directly lifted from Condon's novel, the dialog is very disjointed and unbelievable—especially since Chaney instantly dumps her fiancé since she's just met Marco. I suppose we're supposed to put ourselves into the bobby soxers era, when girls went gaga over ol' Blue Eyes.
A suspense-thriller in the same vein as Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), The Manchurian Candidate culminates in a similar large crowd scene. Only this time the cue will be a phrase during the acceptance speech that ties in with the film's theme: "nor would I ask of any fellow American in defense of his freedom that which I would not gladly give myself - my life before my liberty." It's a classic scene made all the more indelible this month with both the Democratic and Republican conventions at hand, and one that will live forever in film history no matter how good or inept the remake will be. Denzel Washington may well surpass Sinatra's competent performance, but Schreiber and Streep will be hard pressed to match Harvey and Lansbury. Even if they succeed, Frankenheimer's original masterpiece stands as a landmark thriller that forever stamps suspicion on ambitious political figures and will never allow us to play a simple game of solitaire without having cinematic flashbacks.