The Manchurian Candidate came out at a perfect time in American history, and even in 2013, it’s significance increases. An aggressive take on mind control, political corruption, and paranoia, the movie’s performances by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury remain unchallenged and the best of their respective careers. A thoroughly gushing review commences.
A group of Korean War POWs return to America as heroes, young Raymond Shaw (Harvey) in particular receives much distinction for allegedly saving the lives of his men. However, Major Bennett Marco (Sinatra) can’t shake the bizarre images he sees in his dreams; images which tell of a mind control experiment and the realization that Shaw may be a Communist spy.
Everything about The Manchurian Candidate is surreal and revolutionary, probably moreso in 1962 as opposed to now; but the movie is bleak when discussing the implementation of mind control in war veterans. The minute the group of Americans are captured, the audience enters a bizarre scene of a garden party where little old women are talking not at all like little old women. When the movie finally reveals the ugly artifice behind this so-called “garden party,” true fear sets in, especially once the group of mind-controllers prove their strength by having Shaw murder a fellow comrade in cold blood. The 1950s is commonly considered the era of paranoia and Communist threats, but The Manchurian Candidate continues that one better. The idea that home-grown mind-control exists and can be utilized to benefit America (or another country) remains on the film’s fringes. Every scene is imbued with imagery conveying the pervasiveness of mind control, not relegated to some remote village on a distant shore, but here amongst us.
The cast assembled is phenomenal and on par with the workings of Alfred Hitchcock. I haven’t much experience with Frank Sinatra’s work, but there’s no lounge singer act in his portrayal of Marco. He’s a broken, dispirited man who comes to the slow realization that a man he admires is no longer the same person. I was originally afraid Sinatra’s persona would stand in the way of his acting, but it’s not the case. Sinatra brings pathos and empathy to the role. He’s a man to be respected, but also a man alone. Sinatra is complemented by the formal, hangdog work of Laurence Harvey as Shaw. The character is meant to be robotic, but the implementation of a romance gives Harvey’s character something to live for and binds the audience to him. It helps that he’s given the mother from Hell in Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor Iselin – the name itself conjuring up images of the powerful Eleanor Roosevelt. This is the movie for which Lansbury should be remembered, and she is the mother of all black widows. Her character starts simple, taking advantage of Shaw’s mind-control to elevate him to public office. After that, her schemes become personal and intimate, right down to tricking Shaw’s finacee to wear a playing card costume in the hopes it’ll trigger Shaw’s memory and he’ll kill her. The movie’s strongest moments are between Shaw and his mother; a macabre, incestuous relationship which creeps out rather than endears.
The sixties would see a lot of political turmoil with the escalation of the Vietnam War, and The Manchurian Candidate leaves the audience to question just who are their so-called political leaders. Might they be a Manchurian Candidate working towards their own nefarious ends? Some today would say that’s true. The trio of Sinatra, Harvey, and and Lansbury are amazing! Janet Leigh’s there, too, as the love interest/possible handler for Marco, although she lacks the scenery chewing to truly stand out. The Manchurian Candidate is one of my favorite movies of the 1960s! Go watch it!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.