The Manchurian Candidate Reviews
With that out of the way ... fantastic performances by both Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra, great direction by John Frankenheimer, and an excellent plot all make this a film that is still highly enjoyable today. In a nutshell, American soldiers in the Korean War are captured and subjected to sophisticated brainwashing by Russian and Chinese communists, and one of them is programmed to carry out assassinations back in America. Frank Sinatra plays one of the soldiers who has recurring nightmares about the brainwashing, and the sequence where Frankenheimer shows them thinking they're at a meeting at a lady's club talking about flowers, which seems very odd at first, and spins the camera around to gradually show us the horrifying reality of their predicament, and just how controlled they are, is absolutely fantastic. We come to understand the assassin's trigger, the queen of diamonds when told to play solitaire, which is a wonderfully chilling concept, and I loved how the story included a false trigger at a costume party. Angela Lansbury's character evolves over the film, from over-bearing mother and wife, the brains behind her Senator husband's McCarthyism, to the mastermind behind the whole conspiracy - and how this is revealed is as great as her performance. The movie keeps us guessing, perhaps as those swept up in fear of communism guessed at what may be happening around them in their paranoia, and an example of this is Janet Leigh's offbeat dialog with Sinatra when she first meets him on a train. It immediately seems to us as code and a way of controlling him in some way, but it's also flirtatious, and we're left wondering what her role will be.
Brilliant as it is, from my perspective, the movie has one major flaw. Frankenheimer was happy to show the dangers of McCarthyism and even commented on this in interviews, and yet there WAS a communist plot to overthrow the government, and there WAS unsuspected (and very dangerous) communist infiltration. So at the end of the day, what was the message - that McCarthy was right? I don't think it's right to explain this away as satire of both the right and the left, because I don't see the movie as satire, I see it as a political thriller - but it is a very good one at that.
Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and his team were termed heroes and showered with medals and awards when they fight their way back home through a deep enemy territory during the Korean war. Shaw's mother Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) is a manipulative power broker now married to Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) with a full intent to put him on the pedestal. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) a member of Shaw's team and few others starts to have nightmares that contradict their daring escape story all pointing to something skeptical about Shaw. When Marco begins to lose his mind over this, he starts an unofficial inquiry until he finds something solid.
The writing, editing, screenplay and performances were top notch for its time with a lot of emphasis on character development. But the narrative style did put me off sometimes especially Sinatra's piece. The girlfriend/wife character is out of the blue and does not serve any purpose than for him to go on narrating instead of having a conversation. Though it was brilliant for the writing to show the handlers do a lot of mock tests on their brainwash project before a real approach, the whole thing somehow looks messy and too fictional. The movie could've been easily been 20 minutes lesser in its runtime and action sequences were too dated. I can only speculate what a chilling resonance it could have had after JFK's assassination only a year later.
Not without its glitches but a brilliant writing with a complexity that is not seen in its era
It's quite something.