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Films which are based on topical political subject
matter run a considerable risk of becoming dated. Politics in itself is never
out-of-date--it's too much a part of the human condition in all times and places. Look at
films like the classic Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington or the more recent Bulworth.
The former deals with an idealistic young politician up against establishment corruption;
the latter examines the consequences of a politician speaking truthfully, without the now
customary "spin." Those are universal issues and always timely. But when a film puts the emphasis on current events and
concerns, those may overwhelm themes of more abiding interest. The Manchurian
Candidate has been widely hailed as one of the "great" films since its
original release in 1962. Based on the popular novel by Richard Condon, it is a story
immersed in the paranoia of the Cold War and the American witch-hunting political response
called McCarthyism. For those who experienced that era, it continues to have resonance
today--McCarthyism and the Cold War were both seminal experiences for the generations that
lived during the period from the Soviet push for territory and power after World War II to
the Soviet meltdown of the late 1980's. But for the generations that followed, that's all
the stuff of history textbooks and the film may no longer carry the visceral impact it did
for their elders.
In a skillfully wrought script by George Axelrod (Breakfast
at Tiffany's) the exposition of the story is linear and straightforward. A squad
of soldiers in Korea is captured by the Russians and Chinese. Held for three days, they
are brainwashed to a level of mind control that effectively allows their captors to order
the men to do whatever they are told, including murdering fellow soldiers. A brilliantly
imaginative scene has the squad in a meeting room. To them, hypnotized, it is the meeting
of a ladies' gardening club; in reality it is a Communist lecture hall where they are
being displayed as a powerful weapon. Director John Frankenheimer seamlessly switches back
and forth between the varying conceptions, making the point in an entirely visual way.
One member of the squad, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is the son of
a megalomaniacal mother (Angela Lansbury) who, in turn, is married to a United States
Senator, a man completely under his wife's thumb. She leads the Senator into his virulent
anti-Communist campaign, a la McCarthy, ruthlessly planning to leverage him into
nomination for the Vice Presidency.
The commanding officer of the squad, Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), now has
recurring nightmares about the time in Korea, nightmares which raise his suspicions about
what really happened. It all leads up to an adrenaline filled climax and an unusually dark
ending for a Hollywood movie. At the same time the film has many moments of humor, humor
generated by sharp satirical jabs.
Cast with unusual depth, it's not only the leads who help to make this a
convincing romp in paranoia. Consider pros like James Gregory as the Senator, John McGiver
as his liberal opponent, Janet Leigh as Sinatra's squeeze, and Henry Silva as a Communist
The Manchurian Candidate was controversial in its time for its
subject matter, all the more so for the skill of its storytelling and its underlying theme
of insatiable needs for control over others, for power and domination. The film seems to
anticipate the ever-growing influence of the media and its manipulation by the power
brokers. Still well worth a look, its reliance on the events of its time has undeniably
diluted its power. A remake seems a logical step.
- Arthur Lazere