The Manchurian Candidate (1962)


I cannot think of any film that was so ahead of this time like this "new film noir" feature.

The movie went from failure to classicwithout passing through success.
George Axelrod, screenwriter

The film is based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, who must have been astonished that it became a film with big stars like SinatraAngela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey -- and still more astonished that Frankenheimer and Axelrod did not soften its wicked satire. 

It was made in what’s considered to be the last year of American innocence; it’s no coincidence that American Graffiti is also set in 1962 Within a year of the film’s release, the country would begin to explode with assassinations, race riots, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. “The Manchurian Candidate” was sort of a preview of what was just around the corner.

The film begins with a title: "Korea 1952" during the Korean War. Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey with an English accent!) and Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) are part of an American infantry platoon that is serving overseas in Korea.
The film trusts its viewers to follow its twisting, surrealistic plot, especially in the way fragmented memories of the Korean brainwashing leak into the nightmares of the survivors of that patrol. A flashback shows us what happened: After being hypnotized by their Chinese captors, they think they're attending a meeting of a garden club in a New Jersey hotel, while we see their communist hypnotist lecturing a room of other party officials. To show how strong the programming is, he orders Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Harvey) to strangle one of the Americans and shoot another; the film's point of view cuts freely between the different versions of reality.

Back in the United States, Raymond is given the Medal of Honor and greeted by his smothering mother (Lansbury) and her second husband, the weak, alcoholic Sen. Iselin (James Gregory). It's a running gag in the film that Raymond is constantly referred to as the senator's son, and keeps repeating, "I am not his son." Mrs. Iselin has incestuous feelings for Raymond, which in the novel lead them to bed, but in the movie are revealed through a famous full-lip kiss. Raymond hates her, hates himself and has a bitter speech about how he is not lovable.


Seen today, "The Manchurian Candidate" feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist act, "rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy." The plot cheerfully divides blame between right and left; it provides a right-wing demagogue named Sen. John Iselin, who is clearly modeled on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and makes him the puppet of his draconian wife, who is in league with foreign communists. The plan: Use anti-communist hysteria as a cover for a communist takeover.
"The Manchurian Candidate" is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released. "It may be," Pauline Kael wrote at the time, "the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood." Yes, because it satirizes no particular target -- left, right, foreign, domestic -- but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.
Roger Ebert 


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