Sunday, October 6, 2013


(October 1962, U.S.)

As I've previously stated with some of his other films, director John Frankenheimer has always been hit and miss with me. While BLACK SUNDAY (1977) has been and will continue to be my favorite of his, who can deny that THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE may quite possibly be the best American Cold War suspense thriller ever put on screen? Aside from it's chilling political story, it was released during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was rumored to have been removed from distribution from Frank Sinatra himself immediately following John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. The film would not be seen again until it was re-released theatrically in 1988. That's when I saw it for the first time. As a matter of fact, if my memory serves correctly, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE may have been the first classic black and white film I'd ever seen on the big screen. And because I was still just a college kid that was being weaned on silly franchise sequels, I had a good deal of trouble understanding the central concept of the film in that the son of a prominent right-wing political family has been brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy. All I can say is thank goodness for video releases and a personal level of patience for giving the literal film a second chance, because eventually I got the message and the film has gone on to become one of my top ten favorite black and white classics of all time.

The film opens in Korea where American soldiers that include Raymond Shaw (played by Lawrence Harvey) and Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) are ambushed by the Soviets. Although the audience isn't meant to understand this until later in the film, the captured platoon have been brainwashed into believing a fabricated version of what happened to them by their captors upon their eventual release. We also learn that Raymond Shaw has been turned into a cold-blooded assassin whom, on command, can be transformed into someone he doesn't know and can't remember upon hearing the words, "Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire." While playing the game, it's when he finally sees the Queen of Diamonds card that he can be completely controlled to follow any command given to him. On paper, it may not sound too chilling. Watching it, though, and taking into consideration the specific time period in American history, makes it all the more valid and creepy. Even more unsettling is when we learn that Raymond main controller, aka his American operator turns out to be his own mother. Like Norman Bates himself, Raymond is and always has been under the control of this completely maniacal and dominating woman, whom he freely admits he's never been able to beat. This maternal control over him has cost him the woman he once loved (and her life, too!) as well as his self respect. In other words, the mind control that his mother uses on him is almost easily predictable.

The role of the mother, by the way, is played quite chillingly by Angela Lansbury, whom as it turns out, was only one year older than Lawrence Harvey when they made this film. She's a powerful woman who, on the surface, is an extremist on the ultra-righteous side of defending American and the American way of life against Communist tyranny. It's quite shocking when we finally learn who she really is and exactly how she intends to use the unwilling and unsuspecting son of hers to help her and her clown-of-a-husband-and-senator John Iselin (played by James Gregory) rise to ultimate power in the White House and implant their strong foothold of Communist power into the heart of America...unless Raymond is somehow able to stop them in time. Today's younger generation may not fully understand or appreciate just how life-threatening that was believed to be during the height of the Cold War in this country. Watching this film (more than once) and some good ol' educational research will definitely remedy that.

Earlier I mentioned that I had trouble understanding all the elements of this film when I first saw it in college. Today, I practically consider myself an expert on its themes and implications. However, even after all these years, there's one particular point that I still can't seem to fathom. Look closely at the film and you'll see that John Iselin has this rather bizarre obsession with Abraham Lincoln. There's a painting of him on the wall, there's a statue of his head on the table and at a costume party, Iselin dresses up as Lincoln. What are we supposed to derive from this? Does the highly immoral and corrupt John Iselin aspire to be more like Honest Abe? Does he consider Honest Abe to have not been as honest as history portrayed him? Does he seek to act with deliberate spite against a political figure that was so well respected in American history? Somewhere out there, there must be a reader who can interpret the Abe Lincoln obsession in this film, because I still haven't figured it out yet! Help me, please!!!

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is not only one of the greatest films of John Frankenheimer's impressive career, but also a classic that's as alive and smart as when it was first released. It's an inventive film that takes great chances with the audience in not only testing their wills and intelligence, but also reminding them (at the time, anyway, of the dangerous chances and possibilities that Communist insurgence would have had on America and it's free citizens had it taken a foothold. Again, while we may not live in a world like that anymore, we are faced with the threat of terrorism every day and the possibilities of not truly knowing who our neighbors really are. That's just as chilling and frightening, if not more, than Communism was more than fifty years ago. History repeats itself sometimes, one way or another.

By the way, the 2004 Jonathan Demme remake of this film with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep was both pointless and stupid! When, oh when, will Hollywood learn?? Enough said on that!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Bennett Marco: "I tell you, there's something phony going on! There's something phony about me, about Raymond Shaw, about the whole Medal of Honor business! For instance, when the psychiatrist asked me how I felt about Raymond Shaw, how I personally felt about him and how the whole patrol felt about him, did you hear what I said? Did you really hear what I said? I said Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life. And even now I feel that way, this minute, and yet somewhere in the back of my mind something tells me it's not's just now true! It isn't as if Raymond's hard to like...he's IMPOSSIBLE to like! In fact, he's probably one of the most repulsive human beings I've ever known in my whole...all of my life!"

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