The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
June 12, 2018 5:28 PM - Subscribe

A former prisoner of war is brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy.

Criterion Collection: The name John Frankenheimer became forever synonymous with heart-in-the-throat filmmaking when this quintessential sixties political thriller was released. Set in the early fifties, this razor-sharp adaptation of the novel by Richard Condon concerns the decorated U.S. Army sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who as a prisoner during the Korean War is brainwashed into becoming a sleeper assassin in a Communist conspiracy, and a fellow POW (Frank Sinatra) who slowly uncovers the sinister plot. In an unforgettable performance, Angela Lansbury plays Raymond’s villainous mother, the controlling wife of a witch-hunting anti-Communist senator with his eyes on the White House. The rare film that takes aim at the frenzy of the McCarthy era while also being suffused with its Cold War paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate remains potent, shocking American moviemaking.

Roger Ebert: 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 movie is based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, who must have been astonished that it became a film with big stars like Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey -- and still more astonished that Frankenheimer and Axelrod did not soften its wicked satire. Frankenheimer says on the commentary track that he is proudest that the film hammered McCarthyism; there's a scene where the hard-drinking Sen. Iselin can't decide how many communists he thinks are in the State Department, and settles on 57 after studying a ketchup bottle.

Frankenheimer (1930-2002) was a tall man, movie-star handsome, who told hilarious stories about his adventures as a boy wonder in the days of live network television. He used his TV experience to give "The Manchurian Candidate" a quick-moving, hard-edged urgency. Filming in black and white, incorporating inside details about political campaigns and journalism, he sweeps the story along with such conviction that its utter implausibility is concealed.


Filming Locations

Original reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter

AV Club on that weird conversation on the train between Sinatra and Leigh

Why was The Manchurian Candidate out of theatres for 24 years?

A Conspiracy Thriller Before Its Time
posted by MoonOrb (14 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great movie. Sinatra is fine, Lansbury is amazing.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:59 PM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I watched this with my kids recently, and the high schooler enjoyed it a lot (once he had some context explained). It's held up so well.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:37 PM on June 12, 2018

The Manchurian Candidate is the kindest, warmest, most wonderful.. [shaking my head confusedly]

No, that's not right.. it's.. actually, although I haven't seen it very recently I remember it as a mostly mediocre movie redeemed by Angela Lansbury's terrifying performance.

Consider this fight scene. It's not the worst ever filmed but it's certainly no credit to the movie. A surprising amount of the movie actually is exactly that lame, you just tend to forget about it, mysteriously mesmerized by the awful hypnotic power of Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:56 PM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

That garden club sequence that opens the film is still one of my favorite opening scenes. I was never able to find the cut in that sweeping circular shot when it turns from the ladies garden club into the brainwashing demonstration.
posted by octothorpe at 4:54 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Landsburg is so deliciously evil and depraved in this movie, easily the best performance.

Frankenheimer really did that paranoid, hypnotic state so well back then. Sticking with black and white for this and a couple others he did in this era worked brilliantly.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:39 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lansbury is wonderful in this. She's also only a couple of years older than Harvey, which is a LITTLE WEIRD, but helps with the movies attempt to portray the deeply messed up relationship between the two without running too far afoul of censors.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:06 PM on June 13, 2018

It's very definitely a film that is of its era. One aspect that I always liked was how stylized (modern?) the sets were in the flashback scenes, as opposed to the "real" nature of the rest of the movie.

Lansbury absolutely owns the film. Such utter evil. I rather liked her death scene, though. I think she played it quite convincingly, in terms of body movement and reaction.

She's also only a couple of years older than Harvey, which is a LITTLE WEIRD...

Anne Bancroft was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and only nine years older than Katherine Ross, who played her daughter.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:15 PM on June 13, 2018

One of the things that's inescapable for people who watched this for the first time in the late 80s or 90s is that Angela Lansbury was by then quite familiar from Murder She Wrote. Her role in the film is so, so different that it adds a layer of juiciness to her already pretty good performance, like a reverse casting against type. It only works for a certain generation; people who saw the movie contemporaneously, or who grew up in the 21st century, don't have those expectations for how Lansbury should be. But for my generation, it was like "WTF the Murder She Wrote chick is psycho!".

The remake, with Denzel Washington, wasn't nearly as terrible as it could have been.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:51 PM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

AV Club on that weird conversation on the train between Sinatra and Leigh

This American Life, 1997: New York writer Camden Joy tells what happened when in a greasy spoon restaurant filled with cabbies and club kids when Frank's film The Manchurian Candidate came on television. The whole place got silent, watched the film, and choked up. (9 minutes)
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:41 PM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I somehow chose to watch this film while under the influence of LSD when it was initally unembargoed and finally released to home video, like in the late eighties. My recollections of it are scattered and not very intense. I think it's fair to say I made a questionabke decision.
posted by mwhybark at 12:56 AM on June 14, 2018

One of my favorite films. I think Laurence Harvey was a wonderful casting choice, and that he succeeded at coming across as cold and somewhat disdainful, but also worthy of empathy. You can see in certain scenes why people read him as hostile, but you can also see over the course of the film how injured he is. I always felt deeply for his character because of his alienation. It's as if he has been so disappointed by people that he simply turned away from all of them. Like the book, I think that the film is not even particularly interested in that humanist aspect, it's just an emergent property of good writing and good acting that piques my empathy.

It makes the flashbacks to his one happy relationship so heartbreaking. I've read that the murder of Jordan is meant to be a visual gag, making it look like the liberal senator bleeds milk. Copied by T2 and a number of other films.

Harvey did some good TV work too, memorably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Columbo.

This film makes a terrific double feature with The Dead Zone.
posted by heatvision at 3:47 AM on June 14, 2018

Jessie Royce Landis played Cary Grant's mother in North by Northwest; she was seven years older than him.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:31 AM on June 14, 2018

We’re supposed to read Sinatra's character as gay, right? Or is that just holdover from his role in From Here To Eternity which keeps bucking against Hayes code subtext until it nearly bursts.
posted by The Whelk at 11:04 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

> AV Club on that weird conversation on the train between Sinatra and Leigh

I was hoping they'd explain it. But no, it is unknowable.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:12 PM on June 15, 2018

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