What's the Big Deal?: The Manchurian Candidate Most people have heard the term, but what else did this 1962 classic influence?


Ever since Watergate increased the paranoia level in American politics, just about everyone who has run for president has at some point been called a “Manchurian candidate.” It is not a compliment. It means the speaker believes that this person has been programmed by evildoers – communists, terrorists, whoever – to seek public office, gain power, and then unleash the enemy’s nefarious plans from within. What it really means, of course, is that the speaker doesn’t like or trust the candidate. Hard evidence that Obama or Bush or McCain or Clinton or anyone else was actually brainwashed is difficult to come by. Brainwashers are stealthy that way.

But while no real “Manchurian candidates” have been confirmed, the 1962 film that popularized the term remains suspenseful and darkly comic. Much about politics has changed since then, but it’s surprising (and maybe scary) to see how many things are exactly the same. What is The Manchurian Candidate? Is it a great movie, or merely one whose title has entered common parlance?

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The praise: It was nominated for two Oscars, one for Angela Lansbury‘s supporting performance and one for the film editing. Lansbury also won a Golden Globe; director John Frankenheimer was nominated for one, along with a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. The film appeared at No. 67 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 100 best American movies ever made, though it didn’t rank at all on the revised list in 2007. Perhaps the 2004 remake had soured voters on it.

Writing for Variety, the film critic Vincent Canby called it that “rare” film that “works in all departments, with story, production and performance so well blended that the end effect is one of nearly complete satisfaction.” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther was much less enthusiastic, greatly bothered by the film’s basic implausibility – but the paper still included the film (and Crowther’s ho-hum review) in its Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.

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The context: The film was based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, whose also wrote the novel Prizzi’s Honor. John Frankenheimer, a prolific and well respected director of live television dramas throughout the 1950s, had just moved to the silver screen and was proving to be every bit as productive as he had been in TV. He directed 11 films in the 1960s, including three released in 1962 alone: All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, and, in October, The Manchurian Candidate.

Frankenheimer and producer/screenwriter George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) had bought the rights to Condon’s novel after no one else in Hollywood wanted it, and were able to get funding for the production once they signed Frank Sinatra as the star. Laurence Harvey (The Alamo, Summer and Smoke), Janet Leigh (Psycho), and Angela Lansbury also came aboard, though Frankenheimer had to fight for Lansbury, whom he’d worked with in All Fall Down. She was supposed to play Laurence Harvey’s mother but was only three years older than him. She got the part, an Oscar nomination, and an enduring legacy for playing one of the most conniving mothers in all of filmdom. (Odd that she’d be too young for a role, considering she is one of those actresses, like Betty White, who seem to have been old ladies ever since the 1960s. Lansbury was only 37 when Manchurian Candidate came out, but she was a jowly 37.)

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The film is set in the early 1950s, and 1962 audiences vividly remembered the atmosphere at the time. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Communist hunts had turned some people paranoid, and The Manchurian Candidate satirizes both communism and anti-communist hysteria. In place of McCarthy is a Sen. Iselin (James Gregory), a buffoon controlled entirely by his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, Eleanor (Lansbury), who has him declaring that he has a list of communists who have infiltrated the State Department. Just how many names are on the list varies; Eleanor eventually settles on 57 after seeing a Heinz ketchup bottle.

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McCarthyism was over by the time the film came out – McCarthy himself had died in 1957 – and plenty of Americans had found his particular brand of anti-communist hysteria laughable even while it was happening. But the Cold War was still as frosty as ever, and there was legitimate cause for concern about what the Soviets and the Chinese were up to. As fate would have it, The Manchurian Candidate was released to theaters smack-dab in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw tensions between America and the Soviet Union at their highest yet.

Given all this, it’s perhaps no surprise that The Manchurian Candidate didn’t do very well at the box office. Political thrillers about near-disasters may not have been what audiences wanted in a season of actual near-disasters. The fact that certain details of the film were eerily mirrored in the assassination of John F. Kennedy a year later only added to its infamy, and it wasn’t until the 1970s – when paranoid political thrillers were all the rage – that it came to be fully appreciated.

The movie: A cold, unfriendly soldier named Raymond Shaw (Harvey) comes home from the Korean War a hero, having received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of his platoon members when they were ambushed by enemy forces. But Shaw’s commander, Bennett Marco (Sinatra), is plagued by nightmares that suggest his and Shaw’s memories of what happened in Korea might be faulty. These nightmares, which Frankenheimer shoots with unnerving matter-of-factness, show us that Shaw was hypnotized by Chinese communists and given post-hypnotic suggestions that now, two years later, he will have to carry out. Meanwhile, his right-wing mother (Lansbury) is coaching her idiot husband in his political career, scaring people with talk of a communist infiltration into the government.

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January 6, 2010