Talking Pictures

The Prophecy of an Assassination

John Frankenheimer’s prescient 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate

By David Lehman | January 22, 2022
Laurence Harvey, center, in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962
Laurence Harvey, center, in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

When The Manchurian Candidate, based on the novel by Richard Condon, was released in 1962, Pauline Kael called it “the most sophisticated political satire ever to come out of Hollywood.” Six decades on, the judgment holds, and I’ll go further. With its mind-bending plot, its celebrated brainwashing sequence, and stellar performances from a cast led by Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh, director John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece remains supreme in the field of conspiracy-theory celluloid.

An honorable but inevitably lesser effort, Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, lacks the air of Cold War menace, not to mention the queen of diamonds in a game of solitaire as the trigger for a sleeper agent. Also lost is the cinematic magic of the original. Frankenheimer makes exemplary use of montage dissolve techniques to convey altered states of consciousness and depict the experience of hypnotic mind control. And, in retrospect, his 1962 movie seems almost to have anticipated either the earth-shaking events of November 22, 1963, or their interpretation.

Political scientists used to define politics as the art of the possible. If it has morphed into the craft of manipulative paranoia, the change dates back to the assassination of President Kennedy. The Warren Commission’s report satisfied few skeptics, journalists, or serious historians, and the credibility of politicians (who used to be called “statesmen”) keeps ebbing.

The Manchurian Candidate, which presaged the change, presents a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate by long-range rifle during his party’s nominating convention in Madison Square Garden. The movie’s conceit was so scary that studio executives at United Artists felt the project had to be cleared with the White House. Frank Sinatra dutifully called JFK, who greenlit the film, which Sinatra believed in so strongly that he volunteered the use of his private plane for an early scene in the movie.

Talk about serendipity: On October 22, 1962, only two days before the picture’s release, President Kennedy announced to the nation that he had ordered a naval blockade to repulse Russian ships, equipped with missiles, heading to the Caribbean. The Cuban Missile Crisis has been seen ever since as the tensest moment in the 45-year Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and here was a movie advancing the thesis that a Communist assassination plan was in the works.

The Manchurian Candidate is wickedly satirical. Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), a demagogue in the manner of Joe McCarthy, is revealed to be an imbecile under the thumb of his ambitious, intellectually superior wife, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury at her best). What happened to her first husband? The movie, mum on the point, offers an Oedipal triangle in which Mrs. Iselin controls her war hero son, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), and gets him to eliminate her rival, his bride (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of Senator Iselin’s fiercest, most principled opponent (John McGiver). Lansbury was less than three years older than Harvey. In the novel, she seduces him; in the film, just a kiss on the lips, but it’s enough.

What most distinguishes The Manchurian Candidate is its opening. If you miss the first five minutes of Hamlet, you can catch up (at the cost of some excellent verse), because the ghost does not appear to Hamlet until act I, scene 4 and doesn’t speak to him until scene 5. But, as the movie’s theatrical release poster accurately proclaimed, “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about.” The film begins in Korea, 1952. Betrayed by a guide, an American army unit is ambushed. After Saul Bass’s marvelous title credits, featuring the queen of diamonds on an oversize political campaign button, we go to an American airport, where Sergeant Shaw, survivor of the ambush, is honored with hoopla for the valor he is said to have displayed under fire.

In the following scene, the camera slowly approaches Shaw’s commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Sinatra), asleep beside an insomniac’s paradise of books, among them The Trial, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Ulysses. Marco, who nominated Shaw for his medal, slides into a recurring nightmare of what really happened in Korea.

The brainwashing sequence begins with the captive GIs in their army fatigues on a stage. The audience appears to the men, in their trance, to consist of dowagers in sunhats who have gathered to talk about hydrangeas at a suburban garden party in New Jersey. In fact, the ladies in the audience are Russian and Chinese bigwigs, and Frankenheimer switches us back and forth between alternating versions, the harmless old women and the malevolent Communists in suits or uniforms. Then we watch in horror as, under orders, Shaw kills two of his fellow POWs while the other soldiers look on, affectless.

Like Major Marco, Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards) has recurrent nightmares culminating in a public murder committed by Shaw. And, like Major Marco, he is programmed to say, when asked, that “‘Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Everyone says so, and it’s odd, because Raymond is a singularly cold, humorless fellow whom the men dislike..

The buried truth—that the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor, feted with fanfare, is a secret, trigger-ready weapon concocted by the enemy—created a mental shock to anyone who saw The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. (I was 14 years old, and amazed.) The plot: to engineer the nomination of the clownish Senator Iselin for the position of vice president, then to kill the man at the head of the ticket, paving the way for Iselin’s rise to that position. The paranoid paradox: the extreme right-wing John Iselin is really a clueless Communist placeholder. The brains of the operation: Eleanor Iselin, as icily ruthless as Lady MacBeth.

Marco, the veteran suffering from PTSD who tries to save Shaw from his predestined fate, looks like a man having a nervous breakdown, but he must have something going for him, because the glamorous and beautiful Rosie Cheyney (Janet Leigh) is willing to break her engagement to her fiancé on the basis of a shared cigarette with Marco on the train between Washington, D. C. and New York City. Although Leigh is extraneous to the plot, I have published a poem contending that the only justification needed for Janet Leigh’s presence in the movie is that she is Janet Leigh. More creatively, Roger Ebert argues that in the paranoid universe of The Manchurian Candidate, Leigh may secretly be Sinatra’s controller.

I will not give away other surprises and speculations except to say that the guises assumed by the queen of diamonds will endow that particular card with a rare significance if you are a part-time poker player. An amusing scene takes place in Jilly’s, Sinatra’s favorite New York hangout. When the bartender, telling a story, says, “Go up to Central Park and go jump in the lake,” Raymond—a solitaire addict who has just encountered the trigger card—does as told. Marco has to fish him out.

The Manchurian Candidate has altered political discourse, and the very word brainwashing has acquired a stink. The evil mesmerist-in-chief, Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), crows that Raymond Shaw’s “brain has not only been washed, as they say; it’s been dry-cleaned.” In 1967, George Romney shot his presidential candidacy in the foot when he said he had supported the Vietnam War because US generals had “brainwashed” him. Recently, Donald Trump has been depicted as a “Manchurian candidate,” allegedly willing to favor the Russians in exchange for lucrative real-estate deals.

But The Manchurian Candidate offers more than a linguistic afterlife, thrilling paranoia, and the cunning of Eleanor Iselin. It succeeds as well as it does because of the strong sense of the uncanny that informs it, as if we were watching our own history rendered as a spooky hallucination, delivered with the plausibility of a newsreel.

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