Filmsite Movie Review
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is director-producer John Frankenheimer's prophetically tragic, chilling, brilliant, blackish (film-noirish) Cold War thriller about brain-washing, conspiracy, the dangers of international Communism, McCarthyism, assassination, and political intrigue. Laurence Harvey is brilliant as a brainwashed Korean war hero who has been programmed as a Soviet sleeper/mole agent to assassinate a Presidential candidate. It can be categorized within many film genres - it functions as a horror film, a war film, a science fiction film, a black comedy, a suspense-thriller, and a political melodrama (with additional segments of romance and action).

The mood of this pseudo-documentary, satirical film masterpiece (from prolific veteran television director Frankenheimer) is paranoic, surrealistic, dark, macabre, cynical, and foreboding - these elements are combined in a traditional, top-notch suspenseful thriller framework with a nail-biting, Alfred Hitchcock-like climax. The movie displays the emerging role and importance of television in broadcasting public affairs and shaping opinion, and the circus atmosphere that surrounds American politics.

The time period of the provocative, sophisticated film is set in the early 50s during the height of right-wing McCarthyism - a time of tense political paranoia with the overriding, reactionary fear that Communists (Russian and Chinese) were scheming to take over the US via advanced brainwashing techniques and programmed terrorist training. Its two best scenes are the opening brainwashing sequence staged for POWs as a garden club party, and the climactic finale during a political convention in Madison Square Garden (at its original location - 8th Ave. at 49th St.).

Although the film initially failed at the box-office and its plot was considered far-fetched, it anticipated the American obsession with conspiracy theories in the early to mid-60s. The film was banned in the Eastern bloc, 'Iron Curtain' countries (and some others) due to its volatile, anti-Communist subject matter, until 1993 (when the Soviet Union collapsed).

Its importance as an un-nervingly close-to-the-truth statement was underlined when it was withdrawn and suppressed from movie theaters after the death of President Kennedy one year later - JFK was allegedly gunned down by the hand of a suspected, robotically-docile, trained and 'brain-washed' assassin. Whether Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by the film is open to question. Since then, the fictional film has attracted a cultish following for its tense, intriguing, relevant, and sophisticated story-line and symbolism (superbly filmed with innovative cinematography by Lionel Lindon).

[Star Frank Sinatra purchased the rights to the film in order to permanently remove it from circulation - until 1987. Although generally believed to have been withdrawn as a respectful reaction to Kennedy's death, it was also because Sinatra suspected that UA was illegally withholding profit-sharing. Coincidentally, Sinatra had also been featured as a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly (1954).]

The film's frightening, daring, and far-fetched plot, from a screenplay written by co-producer and Broadway playwright George Axelrod (famous for the Broadway play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Lord Love a Duck (1966)), was based on Richard Condon's 1959 novel of the same name. It was nominated for only two Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury) and Best Editing - and lost both nominations. Frankenheimer followed this film with another political conspiracy thriller, the starkly black and white Seven Days in May (1964), and with the psychological sci-fi thriller Seconds (1966).

Forty-two years later, this classic original was remade in 2004 by director Jonathan Demme (and co-producer Tina Sinatra) as an action-thriller (tagline: "Everything is under control"). It starred Denzel Washington taking the place of Frank Sinatra as a 1991 brain-washed Persian Gulf War veteran named Bennett Marco who was programmed (with a micro-chip implant) to assassinate a Presidential candidate, Liev Schreiber in the Laurence Harvey role as brainwashed Sgt. Raymond Shaw (a two-term Congressman and VP candidate!), Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role as Shaw's masterminding, competitive, icy mother Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (a power-hungry US Senator), and Kimberly Elise as supermarket clerk Rosie (the Janet Leigh role) - a government agent tailing Marco. The script for this new version, by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, substituted capitalists (an enigmatic, big-business, multi-national corporation called Manchurian Global, represented, according to Demme, by the giant 21st century companies of Halliburton, Bechtel or the Carlyle Group) as the villains.

Plot Synopsis

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. In the pre-credits sequence, the unlikeable Sergeant curtails the late night carousing of his troops in a Korean brothel-bar. [One of the young ladies is reading a fan magazine named Movie Life - on the cover is a picture of one of the film's stars, Janet Leigh, with her husband of 10 years - Tony Curtis. The couple were in the midst of a separation during filming.] The men show contempt for his coldness: "It's just our Raymond. Our loveable Sgt. Shaw...I'm afraid our St. Raymond, he don't approve."

During a night-time maneuver as they are led by a traitorous local interpreter named Chunjin (Henry Silva), the Americans are advised to walk in a single file line - a tactically-indefensible strategy. While on patrol, they are ambushed, knocked unconscious, and taken away by helicopter into Manchuria to be held captive.

The credits play on top of a lop-sided button of a composite 'stars-and-stripes' Queen of Diamonds. The next scene opens stateside, with a member of a military band beating the side of a drum - painted with the patriotic symbol of an American eagle. [Patriotic symbols and images abound throughout the film, often juxtaposed with contradictory, ironic meanings.] Sergeant Shaw returns home a war-hero from the Korean conflict. His Air Force plane is met at the airport by cheering, patriotic crowds and a band. The narrator in voice-over describes how he is to be decorated as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner:

This nation jealously guards its highest award for valor - the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the Korean War, with five million, seven hundred and twenty thousand personnel engaged, only seventy-seven men were so honored. One of these seventy-seven men was Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw. Raymond Shaw was returned from combat and flown directly to Washington to be decorated personally by the President of the United States. This is why his presence, or the presence of any Medal of Honor winner is sufficient to bring generals to their feet saluting.

Greeted by one of the generals, Shaw feels "like Captain Idiot in Astounding Science comics." His politically-motivated, power-mad mother Mrs. Iselin (37 year old Angela Lansbury, only 3 years older than Laurence Harvey, her son in the film) and step-father Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), an aspiring, right-wing (McCarthy-ish), buffoonish Vice-Presidential candidate make a dramatic entrance - they are introduced by a shot of an American flag and then a descent to them. The couple push through the crowd to capitalize on the publicity of their son's notoriety. A photograph is taken of Shaw with his father and the general under a banner: "Johnny Iselin's Boy!" Suddenly, Shaw is incensed when he realizes that his conniving mother has "organized this disgusting three-ring circus...Johnny's up for re-election in November. You've got it all figured it out, haven't you? Johnny Iselin's Boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you one of the fifty thousand votes."

The narrator continues in voice-over, describing how Raymond's heroic action was corroborated by the surviving members of his patrol - the only ones who witnessed the event:

On the afternoon of his arrival in Washington, Raymond Shaw was decorated at the White House by the President of the United States. His citation attested to by his commanding officer, Captain Bennett Marco, and the nine surviving members of his patrol, read in part: 'Displaying valor above and beyond the call of duty did single-handedly save the lives of nine members of his patrol, capturing an enemy machine gun nest and taking out in the process a full company of enemy infantry. He then proceeded to lead his patrol which had been listed as missing in action for three days back through the enemy lines to safety.'

Shaw shocks his parents when he tells them that he isn't accompanying them home on their campaign plane, but will instead be going to New York to work for respected and decent liberal publisher Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan) as his confidential assistant - Gaines is denounced by his arrogant mother as "a Communist!" In the expressions of her face, she exhibits brash forcefulness, vehement insistence, and subdued violence. He angers them even further by his repulsion for their virulent anti-communism, and for avowing an affinity for his new boss' animosity toward both of them: "We both discovered that we both loathe and despise you and Johnny."

In the next scene, the camera pans across from a decorated army uniform to a twin bed covered with books (Marco is portrayed as a voracious reader of the following books - "Diseases of Horses," "Ulysses," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Trial," "Wall Street: Men and Money," "Enemies of the State," and others ). The narrator describes more about the after-effects of the war:

The war in Korea was over. Captain, now Major Bennett Marco had been reassigned to Army Intelligence in Washington. It was, by and large, a pleasant assignment, except for one thing. Night after night, the Major was plagued by the same re-occurring nightmare.

In the second twin bed, Marco wakes up in a cold sweat - plagued and haunted by nightmares, fitful images, and terrible, unconscious memories of his experiences in Manchuria when he was subjected to successful brainwashing. His nightly memories are of a real event in Manchuria that have been distorted by the psychological programming.

The scene dissolves into the famous brainwashing/dream sequence where Marco and his platoon are present and onstage at a ladies' auxiliary meeting. The images switch between the imagined, delusionary, conditioned point of view within the brainwashed soldiers' heads and actual reality. They have been conditioned, programmed, and manipulated by a Pavlovian Chinese brainwasher to imagine attendance at a ladies' auxiliary meeting/tea party. To surrealistically convey this depth of meaning, the camera begins a slow, 360 degree, all-encompassing tracking shot around the meeting in the lecture hall - exhibiting a ladies' garden club party in the Spring Lake Hotel in New Jersey where an elderly white woman, Mrs. Henry Whittaker speaks tediously on the topic of "Fun With Hydrangeas." The laconic platoon is seated on stage with her - in the audience are about two dozen elderly ladies taking in the lecture on horticulture.

When the camera returns to the stage, 360 degrees later after the cyclical camera movement, a tall, bald Communist Chinese/Korean doctor-spylord Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) is actually in charge and has taken the woman's place and voice. He introduces the captured, passive and impotent men, all drugged and hypnotized, who are seated in front of giant poster/photographs of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. The doctor addresses an interested, assembled coalition of uniformed Koreans, Chinese, Soviets and civilians in a public demonstration of the powers of hypnotism:

Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them - or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies' garden club is in progress.

The bravura, tour de force scene shifts seamlessly from the Communist scene to the garden party. During the session, Raymond is instructed to take center stage, as Yen Lo speaks about the mind-bending force of hypnotic suggestion:

I am sure you've all heard the old wives' tale that no hypnotized subject may be forced to do that which is repellant to his moral nature, whatever that may be. Nonsense, of course.

Raymond deals invisible cards to himself in a game of solitaire, and is questioned about the history of his killing:

Mrs. Whittaker: Tell me Raymond, have you ever killed anyone?
Raymond: No, ma'am.
Mrs. Whittaker: Not even in combat?
Raymond: In combat? Yes, ma'am, I think so.
Yen Lo: Of course you have, Raymond. Raymond has been a crack shot since childhood -
Mrs. Whittaker: A marvelous outlet for his aggressions.

Calmly, puppet-master Yen Lo demonstrates Raymond's emotionless killing capacity through the technique of programming. Shaw first identifies the member of the platoon that he dislikes the least. He names Captain Marco, but he is asked to choose a second candidate: "That won't do, Raymond. We need the Captain to get you your medal." His second choice is Ed Mavole (Richard La Pore) whom he is instructed to " death" with a white scarf. As Captain Marco yawns and the rest of the men sit placidly and bored with no emotion, Mavole is dutifully killed. The unspeakable act causes Captain Marco to waken from his nightmare.

As he testifies to a Colonel (Douglas Henderson), other Army chiefs of staff and a black consulting psychiatrist (Joe Adams) about his horrifying dreams from combat, Captain Marco believes it is "curious that Mavole was one of the two men lost in the action, yet every night in my dream, he's - he's the one that Raymond..." Raymond was honored for saving the lives of all but two of his platoon members - one of whom was Mavole. Then, Marco convincingly describes his warm feelings for war-buddy Shaw - thoughts that are shared in common [through brain-washing] by all the platoon's survivors because he 'saved their lives':

Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

The committee recommends that Marco be "temporarily re-assigned to less strenuous, and if I may say so, less sensitive duties" - a few months of service in the Public Relations Corps as a Public Relations Officer.

In a televised press conference given by a U.S. Cabinet member (with Major Marco seated next to him), a government hall is filled with reporters, technicians, camera equipment and monitors. The Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) announces cuts in the Defense Department budget:

Since no great naval power menaces the free world today, the Navy's overwhelming preponderance of surface ships seems to be superfluous, hence the cuts in budget.

With grand-standing tactics and Commie-baiting witch-hunting delivered from the audience, 'Joe McCarthy-ish' Senator Iselin stands - in the background - and delivers bombastic, arbitrary rantings about the Secretary's conclusions, as his manipulative, domineering wife in the foreground - who has fed her words into her puppet husband and is the power behind the scenes - watches his diminutive image on a live TV monitor next to her [the same events are simultaneously displayed from different perspectives]. She experiences heightened ecstasy as she nods affirmatively and rocks back and forth on her chair while listening to her husband's crude provocations that he has a list of 207 card-carrying Communists working for the Defense Department:

I have here a list of the names of 207 persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party...I demand an answer, Mr. Secretary. There will be no covering up, sir, no covering up. You are not going to get your hands on this list. And I deeply regret having to say...

When the Secretary of Defense argues back ("throw that lunatic out of here...get that man out of this room"), he points from the front of the room (from right to left) toward Iselin in the rear of the room, but on a TV monitor, his arm extends from left to right - in a reverse angle - to symbolize the disorienting and unreliable media image. As Senator Iselin is leaving the scene of pandemonium, he amends his calculation and states that there are 104 "card-carrying Communists in the Defense Department," then 275 - he cannot even remember exactly how many Commies are on his list.

For weeks, another young Korean War vet in the platoon, former black Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards) has also been experiencing similar dreams of his confinement in the enemy's camp. [Edwards' casting in a non-racially defined role was considered slightly controversial for its time.] His fitful slumber dissolves into a second sequence at the garden party just after the death of Mavole - the garden party ladies are black as he would have remembered it. For the group, Marco describes the "first duty" he will undertake after being returned with his patrol to Korea: "I will make my report on the patrol...I will recommend urgently that Raymond Shaw be posted to the Medal of Honor. He saved our lives and took out a complete company of Chinese infantry." The demonstration proceeds when Raymond is calmly directed to shoot - "through the forehead" - the platoon's favorite, youngest member and "mascot" Bobby Lembeck (Tom Lowell). Without hesitation or even a second thought, Raymond points the gun at the camera - the smiling, trusting face of the young soldier - and blows his brains out. Blood splatters on the huge portrait of Stalin behind him. Corporal Melvin screams in his sleep and is shocked awake - the nightmare ends and he is comforted by his wife (Mimi Dillard). He also mimics and parrots the same adulation for Shaw:

Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

In his New York Riverside Drive apartment, Raymond reads a letter from Corporal Melvin about his "terrible dreams" and fears of going crazy. When the phone rings, Raymond answers and the programming code that sets him off is triggered by a male voice:

Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?

Robotically and mechanically, Raymond begins dealing from a deck. When he turns up the Queen of Diamonds during the eerie card game, it unlocks or activates the key to his brainwashed mind and opens him to obey any suggestion. The phone rings with further instructions: "One week from next Saturday, you will be called for at 11:10 am and taken to the Timothy...Sanitarium, 84 East 61st Street. We want you there for a checkup."

An AP teletype report is transmitted to the office of Mr. Gaines: "WAR HERO HIT AND RUN VICTIM - RAYMOND SHAW MEDAL OF HONOR WINNER WAS TODAY..." In the Sanitarium, Communist infiltrators led by Zilkov (Albert Paulsen) have taken over a floor and set up a hospital bed with Raymond as the injured patient - a camouflage for their real purposes. The sinister, Dr. Fu Manchu-like agent Yen Lo with a long mustache, introducing himself as from the "Pavlov Institute," has also been assigned to watch Shaw - he giggles about the North American profit-making Soviet front led by Zilkov:

Profit? Fiscal year? (Tsk, tsk, tsk.) Beware, my dear Zilkov, fires of capitalism are highly infectious. Soon you'll be lending money out at interest. (He chuckles) You must try, Comrade Zilkov, to cultivate a sense of humor. There's nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burdens of the day. (To Raymond) Tell me, Raymond, do you remember murdering Mavole and Lembeck?

Yen Lo is impressed by Shaw, his programmed, unconscious agent/pawn, who was conditioned two years earlier:

Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?...A normally-conditioned American, who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now Raymond will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.

And then the North Korean brainwasher quips:

His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it's been dry-cleaned. (He chuckles)

During Raymond's 'hospitalization,' a team of Communist technical experts and specialists will test and "check the mechanism" of Shaw's brain-washing and "linkages" so that they are "functioning correctly before he's turned over to his American operators." Yen Lo leaves to "spend the afternoon at Macy's" - his wife has given him "the most appalling list."

Before turning Raymond over, a nervous Zilkov wants a flawless demonstration of their subject's readiness for their ultimate schemes of assassination - "the man has not killed for over two years...conditions offering minimum risk can be arranged." As they argue over whom he should be sent to kill, Raymond lies there as a hypnotized pawn, turning back and forth between them. Yen Lo suggests a practice target - "If kill we must for a better New York, why should it not be his superior at the newspaper, Mr. Holborn Gaines?" At four o'clock in the morning, Raymond approaches Gaines reading in an elaborate bed-jacket in his bedroom - the screen goes black as he moves menacingly toward his victim and proves his effectiveness as an assassin.

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