The Manchurian Candidate (1962) remembered…starring SINATRA

manchur1This Frank Sinatra film has been honored by the AFI as one of the greatest films ever produced and it is a classic, Cold War suspense thriller.  This is a period piece quite grounded in the Korean War conflict and the communist ferver of the time.  As the movie begins, we spend time with Raymond Shaw, the main character, who becomes a patsy, the victim of some communist brainwashing.  This is a black and white movie, that is, good versus evil, with little line in between.  We as an audience are supposed to dislike the Communist villains and the evil politicians who are in on the attempt to capture the White House.

manchur2The best parts of this film are at the beginning where the flashbacks or dream-sequences show the brainwashing of Raymond’s captured army group.  The men are conditioned to view the brainwashing as a Women’s Flower Club and the audience is allowed to watch the Communists condition the captured men.  Frank Sinatra’s character remembers this in his nightmares.  Sinatra actually puts on a good performance in the movie and his acting is only rivaled by Angela Lansbury.  The 1960s were a great time for Frank Sinatra.  He also starred in the original Ocean’s 11 and sang some of the most memorable tunes to date, such as the classic song, “My Way”.  The only other thing I know Angela Lansbury from is Murder She Wrote, where she starred as a loveable detective.  Here she is a heartless witch!  The first time I saw this movie I couldn’t believe it.  I gained a new respect for the range and the career of Lansbury.

As the film continues, we can see Raymond and his army pals struggling against their conditioned state.  This film has some themes and a tone similar to other thrillers, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) by Hitchcock.  It has conspiracy elements like in All The President’s Men (1976), but the mystery or “conspiracy”, if you will, in The Manchurian Candidate is not kept a secret for the audience to interpret or unravel for itself.  This is perhaps something different.  No, all the secrets are given up front and it is the characters who have to cope with the traumas of being used by the evil communists.  Each of the characters reacts differently.  

manchur3I really enjoy the story and the dialogue in this movie.  I can see people talking in real life like they do in this movie, but it has a sort of formal dramatization that makes it more theatrical than other movies.  It is quite serious and I can’t remember one joke in the movie whatsoever.  There is a sense of satire and cleverness about it though, especially the silly way the politics is portrayed.  I think the satire is why it is still remembered today.  Of course, the political satire is done on purpose, to show just how ridiculous the Communist witch-hunt was.  I can’t think of any real conspiracy, political thriller I like more than The Manchurian Candidate, except perhaps All the President’s Men, 

Most of the characters are believable and well-acted, even Janet Leigh’s performance is passable.  Roger Ebert has gone on record as stating that Janet Leigh’s character was participating in the conspiracy as a possible Communist, but I don’t think that is the intention.  I can see the reason for this though, given that she is a distraction for Sinatra’s character for most of the film.  Despite his mounting troubles, Sinatra’s character becomes more frustrated and anxious throughout the entire rest of the film.  It just builds and builds until he is desperate to stop what is going on.

manchur4Later, there is a great scene between Marco and Raymond where Marco finally unravels just what is going on and how it affects Raymond.  As Marco talks to Raymond, there is a close-up on Raymond and you can see the anxiety on his face.  He looks tired and worn out, like he’s been trodden over by everyone in the film, even his own mother.  This is a great scene and the two actors play it perfectly.

The finale of the film is not original, for a suspenseful Presidental campaign scene like in this movie can be seen in other films.  I’m not sure if The Manchurian Candidate started this type of scene or climax, but it is still well done.  During the scene, Marco races to try to stop Raymond from firing a deadly shot from a balcony lookout.  I have read that there was some issue coming up with a way for Marco to spot and find Raymond’s hiding place.  Sources I’ve read say the movie-makers copied ideas from another film, but I’m not sure if this is true.  Marco simply spots the lighted cove where Raymond is hiding and runs up there.   This discovery seems rather ordinary, but I guess it works.

All in all, The Manchurian Candidate is a great film.  The whole last act is hugely suspenseful and you can feel Marco’s anxiety as he tries desperately to help Raymond.  Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t translate well today because it is seriously grounded in its own time, in the Communist era and the Korean conflict.  I didn’t see the remake, but I hear it was pretty well-received.  A lot of the facts and the setting were changed though, which I’m not sure works since the Communist elements are core to the film.  I still enjoy the original.  At its best, it is an important influence on today’s thrillers and at its least, it gives us a heroic Frank Sinatra to root for.

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