Monday, 4 September 2017

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Kandidaten fra Manchuriet
I did not expect to be blown away by ”The Manchurian Candidate”. I really did not, but I was. I had no idea they produced something like this in 1962. Wow.

Tight pacing, brutal violence and twisted plots are stables today, but not back then, not to this extent, and that was only the beginning. I am not sure how to describe “The Manchurian Candidate”, but something like a modern action thriller that happens to be 55 years old and in black and white would probably be a good approximation.

To explain the plot is to give away the surprises, so I will try to be gentle. In fact I did not understand what went on to begin with and that, I think, is intentional. During the Korean war an American patrol is betrayed by its Korean guide and taken away in Russian helicopters. A war hero, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), returns to a grand reception, which is usurped by his mother (Angela Lansbury) and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) for political promotion. Raymond hates his mother and immediately leaves for a newspaper job in New York rather than being her trophy. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) has recurring nightmares of attending a New Jersey gardening lecture only to have the guests turn into Russian and Chinese top brass and featuring Raymond Shaw coldly killing two of his men, with Marco unable to interfere.

Where does this all lead to? I can say as much as this includes communist moles, ugly politics, insane McCarthy’ism and people who are not what they seem. Sometimes they do not even know themselves what they are.

The theme of McCarthyism is particularly interesting. In 1962 America was slowly recovering after the onslaught of McCarthyism. Blacklisted writers were slowly coming back and while the Communist scare was by no means over a somewhat more realistic outlook was taking hold and it was possible to look back on this era with a critical eye. Senator Iselin is clearly a McCarthy caricature. Ignorant and boisterous he was able to cash in on the Communist scare by claiming that the US government was infested by Communist agents. While presenting Iselin as a clown and his accusations as foolish and damaging, the center of the story is exactly Communist infiltration with dangerous agents. A very interesting contraction, but quite logical when you think about it. Would infiltrating agents really go around as party card holders, publicly announcing their stand?

Another interesting element is the sheer violence displayed. Here is a movie, fifty years before Game of Thrones, that is not afraid of killing principal characters. You sit there thinking, he is not going to kill him/her/them, no way, but he does and callously so. It is quite shocking because it is so unexpected. And that is where the gravity sinks in. This is not for children.

You cannot discuss “The Manchurian Candidate” without mentioning the excellent casting and performance of the lead actors. Sinatra is always good, nothing new there, but Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury are phenomenal. Harvey turns cold as a fish and can be both determined and dazed with conviction and Lansbury is one of the all-time meanest mother figures and pulls it off. It is a crowded field of bad mothers in Hollywood productions, but she is up there.

Still the winners are the tight pacing and the script that combine to keep the suspense level high and give the movie a uniquely sinister feel. This is a movie that managed to keep me on the edge of my seat, literally.

It is not perfect, though. As often happens some of the steam comes off towards the end as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It is as if without the mystery element the movie is reduced. Mrs. Iselin is best when we suspect, rather than when we know. The movie is rushing toward a resolution that seems too cheap considering what we were promised. There are larger mysteries here, at least potentially, that I feel cheated from. It is not enough to ruin the movie and I could throw the same accusation at half the productions coming out of Hollywood today. Still it is such a shame, this is so close.

“The Manchurian Candidate” was remade in 2004 and no surprise there. This is an exciting story begging to be reused by a Hollywood down on ideas. I have not seen that one and frankly I do not need to. The original is easily good enough. Even today.


  1. Yeah, it's a hell of a movie. Harvey is great, but it's a defining role for Angela Lansbury, who is certainly a top-10 all-time terrible cinematic mother.

    The remake isn't bad. It's a cobble to get it to have the same name, since there wasn't any hot or cold war with China when it was made. It's a lesser film, though, but not terrible. Still, it's not the must-see of the original.

    I've said before that I have a soft spot for Sinatra in serious roles. This movie and The Man with the Golden Arm are two of the biggest reasons for that.

    1. Exactly. Angela Lansbury is the stand-out here. She was just amazing. Sinatra is also good, but I was sort of expecting it.
      I may see the remake at some point, but I am in no rush. Remakes are not really my thing.

  2. I've loved this since I saw it for the first time many years ago. I envy you the opportunity to see this for the first time in the context of the years and with so many other fine movies under your belt.

    1. This is a very good streak. I am going from one great movie to another, so I think 62 must be up there with the great years.
      Eventually we will get to years where I have actually watched the movie before, but until then I am truly enjoying it.