Synopsis: When a platoon of Korean War G.I.s is captured, they somehow end up at a ladies’ garden club party. Or do they? Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can’t remember. As he searches for the answer, he discovers threads of a diabolical plot orchestrated by the utterly ruthless Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and involving her war hero son (Laurence Harvey), her senator husband (James Gregory) and a secret cabal of enemy leaders.
eyelights: Angela Lansbury. Frank Sinatra. its devilishly twisted political tale.
eyesores: Laurence Harvey. its plot lapses.
“Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul. “
With the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, all sorts of strange conspiracy theories surfaced, one of which was that a major candidate was planted by the opposing party to help its chances and/or he was even an ally with the country’s greatest foe. It’s the kind of thing that, though technically possible, is probably a bit far-fetched.
I mean, it sounds like something taken right out of a movie, right?
Well, pretty darned close.
The concept of a planted political figure is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably as old as politics themselves; in their quest for power, people will do all sorts of things to get the upper hand on their rivals. But ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, the 1962 film based on the Richard Condon novel, takes that to a then-new level of paranoia.
It begins in 1952, during the Korean War, and it involves the double-crossing and kidnapping of a U.S. platoon by Chinese and Soviet agents. During their three-day ordeal, they are subjected to intense brainwashing, transforming them into sleeper agents. Then, all but two of them return back home triumphant.
Set ten years later, the rest of the story primarily follows former Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw and his former platoon commander, Captain Bennett Marco, as they struggle with nightmares and try to sort out what’s plaguing them. It’s during Marco’s investigation that he discovers connections between all of the remaining crew.
Meanwhile, Shaw’s mother, an ambitious political player, is working to get his stepfather, Senator John Yerkes Iselin, on the Vice Presidential ticket for the upcoming Presidential election. Though his mother is pushing a vitriolic anti-Communist agenda, Shaw eventually discovers that the Senator’s campaign is buried in conspiracy.
And he’s unknowingly a part of it.
Honestly, though it’s a bit dated at this point, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is still a pretty wicked film. It’s got a gripping intrigue, a few twists that leave you white-knuckled, and it’s supported by a fine cast, most notably Angela Lansbury as Shaw’s mother – a turn that landed her an Academy Award nomination as well as a Golden Globe.
The picture itself has been included in the National Congressional Archive, and for good reason. Though it was politically sensitive at the time, especially in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, it resonates in a way that few political thrillers do because it boldly suggests that our democracies are more fragile than we like to suppose.
It’s hard not to see the central conceit of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ as a possibility (if not a probability), especially at this juncture, in an age when elections can be hijacked remotely from around the globe, disinformation is so rampant that you can’t easily tell fact from fiction anymore and the whitest knights are covered in mud.
That’s the strength of the picture: its ability to tap not just in one’s paranoid imagination but to anchor itself in reality just enough that it all seems plausible. Don’t believe what you see, it tells you, the truth is not what it seems; it’s a veil masking the shadows beyond it. The picture is food of the gods for conspiracy theorists everywhere.
It’s so potent that it also unintentionally plants other suggestions in the audience’s mind – case-in-point, the scene where Marco and Rosie meet on the train, which finds them bantering such nonsense that any keener will decrypt coded spy jabber. That it was never actually implied in the book or film doesn’t deter one from this assumption.
Was this merely sloppy storytelling? It’s hard to say, though there are loose ends throughout:
- How could it take only three days for the Sino-Soviet co-conspirators to brainwash the whole platoon – and that’s including airlifting them to and from the battlefield, …etc.?
- On the night that Shaw is to meet Jocelyn again, she coincidentally arrives at the ball dressed in Queen of Diamond costume – just as his brainwashing has been triggered again.
- How is it that no one saw Shaw kill the Senator? He didn’t even disguise himself and walked right in the front door! Was it so late that there was no one in the streets, not even a taxi?
- What was the point of Shaw turning on the light at the rally, other than calling attention to himself? He’d obviously work better in the dark, so this didn’t make any practical sense.
- How could Shaw kill his stepdad and mom if he’d been so solidly brainwashed that he “may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature, whatever that may be”?
Still, despite its mild carelessness, there is a small amount of craft involved in the picture. The perfect example lies in the brainwashing scene, which is a composite of two scenes edited together, alternating between the actual event and what they’re seeing in their minds. Though this was conceived in a spur of the moment, it’s fairly clever.
It’s hardly surprising that it’s considered one of director John Frankenheimer’s finest works.
While ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a product of its time and may seem simplistic by today’s terms, it remains a thought-provoking and jarring look at the pursuit of power. Benefiting from some jaw-dropping twists and a blistering performance by Angela Lansbury, it’s a must-see for anyone who doesn’t take political masks at face value.
And, in 2016, that’s more crucial than ever.
Date of viewing: October 15, 2016