It has been more than fifty years since John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate was first released and it still has retained its relevance when it comes to the current state of politics. Adapted from Richard Condon’s novel of the same name, there was never a more perfect time for a film like The Manchurian Candidate to come out, given as it was released amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet perhaps that was a small part of why The Manchurian Candidate was so frightening of an experience, it was timed so perfectly to that degree it still feels as if it were something that could have come out only recently with the turn of current events. Or maybe it might have been something made as a warning for what was set to come.
Even with the film’s setting amidst the Cold War, so much about the story it is telling still rings true in today’s world. Army sergeant Raymond Shaw is credited as a man who has saved lives during the Korean War and in spite of his true colours, he is still awarded the Medal of Honor. He is the son of a prominent right-wing family and eventually is brainwashed into becoming an assassin amidst a Communist conspiracy. It is from the film’s handling of this brainwashing premise that ultimately makes The Manchurian Candidate feel all the more powerful today more than it ever had been back in 1962. Raymond Shaw is a figure representative of the manipulated public, led to believe the perceived, real or not, and when one looks upon the world today, the poignancy rings everywhere you look.
The Manchurian Candidate in itself is as much a thriller as it is a satire. Something that recurs all throughout the film is a sense of paranoia that recaptures fear for what happens when the opposing party ends up winning the election. Bennett Marco is a figure who is representative of the man in the middle ground, for he is trying to uncover what has been going on with Raymond Shaw’s recent actions while he is under the influence of his manipulative mother, the cold-hearted Mrs. Iselin. The Manchurian Candidate is a film that is drenched in Communist paranoia, but we have a plot hinting towards Communist ideologies that in turn works as a way of criticizing the Communist party in itself. When you look upon how Frankenheimer moves on with his critiquing of the policies for one end of the political spectrum, my admiration only rises when you see how he is actually critical of both ends.
From Frankenheimer’s open criticisms towards both ends of the spectrum, that is where The Manchurian Candidate finds itself succeeding all the more, as given the many patriotic hints laced all throughout, it is amazing to see how he is dedicated to capturing the American reality when it is under a state of panic. And in this sense, The Manchurian Candidate is only made all the more frightening of a film to think about today. When one looks upon how he portrays Raymond Shaw, one can equate it to the general population following one side and think about how a leader plays their followers like a puppet – but in Raymond’s case we have one that goes many directions and the confusion that fills himself up captures a specific feeling, it is hard enough trying to trust one side when there is always delusion set to arise either way. Now think back to where the world has gone, with blind following of one side to the point another view is ignored or dismissed without being reasonable – that is what The Manchurian Candidate had been capturing while it goes on.
So much works about The Manchurian Candidate metaphorically, but going down to the outer shell of what it is posing as is where all of its brilliance becomes even clearer than ever. Frankenheimer knows how to craft suspense that lingers for he shades The Manchurian Candidate under a paranoid light, something that transfers onto the viewers. Yet it is not until the climactic sequence where all of one’s worst fears about the final results are coming into play – had it not already been clear from how Frank Sinatra plays Bennett Marco. The Manchurian Candidate plays upon the torment which his soul has encountered over time, for as he encounters more strange things that involve Raymond Shaw, he is clearly fighting against how he is controlled. Yet could there have been a hint from his romance with Janet Leigh he is controlled too? There is a sense of superiority coming clear that makes everything about The Manchurian Candidate all the more frightening while it runs, coming to the greater effect of its taut suspense.
John Frankenheimer is not playing a simple game with The Manchurian Candidate – as under a brilliantly crafted and well-acted suspense thriller he also offers one of the most biting critiques of where the world is going today. Everything about The Manchurian Candidate still rings true in this day and age, and it is all elevated more when you look at how much outside of the critiques is just as effective today as it was back in its day. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey offer career-best performances, but if there were one that could stand out, you have Angela Lansbury as the villainous Mrs. Iselin. All of the tension racks up to what truly is none other than one of the most haunting climactic sequences that one can find in any Hollywood thriller, but with all the truth that is being told by Frankenheimer, one thought comes into my head. That thought is none other than, “Oh, hell.” Look where we have come today.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Screenplay by George Axelrod, from the novel by Richard Condon
Produced by George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer
Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury
Release Year: 1962
Running Time: 126 minutes