Cinematic Century

1962 – The Manchurian Candidate

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Looking ahead at the coming years of the Cinematic Century project I’m both pleased and stressed out to see that I have some incredibly difficult decisions in my future. Yeah, there’ll be a couple of years with really clear-cut winners, but it seems like I’m entering a real storm of incredibly solid films, setting up a whole score of hard battles between some of the best films of all time. And, in theory, I think that today’s year, 1962, should be one of those years. Because there are a handful of incredibly popular and beloved films that came out this year. But, while I really like most of these films, there was a clear winner to me as my favorite film. The biggest contender has to come from Lawrence of Arabia, one of the titans of cinema, and a film that frequently gets tossed up as one of the greatest films of all time. And, it’s hard to argue with that. It’s just not a film I’d call one of my favorites. It’s an excellent film, but it’s punishing length can often make it feel a bit like homework, something I appreciate wholeheartedly without really loving. Likewise, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita falls into almost the exact same category. There’s a lot to appreciate about it, especially the insane hubris of adapting that novel at a time when the Hayes Code was freshly dead, but the film has never really worked for me. It brings the absurdity of the novel to it’s most ridiculous extreme, but I think that the last remnants of the Hayes Code were enough to keep that film from being what Kubrick really wanted it to, holding it back. And, carrying on this trend we have To Kill a Mockingbird, a film that’s certainly high quality, but one that I’ve never really found my self enjoying. The biggest rival for my favorite film of the year is probably a non-surprising choice, the very first James Bond film, Dr. No. I did spend an entire month of my life last year talking about the Bond movies and my undying love for them, and Dr. No is a pretty great entry into that franchise. But, things got better, and the growing pains that Dr. No feature keep it from taking the spotlight from what is undoubtedly my favorite film of 1962, the paranoid conspiracy thriller the Manchurian Candidate. 

This film, like so many of the movies that I talk about during this project, was based on a very influential novel. Richard Condon’s novel, despite later claims of plagiarism, was a very popular novel, with extremely topical subject matter that seemed to have its finger on the pulse of American politics. So, naturally, it was only a matter of time before the film got adapted. And, for reasons I couldn’t quite find, it seems like the film’s biggest champion, and the real reason that it was brought to life, was Frank Sinatra. The famous singer had been involved in quite a few movies at this point, predominately musicals, but he seemed deadset on bringing the Manchurian Candidate to the silver screen, earning himself a staggering amount of the film’s budget in the process. He seemed incredibly involved in just about every process of the film, even some casting decisions, while getting perhaps the best role in the entire film as well. And, as we know, these sorts of passion projects can often fall on their faces. But, the Manchurian Candidate broke free of that curse, ended up being a massive success. It was released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crises, hot off the heels of the McCarthy Red Scare, and everything about it seemed as topical as could be. The film was very well-received, and has only gone up in esteem, reminding us that political conspiracies and fear-mongering are evergreen topics in America.

 

 

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The film’s story begins in the midst of the Korean War when a small platoon of American troops are attacked by some Korean forces. We aren’t shown what happened, but things went bad for the Americans, and several days later all but two of the soldiers were rescued, all apparently thanks to Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, the most unlikeable member of the platoon. And, for his bravery Shaw is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, thanks in part to the recommendation of his commander, Captain Ben Marco. Shaw feels undeserving of the award, and his stature is immediately used by his scheming mother Eleanor and her power-hungry second husband Senator Iselin. Shaw resents his mother and step-father, and does his best to separate himself from them, going to work at a newspaper that frequently attacks Iselin. And, for several years it seems like things have reached a sort of status quo. Marco and the other surviving members of the platoon have no real memory of what happened in Korea, but they all seem to be wracked with the same nightmares. They’re in a room full of old women discussing flowers, and things slowly start to point to the idea that they’re being hypnotized by enemies, culminating in the hypnotists forcing Shaw himself to kill the two soldiers who died.

Marco is unable to convince anyone that the strange dreams he’s having point to the fact that the Soviets did something shady to the platoon, and is eventually moved from his position in Army Intelligence to a safer position working with Senators. And this position puts him in contact with Senator Iselin, who has begun a shocking career as a Joe McCarthy-esque political figure, routinely railing against the evils of Communism while claiming to have iron-clad proof that a large, but ever-changing, number of Communists are working in the American government. But, this doesn’t really affect Marco at first, instead he begins trying to find ways to convince his superiors that something suspicious happened in Korea, all while exhibiting some signs of PTSD. He eventually makes a small breakthrough though when a fellow member of the platoon reaches out with stories of the same dream, and both he and Marco are able to correctly identify some high-ranking Communist officials from the dream. So, Marco starts spending more and more time with Shaw, who we quickly realize has undergone severe hypnosis from a Chinese scientist. Shaw responds to the presence of a Queen of Diamonds while playing Solitaire, and will immediately do whatever task is presented to him following the view of the card, including the murder of those around him. And Marco eventually is able to discover this, and starts trying to help Shaw break his programming.

Things reach a real fever-pitch though when Mrs. Iselin starts planning for her husband to get nominated as the vice president. His greatest political rival is the father of Shaw’s lost-love, and Mrs. Iselin starts plotting to get them back together in order to earn favor with her father. This backfires though, and Mrs. Iselin reveals herself to be a prominent figure behind Raymond’s hypnotism, ordering him to kill both his love and her father, giving Senator Iselin no road-blocks to the vice presidency. However, after the murder of the love of his life, Shaw starts to agree with Marco that something is wrong with his mind, and the two work together to discover the power of the Queen of Diamonds, helping Raymond remove his hypnotism. But, in order to find out what his mother is planning, he continues to pretend like nothing is happening, until he gets his final orders. Mrs. Iselin wants Shaw to assassinate the man who receives the nomination of their party’s president, right after Iselin is listed as the vice president. She thinks that that will then usher Iselin into both the nomination and then the office, letting the two of them take over the country and ramp up military spending in the country, in a concerted effort with the Communist governments to create a false Cold War to earn them perpetual power. But, Raymond isn’t hypnotized at this point, and learns the whole plan. Marco then plans to take care of everything, arresting both Iselin’s and ending the conspiracy, until the day of the convention arrives. Because Shaw has decided he needs personal revenge against the people who ruined his life, and ends up assassinating both Iselin and his mother. Marco attempts to stop Shaw after the assassination, and stands by as Shaw commits suicide, bringing the whole conspiracy to a close.

 

 

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The Manchurian Candidate is an incredibly heavy movie. I’m frankly stunned that it was released in the 1960’s, because at times it feels like it would be too explosive and inflammatory to gain real traction in the modern day, let alone so quickly after the actual Red Scare. I continue to be baffled at why exactly Frank Sinatra was so heavily involved in the making of this film, but I will say that, without a doubt, this is his finest performance. He was able to carry the film, something that should have been a challenge for even storied actors let alone musicians, and he brings Marco to life in a fascinating way, full of flaws, PTSD, and all manner of other ticks that we usually like to ignore from out heroic soldiers. Likewise, it’s kind of hard to believe how menacing and frightening Angela Lansbury is as Mrs. Iselin, especially considering her future acting output. But she’s legitimately one of the most diabolical and fascinating villains in cinema history, giving us a wonderfully twisted and ludicrous plot that is expertly handled by director John Frankenheimer. He’s able to give create a film that grabs a hold of the viewer, bringing them on a frankly absurd journey and doing it in way that you never really question anything you’re seeing.

Because America in 1962 was a very strange place. The film was actually released fairly shortly before the assassination of John F Kennedy, which has led to some seemingly false rumors that the film was pulled from distribution due to the shocking subject matter. It was made around the time of the Cuban Missile Crises. The world genuinely seemed to be at the brink of destruction. The Cold War was in full swing, and things were probably at their most dire they’d ever been. And, at least for me, this is the earliest film I’ve ever seen that tackles the bizarre horror of the Cold War. I’m sure there were other movies that looked at this unique conflict before this film, but the Manchurian Candidate examines it in a way that I still find utterly fascinating. Because it was a confounding time, full of double-crosses, spy-craft, and conspiracy theories. The Americans and the Soviets were engaged in a massive game of chicken, lying to each other and trying all manner of insane and tangential strategies to defeat the other, giving rise to any number of weird ideas. We had real life experiments like MKUltra going on, giving birth to literal generations of conspiracy theories. And this film seemed to tap into the ethos in a brilliant way. The film examines a lot of things wonderfully, especially the idea of Post Traumatic Stress on soldiers, but the way that it portrays conspiracies remains its most timeless factor. It shows a crazy scenario, and plays it out to its most dramatic extreme, creating a story that seems too absurd to actually happen. But, it probably wasn’t too far off from reality. I’m sure there were attempts at making hypnotic assassins, I’m sure these sorts of coups were at least brain-stormed, and I’m sure the public would be swept up in the chaos. We’re shown an analogue to the real-life horrors of the McCarthy-era of Congress, and given an example of how easily that could have gone down an even darker path, reminding us that anything is possible. So, this isn’t exactly the most relaxing film to watch during the current nightmare that is geopolitics, but it remains depressingly and shockingly relevant.

 

The Manchurian Candidate was written by George Axelrod, directed by John Frankenheimer, and released by United Artists, 1962.

 

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