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Reviews

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

John Frankenheimer

USA, 1962

Credits

Review by Matt Bailey

Posted on 02 August 2004

Source MGM DVD

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The Manchurian Candidate, a total flop in its own time, has become a prescient standard-bearer of paranoia and political intrigue. It was kept off movie screens for years by Frank Sinatra (who bought the rights to the movie in 1972) in honor of his friend, John F. Kennedy, whose assassination Sinatra felt may have been inspired by the movie. Of course, The Manchurian Candidate was not the first movie to deal with political assassination, nor does it resemble the Kennedy murder in any way other than that a rifle was involved, but we all know how people can get touchy when life seems to imitate art a little too well.

We might not think of The Manchurian Candidate as a wild satire, but the classic political paranoid fantasy film began life as a batshit-insane pulp thriller novel written by a former Disney publicist. Most of the carnivalesque atmosphere of Condon’s book was stripped away by screenwriter George Axelrod and director John Frankenheimer in their film adaptation. Scenes of Senator Iselin canoodling with an Eskimo and his wife’s heroin addiction were, perhaps wisely, left out of the script. Minor touches of outrageous send-up still exist in the film, but one has to look carefully for them. Pay close attention to the newspaper that announces the murder of two characters in the film and you will see an additional headline revealing the extensive damage caused by a hurricane — in the Midwest. Examine the interior décor of the Iselin’s house: try to count the number of ludicrous busts of Abraham Lincoln, and pay heed not to miss the lamp that is a bust of Lincoln and whose shade is a stovepipe hat.

The film version of The Manchurian Candidate still wallows in a total fantasy world, one in which a McCarthy-like senator would be a viable candidate for Vice-President instead of a career-ruining punch line. The rich potential for satire, however, is kept in check by very real fears of political assassinations, mind control, political manipulation, and other Cold War concerns. The film grounds its fantasy in just enough reality (or at least real paranoia) to give the story some dramatic heft and a whiff of tragedy. Having seen the Junior Senator from Wisconsin whip the nation up into a frenzy of Commie-hating madness just a few years before the release of the film, the red-baiting political tactics of the Iselins does not seem quite so far-fetched or funny. Having heard real tales of Communist indoctrination and attempts at mind control during the Korean War, the total brainwashing of Raymond Shaw does not seem so fantastical. While the film’s story is essentially no more than a series of convoluted machinations in service to a spectacular ending (once Mrs. Iselin gets the power she so desperately craves, what exactly is she going to do with it?), it remains compelling because politics still seem so far removed from the sphere of influence of the everyday individual as to be controlled by unseen forces. When it seems that the government is operating purely out of the interests of an elite few, is it so ludicrous to imagine that the world’s puppet strings are being pulled by a crazy old bag and her Commie brainwashers?

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