Knowing nothing about it but that it's a ‘political thriller’, I chose The Manchurian Candidate to be my 4th of July week movie. What a topical, surprising, and undeniably American choice! For those like me who didn't know, The Manchurian Candidate begins with the capture and brainwashing of a platoon of American soldiers in the Korean War. The men are returned to America believing that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw busted them out of capture. In reality, Shaw was the primarily brainwashing victim and now that he’s returned, he begins conducting a series of political murders at the subconscious prompting of the Soviets and a treasonous American operative. Major Bennett Marco (also a member of the captured platoon) begins piecing together what happened to them and works tirelessly to foil the Soviet plot before a major political assassination can occur.
The film has its strengths and its weaknesses. I enjoyed Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw, Angela Lansbury absolutely rocked it as Mrs. Iselin, and Frank Sinatra played a dazed drunk just too well. My favorite feature was the excellent and inventive camerawork. Shots like a rotating hypnosis-demonstration transition, the use of monitors to display action in static press conference scenes, less-comfortable, askew angles, and documentary-styled convention shots provided an enduring flair to this otherwise aging film. On the other hand, sloppy coincidences, Janet Leigh’s confusing character Rosie, and an over-seasoned helping of ‘60s racism/sexism detracted from my full enjoyment of the flick.
I think what I found the most fascinating about the film is how its flexible central theme has allowed the film to endure as a relevant story. When the film came out in 1962, it reflected the fear of communism, witch hunting, and technological anxiety of the time. But by the end of 1963, audiences were apparently less focused on the brainwashing-element and more on its depiction of assassination. Certainly, the film parallels JFK’s murder, the first of many American assassinations in the ‘60s. But watching from today, I was awestruck by how adaptable the film was as a metaphor for what’s going on right now—at a base level, the film is about Russian indoctrination to influence a presidential election. Heh.
For that reason, the film exists in a gap between an aging relic of the Cold War and a relevant thriller for the modern age. I am curious how well the 2004 remake of this film adapted the premise and I may give it a watch. But if you're reaching for an early-'60s political commentary film, I'd stick with Dr. Strangelove.