Political films are never an easy sell in Hollywood. Depending on the movie’s point of view, the very message of the movie is going to alienate some portion of the audience, making it difficult to for that same film to become a success. Some filmmakers make the mistake of turning their films too one-sided in their arguments and in return it diminishes the power of their movie. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a film that has something to say, political or otherwise, it still is crucial to have a strong enough story to go along with that message. That is what makes up the best of political movies in the history of cinema; engaging narratives that just so happen to also have an important statement to make. This enables the movies to reach a more broader audience, even if the film’s message differs from the audience member’s own point of view. That’s how you get right wingers who end up enjoying the movies of Oliver Stone like JFK (1991), or leftists who enjoy John Milius’ flag-waving extravaganza Red Dawn (1984). A good story can transcend politics, and that’s what is at the heart of great political films. It could be argued that every movie in the Criterion Collection is a political film in some way, given that they always drawn to movies that have deeper meanings and messages to them. But, there are some films in the Collection that are more overtly political than others. They include the social dramas of Greek director Costa-Gravas like Z (1969, Spine #491) and Missing (1982, #449), provocative documentaries like Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 (1988, #258) and D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993, #602), and even silly satirical comedies like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940, #565). But, if there are easily definable political movies within the collection, it would be political thrillers, and they’ve selected one of the best to join their catalog; John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1963, #803).
The Manchurian Candidate is a spectacularly well crafted political thriller. It’s also definitely a product of it’s time. In the post war years, between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, American politics was caught up in a frenzy of suspected Communist infiltration. With the Soviet Union quickly becoming a competitive world power with hostility towards the United States, many Americans feared that a Soviet invasion was possible, and the fear was only compounded by the rise in nuclear armament during this period. Thus, began what we know now as the Cold War. To capitalize on this fear, some in the government like Senator Joseph McCarthay began proclaiming that Communist spies were all around us, both in government and in the world of entertainment. This then led to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was set up to expose any Communists working in America. The committee was unfortunately a witch-hunt built on Cold War paranoia, and those who refused to testify before the committee or refuse to name names were sadly blacklisted in the film industry; destroying the careers of hundreds of entertainers. By the time President Kennedy took office, the HUAC hearings had been exposed as the farcical waste of time that it was and McCarthay was disgracefully censured by Congress as a result. But, even still, the damage was done and Hollywood would never be the same afterwards. Movies turned more cynical towards the image of America during this time; presenting a nation that was more fractured than united. That’s the world that The Manchurian Candidate presents. It’s a rare film in it’s genre, as it takes a critical view of the Cold War paranoia brought on by the McCarthay hearings, while at the same time indulging that paranoia and letting it play out for an intriguing political plot. It may be multifaceted, but all of this is what makes The Manchurian Candidate an enduring masterpiece today.
The film begins with a battalion of soldiers getting captured by the enemy force in the midst of the Korean War. Among them is Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). The film moves ahead to after the war, when each of the captured soldiers return home seemingly unharmed. According to the army’s reports, the soldiers owe their lives to the heroism of Raymond, although none of the existing soldiers have any clear memory of how he saved them. Raymond’s return home brings him back into the midst of his blow-hard, McCarthay-esque stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his manipulative, power-hungry mother Elanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury). They quickly try to capitalize on Raymond’s war hero status for their own gain, but Raymond shows little interest in their political ambitions. Instead, Raymond grows increasingly distant socially, retreating into a confused sense of his own identity. This is noticed by Raymond’s superior, Major Bennett, who himself is suffering from psychological episodes, something that’s affecting his relationship with his girlfriend Eugenie (Janet Leigh). After doing some detective work, Bennett uncovers a conspiratorial plot where it’s revealed that he, Raymond, and the rest of their battalion were brainwashed during their captivity by Chinese Communist psychologists. It turns out that they were conditioned to undertake an assassination plot without ever realizing it, triggered into action through Pavlovian symbols. Bennett soon realizes that Raymond is the key to the whole conspiracy and that he’s only one trigger away from committing an act that will reshape the American political landscape. It becomes even more insidious when it’s learned that the mastermind behind the entire conspiracy is none other than Raymond’s own mother, Elanor.
The Manchurian Candidate is one twisted ride of a thriller, and yet it amazingly feels grounded at the same time. I believe that it’s largely in part due to the direction of John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer got his start in television, which I’m sure help him develop a good sense of economical story-telling. The Manchurian Candidate is such a taught, finely-tuned thriller that it enables the more outlandish bits of the plot feel natural and engaging. It also perfectly captures the delirious sense of paranoia that defined that era of politics. Throughout the film, you are drawn into a world where nothing can be taken for granted, and that even those among you might be out to do you harm. This is Cold War thriller stuff to the maximum degree, but it gives us a critical eye towards our own political system. The movie brilliantly deconstructs the manipulation that takes place when opportunistic people exploit fear and paranoia to suit their own needs, just as it had during the McCarthay trials. Senator Iselin is a very thinly veiled representation of the disgraced politician, and I love the way the film shows how there is little substance behind the bluster and that his presence is merely as a sideshow to a larger problem. The film gets in it’s most pointed mockery of the McCarthay witch hunts when it’s revealed that Senator Iselin got his number of suspected Communists in the government from the label of a Heinz ketchup bottle. But the most brilliant element of the film is the way it portrays the effects of brainwashing. The most famous scene in the movie is the Garden Party, where the soldiers are presented in their conditioned state to a panel of Communist leaders. It’s a brilliantly edited scene that cuts back and forth between what the brainwashed soldiers see (a Victorian style Tea Party in a garden with friendly old women) and what is actually around them (a modern looking auditorium in Chinese Manchuria). This scene is a masterpiece of editing, cutting back and forth between the different settings, and even mixing the two at times, without ever losing the rhythm of the scene. Brainwashing may not be a clearly defined science, but this scene gives us the most vivid sense of what it might actually be like that’s ever been put on film.
The Manchurian Candidate has it’s political points to make, but it ultimately transcends it’s point of view and place within it’s era due to the strength of it’s story. And no better element makes this a memorable experience more than the performances of the actors. The performances in this film are among the best ever, and the great thing about them is that they come from some of the unlikeliest of players. Frank Sinatra, for example, shows that he’s more than just a beloved crooner in show-business; he could be a great actor as well. His performance as Major Bennett Marco probably stands as his greatest ever; even more so than his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953) . His portrayal brings a lot of moral fortitude to this every-man soldier caught in a web of political conceit. I especially love the awkwardness he sometimes brings to the character, which is characteristically unusual for a guy with the suave reputation that “Chairman of the Board” had. Laurence Harvey is also effective as the emotionally distant Raymond Shaw. The English born actor probably struggled to find the right mode to play an all-American war hero, but he manages to make it work. The psychological see-saw that he is put through is also perfectly conveyed through his performance, going between manic and emotionless in a vivid way. But the greatest performance in the movie belongs to Angela Lansbury as Elanor Iselin. I listed Elanor on my list of Top Ten Favorite Villains here, and it’s a placement that I still feel confident in. It’s one of the greatest casting against types in film history, with the normally warm and sympathetic Lansbury perfectly embodying a character of pure evil ambition. Elanor Iselin is one of the most vividly portrayed and written political monsters ever brought to the screen, and Lansbury is frightening to watch in the role. Who knew the future Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts could be this chilling a political manipulator. If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for her performance alone.
The Manchurian Candidate makes a great addition to the Criterion Collection, as it fits in with the label’s already high standards of quality cinematic works, but also helps to elevate it even more as one of Criterion’s more mainstream classics. Made by United Artists, Manchurian Candidate is a studio film, and one that has been long celebrated by both Hollywood and the general audience for decades. Given it’s reputation, the film has long been given special treatment, including top notch preservation. Criterion, who usually has it’s hands full working on detailed restorations of sometimes neglected film stock, thankfully were able to source their image from this film’s original negative, still found in the Deluxe Color Archives. From this, Criterion created a 4K scan of the negative to create a new digital master for their blu-ray release. The resulting image gives us probably the best clarity that the film has had since it’s initial release. The movie was shot in black and white, and was purposely made to look a little gritty, with documentary like graininess, so it’s not going to pop out at you like some of Criterion’s other, more flashy restorations. Even still, as far as films of it’s era go, The Manchurian Candidate looks amazing. Detail is excellent, as is the gray-scale shading, making the film feel consistent from beginning to end. Likewise, the restoration of the film’s soundtrack does a great job of preserving the film’s brilliant sound design. The echoing effect during the film’s climatic race against time is masterfully enriched by the restoration. The David Amram score is also nice and clear as well. It’s another top quality restoration by the people at Criterion and an excellent handling of such a prestigious title.
The extras on the disc are not too substantial, but each one is well worth checking out. First off is a commentary track recorded by director John Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer died back in 2002, so we sadly can’t get any new insight on the film today, but thankfully he did a lot during his last few years to speak extensively about his films, and this commentary was one such example. Recorded for the film’s DVD release in the late 90’s, Frankenheimer delivers some great insight into the film’s making, including the political climate in which this movie was made as well as touching upon the unconventional casting of actors that really had an effect on this film’s success. While Frankenheimer is no longer around to discuss the movie, Criterion still lucked out in getting to sit down with Angela Lansbury about her role. In a newly recorded interview, the now 90 year old actress gives us a very fascinating look into how she portrayed such a memorable villainess. She is proud of her performance and celebrates the legacy that this film has had in both the world of entertainment and politics. I especially found her description of what it’s like to portray someone getting shot very illuminating. Documentarian Errol Morris is also interviewed, discussing the effect this movie had on him as both a filmmaker and as an activist, and how it’s legacy has endured. There’s also a neat archival conversation between Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and Frank Sinatra. This is a neat discussion that also let’s us gain some insight from the film’s headlining star. Also included is an interview from historian Susan Carruthers, who gives some fascinating context to the Cold War paranoia of the era, as well as an examination into the history of post-war brainwashing. In particular, she acts as a nice reasonable voice debunking some of the more outlandish theories of brainwashing, which this film and those like it perpetuated during the height of the Cold War. The blu-ray edition also is beautifully packaged in a recreation of some of the Saul Bass poster art made for the film’s release. Overall, it marks another excellent set by Criterion, worthy of the collection as a whole.
I for one was really anticipating this Criterion release, since The Manchurian Candidate is among my favorite movies of all time; top 10 easily. It’s a perfectly executed thriller; never once refusing to give easy answers to it’s audience and always pulling us to the edge of our seats. I also like that it has the audacity to take no prisoners in it’s political targets; condemning political opportunists who manipulate the public with paranoia and Nationalistic furor, while at the same time showing Communist sedition as an all too real threat. And it’s the cast that really sends it over the top, with Sinatra never better and Angela Lansbury showing just how much range she really has. The movie clearly represented it’s time period (and was also sadly prophetic as the Kennedy assassination proceeded it within less than a year), but it’s messages nevertheless still resonate today. No one probably realized that American politics would turn into such a chaotic world, but as we stand here now in 2016, politics have become even crazier than what Manchurian Candidate could dream up. You have one candidate for president that’s prone to leaks of information and is regarded as a ruthless, political manipulator with little concern for who gets in her way, while the other is a bigoted, blow-hard, showboating opportunist who is revealing himself more and more to be under the influence of political outsiders from Russia. Sound familiar? Even beyond this election cycle, The Manchurian Candidate will still stand alone as a masterpiece for all time. Hollywood did try to do an update of the movie in 2004 starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, but it ultimately failed because it was unnecessary. The original is still as fresh as it ever was and will continue to be so. Regardless of your political leanings, or your interest in politics in general, The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller that will never leave you disappointed. It’s a very strong addition to Criterion’s collection, and a benchmark title among it’s broad political spectrum of movies.