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From Under A Rock: The Manchurian Candidate

August 18, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
The Manchurian Candidate
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From Under A Rock: The Manchurian Candidate  


This week’s pick is something Aaron got interested in because of its use as a reference point for Bucky Barnes in the Captain America movies.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose Attack the Block. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him The Manchurian Candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate
Released: October 24th, 1962
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Written by: George Axelrod
Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco
Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw
Janet Leigh as Eugénie Rose Chaney
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin
James Gregory as Sen. John Yerkes Iselin

Aaron Hubbard: I’ve always has a fondness for movies about spies and assassins, and for cold war paranoia. This film is one of the original and best examples of those genres mixing.

Michael Ornelas: I’ve seen many things reference this movie, but never knew that it was this movie they were referencing. It’s nice to get the opportunity to see a classic, even if it is more difficult for me to get through black and white movies from so long ago.
Paranoid Political Thrillers
Aaron: We’ve discussed films that deal with cold war paranoia before, but I don’t think we’ve had a movie that is so blatant about the subject matter on this column. Films like this fascinate me because they demonstrate how eager people are to believe in conspiracy theories. While there is definitely evidence to show that Russia, Korea and the U.S. were looking into hypnosis and brainwashing, the idea of this being a legitimate fear is pretty laughable. But the idea that foreign agents were in America to make political strikes and shift our worldviews created an environment of fear and mistrust that is definitely worth exploring in books, film, etc.

Michael: And it’s a theme that has been explored time and time again, maybe even due to the success of this film, both critically and culturally. Media like The Americans, Homeland….any Tom Clancy novel…they wouldn’t do so well if there wasn’t a morbid curiosity about espionage, “the enemy living at home”, and the like. The hypnosis in this movie was interesting, to say the least. Every time we saw the dream sequence, I was on edge looking for answers. For more details. Despite being far removed from the Cold War, I still found my own paranoia getting the best of me and that’s the sign of a true classic.

Aaron: I also really enjoy the solitaire game as the brainwashing tool. It’s something that is fun to film and edit, but more substantively it’s discreet and virtually guaranteed to work, even before we find out about the fixed deck. I’ve also had a lot of fun seeing this genre’s impact on the Captain America movies, which I’ve praised many times already.
Victimhood Eschewing Accountability
Michael: I was fascinated the impact the brainwashing had on my viewing. I never saw Raymond Shaw as a bad person, and I didn’t blame him for his actions, even though he did one of the worst things committed by someone in the film by murdering his girlfriend and her father. The way it was framed made me feel sorry for him instead of mad at him, and that psychology was so interesting to me. Now brainwashing and mental illness are different things, but it spoke to me about how we view mental illness and the stigma around it. I don’t think that’s what the movie was trying to say, really, but it still made my mind go there, and any movie that makes me think gets points in my book.

Aaron: That’s an interesting place to go with it. Brainwashing is always fertile ground for fiction, making for good stories, but I think you’ve hit on a parallel I’ve never considered. I think the most direct parallel is PTSD; the brainwashing permanently affects how the victims see the world, keeps them awake at night, and nobody really knows what they are going through. For something that was more preoccupied with politics than psychology, this movie’s primary gimmick does provoke some interesting discussion of the latter.

Michael: The part that made me really go there was when Marco is telling Jocelyn that Shaw is sick. She comments about how healthy he looks and he responds “not that kind of sick.” It’s the earliest example I’ve seen of a movie referencing mental health in such a way that acknowledges it’s an illness, and not just “craziness” to be written off callously.
The Mother from Hell
Aaron: While this film has no shortage of great performances, the MVP has to be Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin. Angela is basically an icon of stage and screen, but this is probably her most noteworthy performance. As someone who grew up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Beauty and the Beast, seeing her play a controlling nag of a mother who is later revealed to be cartoonishly evil was quite a trip. But she absolutely nails the role and I think her speech to her brainwashed son is what makes the climax of the film as effective as it is.

Michael: It was like when a Bond villain lays out their plan because they think they have him trapped and won’t ever escape. I loathed her character (as I was supposed to). What sort of mother would give up her own son to a foreign government just to advance the political career of her husband (and her standing, by association)? It’s despicable and painted her to be the villain this movie truly needed, as there was no one else on American soil to truly despise for everything that was happening to Shaw. Her ultimate demise was satisfying, not because she died, but because Shaw was able to break free of his “programming”, so to speak. The events that followed quickly robbed me of my satisfaction as I was bummed that Shaw felt he needed to end his own life right then and there too.

Aaron: I think it also adds a layer of subtext to films about how to deal with this sort of paranoia. A lot of people have parents with strong political opinions that their children end up disagreeing with. While obviously this is an extreme example, I think the relationship before that final plot turn is easy to relate to.

Michael: I have a hard time getting through old movies, and this one was no exception. The pacing was very slow and while it had moments here and there that engaged me, it wasn’t until the third act that I was truly invested. It’s a flaw of mine as a viewer, and while I thought it came together in such a gripping way, the journey didn’t grab me enough to give this classic top marks. Still, it was full of excellent performances and on the whole, I’d still call it excellent.


Aaron: I really enjoy this film for several reasons. The basic plot is great, the early brainwashing scenes are fascinating and well edited, there’s strong performances and compelling character bits, a surprisingly gritty fight scene, and a killer ending. But I do think it struggles in the middle with the romance plot, even if it has a great payoff.


Michael: Is the Denzel remake supposed to be any good?

Aaron: I’ve heard very little about it one way or the other, but I’m sure he’s good in it.

Is the remake worth seeing?

Next week:

Michael: Next week we get to jump back into martial arts, a genre that I’ve been picking more and more frequently (there’s at least one more on my list before the year is over, too). We’ll watch Jackie Chan in the 1970s doing what he does best: kung-fu with a twinge of comedy in it. It’s The Drunken Master!
Drunken Master
Aaron: This is one I’m kind of ashamed that I haven’t seen yet. I want to get into this whole series of films.

Michael: It’s a fun time.

What’s your favorite Jackie Chan movie?

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The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The Manchurian Candidate is a seminal political thriller and probably the greatest brainwashing movie ever made. Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and especially Angela Lansbury give great performances, and the story holds up as a great narrative with a spectacular