Movies & TV / Columns

Taken For Granted – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

March 29, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

After some consideration, I’ve decided that my readers are right and the name doesn’t suit what I’m going for. Marketing never has been my strong suit, so I’m leaving the floor open. Anyone with a suggestion, feel free to pitch. I should be able to sort out a new one pretty quickly.

For the new readers; welcome to the soon to be renamed Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Manchurian Candidate

Wide Release Date: October 24, 1962
Directed By: John Frankenheimer
Written By: George Axelrod
Produced By: George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer
Cinematography By: Lionel Lindon
Edited By: Ferris Webster
Music By: David Amram
Distributed By: United Artists
Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco
Laurence Harvey as Sgt. Raymond Shaw
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin
Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney
James Gregory as Sen. John Yerkes Iselin
Leslie Parrish as Jocelyn Jordan

What Do We All Know?

Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate is typical of his work. Both a psychological thriller and a political satire, it targets the greed and ambition of politicians while immersing itself in Cold War paranoia. The film adaptation, produced by writer John Axelrod and director John Frankenheimer, was released in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the eleventh highest grossing film of 1962, it’s become regarded as a classic and perhaps the definitive political thriller.

The film revolves around the brainwashing of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who becomes an unwitting Communist assassin. Triggered by the sight of the Queen of Diamonds playing card, Shaw will follow the next order or suggestion given to him without fail or memory. Meanwhile, fellow brainwashed soldier Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) doesn’t trust his own memories and tries to solve the mystery of a string of political killings by Shaw.

What Went Right?

The Manchurian Candidate is an outstanding thriller with twists, turns and big ideas. As such, it’s hard to talk about the movie in any meaningful capacity without getting into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend checking it out before reading this column. Actually, I recommend it anyway, as it’s one of my favorite movies. Make sure it’s the 1962 version though. The 2004 one isn’t awful, but it’s not the original.

With that out of the way, what makes this film work is not just the concept of a brainwashed killer. Raymond Shaw is an excellent character, someone who is introduced as unsociable soldier during the Korean War. After the cold open, we learn that he has been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for an act of heroism… that never really happened. The men that vouch for him can’t seem to help singing his praises in public, but they have nagging sense that Shaw was a man they hated.

But along with Bennett Marco, we learn that Shaw is keenly aware that he is unlovable, and we learn about his controlling mother and his ill-fated romance with Jocelyn Jordan. His mother (Angela Lansbury in a Golden Globe-winning role) is the wife of Sen. Iselin, and has aspirations on the Presidency, using her son as a weapon to eliminate political enemies. This includes Shaw’s soon to be father in law, a rival senator, and most tragically, Jocelyn. The psychological torture of Shaw makes him a deeply sympathetic character, and his mother one of the most despicable villains in history.

The story of The Manchurian Candidate does not take it easy on its audience. It requires you to pay attention, but its superb editing makes sure things are coherent. There’s a vibrancy to the script that makes it compelling viewing, and it has aged incredibly well. It also ends on an extreme high note, with a tensely edited sequence that will have you clenching your fists until the very end. Add in great performances all around, and there’s very little to complain about.

What Went Wrong?

I don’t know if there’s anything extremely wrong with The Manchurian Candidate, which is why it’s near the top of my personal favorite lists. I imagine the casting of Sicilian-Spanish American Henry Silva as the North Korean character Chunjin would raise some eyebrows today, but I’m not going to hold it against the film. I also suppose one’s political leanings could adversely affect some of the enjoyment of the movie. But even if you don’t want to consider the paranoia of corrupt politicians, it’s a thrilling story that entertains on its own merit.

What Went Really Right?

The Manchurian Candidate is a nearly perfect movie in my estimation. It has a brilliant premise and mines every ounce of drama it can from it. The film has become synonymous with brainwashing plots and with political thrillers. Over fifty years later, the film still feels fresh and relevant, even prescient. Some of that comes from the political climate, but it doesn’t hurt that it’s a major influence on one of the biggest franchises in the industry. Tony Stark may have referenced the movie outright in Civil War, but Bucky Barnes is essentially a walking Manchurian Candidate callback. If you enjoy the Captain America movies, I have a feeling you will love this movie.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Taxi Driver
The Matrix
Batman (1989)
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, we reviewed both seasons of the amazing show Rick and Morty. This week, it’s a totally different sort of science fiction when we tackle Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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