44 Days of Paranoia #40: The Manchurian Candidate (dir by John Frankenheimer)

With only five entries left in the 44 Days of Paranoia, now seems like the perfect time to look at one of the best conspiracy films ever made.  First released in 1962, this film is not only one of the most influential thrillers ever made but it’s also a fiercely sardonic political satire that remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.  It was also remade in 2004 and, while we’ll get to the remake, today we’re focusing on the original.

I’m speaking, of course, of the John Frankenheimer-directed classic, The Manchurian Candidate.

The Manchurian Candidate tells the story of Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey).  The son of the wealthy and ambitious Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and the stepson of the moronic Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), Raymond is also a decorated war hero who has been credited with saving an entire platoon during the Korean War.  When asked about Shaw, all of the members of the platoon respond with: “”Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

Of course, that’s not true.  It only takes a few minutes of screen time for the audience to realize that Raymond Shaw is none of those things.  Instead, he’s a rather depressed loner who is full of resentment towards his mother and his stepfather.  Shaw is so socially awkward that even he is shocked when he manages to successfully tell a joke.  (“I just told a joke, didn’t I?” Shaw says in amazement.)

While Shaw pursues a career as a journalist, the fellow members of his platoon — including Maj. Marco (Frank Sinatra) — start to have disturbing nightmares, in which they find themselves observing a genteel garden show, during which Raymond is ordered to strangle one soldier and shoot another one in the head.  Marco comes to suspect that the platoon may have been captured and brainwashed with communists.  With the backing of Army Intelligence, Marco starts to investigate.

Meanwhile, Sen. Iselin has come to national prominence by claiming to have information about a communist conspiracy deep within the U.S. government.  As becomes obvious in some of the film’s best scenes, Iselin is less concerned with fighting communists and more focused on keeping Raymond’s mother happy.  Eleanor has decided that her husband is going to be the next President and her brainwashed son is going to help make it happen.

I think sometimes we tend to assume that, up until 1967, all movies were safe and predictable.  The Manchurian Candidate, however, proves that is simply not true.  In fact, with its cynical view of politics and its cast of fragile and damaged characters, The Manchurian Candidate is one of the most subversive films ever made.  Rejecting the boring partisanship that typifies most politically themed films, The Manchurian Candidate presents us with a world where both the left and the right are equally corrupt and ultimately equally meaningless.  It’s a political satire that transcends ideology and that’s certainly something of which America could use more.

It’s also an amazingly entertaining film.  George Axelrod’s screenplay is full of wonderfully snarky moments while John Frankenheimer’s directs with an appreciation for both absurdity and melodrama.  Angela Lansbury is both hilarious and chilling as one of the worst maternal figures to ever appear in the movies and she more than deserved the Oscar nomination that she received for this film.  However, the entire film is brilliantly acted.  Laurence Harvey is both sympathetic and off-putting as Raymond while Frank Sinatra (who previously appeared in another entry of the 44 Days of Paranoia, Suddenly) brings a wonderful blue-collar humanity to the role of Marco.  Janet Leigh has a small role as Marco’s lover and the scene where they first meet on a train and have a charmingly nonsensical conversation is wonderfully odd and romantic.  Finally, James Gregory gives a hilarious performance as the type of stupid but bombastic politician who will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched C-Span.

If you’ve never seen the original Manchurian Candidate, drop everything you’re doing and go watch it now.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal
  38. Z
  39. The Fury