The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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*. On the face of it, a pretty standard political thriller. Secret agents plotting an assassination. That sort of thing.
*. A little deeper: one of the weirdest movies ever made.
*. How weird is it that it disappeared for over twenty years? And I’m not sure there’s any good explanation for why. The usual story given, that after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 Sinatra (who had the rights) didn’t want it shown, has since been established as a myth. And yet it still vanished, only to be re-released theatrically in 1988. Which, by the way, is when I first saw it. I was blown away by how contemporary it seemed, even before the insanity of the war on terror.

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*. How weird is that karate fight between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva? Very weird. This is often said to be the first karate fight ever in a Hollywood film.
*. How weird is Ben Marco’s reading material? The Principles of Modern Banking, Paintings of Orozco, Modern French Theater, The Jurisprudential Factors of Mafia Administration, Diseases of Horses, Ethnic Choices of Arabs, and the novels of Joyce Cary (you can see Prisoner of Grace in the pile, and in the final scene you’ll see he’s moved on to Ulysses). What is meant by this display of eclectic erudition? I mean, Marco is introduced to us as a reader (improbably reading a book in the cab of the truck when Shaw goes into the bordello), and he says he has a friend with a bookshop in San Francisco who sends him “random” titles, but still.
*. Perhaps he’s just an early type of what would become a later figure of fun: the autodidact conspiracy nut, filling his head with obscure information while in search of meaningful patterns. From the expression on his superior’s face, it seems to be only more evidence that he’s losing it. But what’s wrong with being well read?
*. How weird is it to see Joe Adams playing the army psychiatrist? Very weird. According to the people who keep track of such things, this was one of the first times a black actor had been cast in a part in a major film where the script didn’t specifically call for a black actor.
*. How weird is it that Henry Silva (of Sicilian and Spanish descent) plays the Korean Chunjin? Sort of weird. Hollywood has always had a freestyle attitude toward ethnicity.

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*. How weird is the incestuous kiss on the mouth Mama Iselin gives her boy? Not quite as weird as the scene in Richard Condon’s book, where they actually sleep together. But it’s still pretty far out there for 1962. Not to mention hard to understand, given that the two can’t seem to stand each other.
*. How weird is it that Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son? Shouldn’t she have been his step-mom?
*. How much weirder would it have been if Lucille Ball had been cast as Eleanor Iselin, as Frank Sinatra originally wanted?

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*. How weird is it that Frank Sinatra plays an action hero who wears glasses (albeit only in one scene)? Perhaps it’s the result of all those big books Marco has been reading.
*. How weird is the speed of both Shaw’s and Marco’s whirlwind courtships? Raymond and Jocie haven’t even had a chance to get out of their costumes from the ball and they’re already hitched!

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*. How weird is Lansbury’s plot? She’s going to get back at her commie bosses by fulfilling their plans? As Ebert puts it, “She plans to have her son assassinate a presidential candidate so that her husband can become president, and she can then use his power to grind down the people who worked with her on this plan in the first place. Do not look for logic here.”
*. How weird is it that Laurence Harvey, born in Lithuania, raised in South Africa, and with an early film career spent in England, is playing the all-American boy Raymond Shaw? Where did he pick up that accent? On the DVD commentary Frankenheimer says that he thinks that “his American accent is quite good in this, but we always knew there was going to be a trace of accent.” A trace? Frankenheimer immediately adds that JFK’s accent “justified any accent that Larry Harvey had.” This makes no sense to me. Kennedy’s accent was Boston, Harvey’s accent is British and doesn’t belong to any American region.
*. How weird is it that Ben Marco uncovers the plot and then decides to just leave Shaw on his own for a while, with absolutely no surveillance, to see what happens? He says he has 1,000 men at his disposal if he needs them, but his office seems a bit understaffed.
*. How weird is it to have two actors in the same scene confronting one another, with one’s face literally dripping in sweat while the other is totally dry? There are at least three scenes like that here. It seems like a recurring continuity error.

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*. How weird is it that John Frankenheimer, not known for a strongly developed or particularly distinctive visual style, put on such a show here? The brainwashing and congressional hearing scenes are standouts, presented as single fluid, kaleidoscopic images that combine different points of view at once, in a way far ahead of their time and still remarkable today.

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*. There are a number of other flourishes as well, like the murder of Senator Jordan (that Frankenhemier confesses to be “a little bit over the top” on the commentary). Frankenheimer was only 32 when he made this movie, and never did anything as good again (though this was part of his “hot” period, and Seven Days in May and Seconds are both good movies).

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*. Most of all, how weird is Janet Leigh’s Rosie? I mean, what the hell is going on there? Most people feel that she may actually be another “control,” presumably in charge of Marco. That would actually make more sense than anything else I can think of. Alas, she’s apparently just weird.
*. I can think of few scenes in the history of film as unconsciously odd as her conversation with Sinatra outside the train’s club car. Unconsciously odd because apparently nothing at all was meant by it. It was just being quoted from the novel, “almost word for word” according to Frankenheimer.
*. Rosie: “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” Marco: “This is Delaware.” Rosie: “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid this stretch of track. But nonetheless Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.” Marco: “I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.”
*. Then, just a bit later: Marco: “Are you Arabic?” (No, silly! She already told you she’s Chinese!) Rosie: “Are you Arabic? Let me put it another way: Are you married?”
*. Frankenheimer: “Some of this dialogue is really off the wall, it’s very weird dialogue, it’s very strange dialogue.” How then to explain it? I’m guessing it’s just the result of a really clumsy job of adapting the novel into a screenplay. Novels, even highly filmable novels, are filled with stuff that won’t work on screen. Usually it gets left out. Here, for whatever reason, George Axelrod left a lot of it in.
*. So the script is weird. The casting is weird. Laurence Harvey is, in my opinion, dreadful. And yet this is still an effective and durable thriller, a trip behind the looking glass that has managed to stay strange and compelling even after all these years.

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2 thoughts on “The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

  1. Brenden

    There’s some very funny stuff in this write-up. The karate scene was so, so weird and over the top in a way that reminded me of the climax of “Bigger Than Life”. Almost as weird as Rose coasting through the film like their initial conversation never happened.

    I’ll also suggest this: How weird is it that Marco’s face is out of focus for nearly all of the pivotal scene where he removes Shaw’s conditioning, yet it still made the final cut?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Brenden!

      I seem to remember Frankenheimer on the commentary talking about Sinatra being out of focus in that scene and saying that they went with it because it was the best take they had (and I don’t think Sinatra was interested in reshooting it). It’s been suggested that his being out of focus is supposed to represent Harvey’s point of view. I don’t think that was ever the intention, but it helps to explain what is another glaring bit of weirdness. There’s no mistaking something is off in that scene.

      Reply

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