The Manchurian Candidate

A piece I wrote on The Manchurian Candidate for a web encyclopedia, and thus meant to be an introduction to a classic. It’s one of the ten best movies of 1962, a list seen here. –Robert Horton

I love Yen Lo. Perhaps you don’t recognize the name? Well, the brain can easily play tricks on a person, as Yen Lo knows better than anyone. Yen Lo is the bald, droopy-mustached, thoroughly malignant brainwasher, played by Khigh Dhiegh, in The Manchurian Candidate. He is a man of menace, but he delivers his evil with a twinkle in his eye—“Always with a little humor,” as he advises a fellow Cold Warrior. Although he is a bad, bad man, Yen Lo is the kind of killer who appears at the door and introduces himself (“Yen Lo—Pavlov Institute?”) with the engaging good cheer of a Shriner in town for a convention.

manchurian5Yen Lo’s perversity is bottomless. Just before toddling off to spend the afternoon shopping at Macy’s, he converses with a Russian agent as they stand in a room with the brainwashed American, Raymond Shaw, who represents their great experimental hope. Without taking a pause between thoughts, Yen Lo traverses the spectrum of philosophy and criminality as he turns his attention from chortling with the Russian to interrogating Shaw: “There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burden of the day. Tell me, Raymond, do you remember killing Mavole and Lembeck?” The incredible horror and fun of the character is at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate, a masterpiece of both suspense and satire.

This is a deeply, deeply twisted movie. Very few films have captured the free-fall sense of America as controlled chaos, or the political process as a facetious circus. Although it is faithful in many ways to Richard Condon’s source novel, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod added their own quick, savvy energy to the piece, and the actors are downright exuberant in their willingness to wallow in depravity. Seen many years after its initial 1962 release, it feels like an utterly modern film. Would there have been a Dr. Strangelove—that even more outrageous assault on common decency, released a year later—without it?

Condon’s story describes the fiendish plot to program a U.S. soldier for the purposes of wreaking political havoc. Brainwashed after being taken captive in the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is unaware of his mission. At key moments, he can be turned into a submissive zombie by clues dropped in his presence—a loaded phrase, or the sight of the queen of diamonds (a suggested game of solitaire is one of Raymond’s “triggers”). Yen Lo puts it this way: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it has been dry cleaned.”

Raymond moves in political circles. His mother (Angela Lansbury) is a right-wing mover and shaker, and his step-father is Senator John Yerxes Iselin. The ambitious Iselin, whose name is usually preceded by the prefix “that idiot,” is a pawn of Raymond’s mother, a woman so nightmarish, so pervasively bad, she doesn’t even have a name. These two are perhaps the most satirically poisonous politicians to come out of the cinema; they make Wag the Dog look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Every once in while a critic of the film will suggest that these people are caricatures, to which I would say: try watching real Senate hearings, and then decide which is the more unbelievable.)

Iselin, portrayed with preening unctuousness by the braying character actor James Gregory, is a wicked send-up of Senator Joseph McCarthy, right down to the variable number of communists the senator claims to have on various lists. (Gregory physically resembles another red-baiting politician, Richard Nixon.) At one point, trying to decide on exactly how many communists have infiltrated the government, Raymond’s mother glances down at the ketchup bottle Iselin is using, and settles on “57,” the number of varieties in the Heinz advertising slogan. One of the many ways this film is hip is the way it uses Madison Avenue as part of its texture. Even Yen Lo gets into the act, with his reference to a jingle for Winston cigarettes—“Tastes good,” he grins, “like a cigarette should!” (The man is au courant on pop culture, even from within Manchuria.)

The Manchurian Candidate may be a brilliant political satire, but it delivers its barbs via a gripping suspense structure. A tense prologue gives us a taste of the Korean War, and a sense that Sergeant Shaw is not especially well-liked by his fellow soldiers. Thus it is strange when, back home, we see two of Shaw’s platoon members respond in precisely the same robotic way when asked about Shaw: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Continue reading