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.”

Even more shivers are produced by the brainwashing sequences, which are recalled in the nightmares of the soldiers as a genteel lecture on gardening. Frankenheimer’s camera does a 360-degree swivel as it looks around the room, which seamlessly mutates from a warm hotel lobby to a stark lecture hall, its southern belles changed to Russian and Chinese fellow travelers. The large, airy room has become a human psyche, shifting and sliding from one reality to the next without a cut. It’s a fall-down bravura sequence, an early indicator of the film’s technological dazzle.

One of the soldiers having nightmares is Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who becomes the sole person who can stop Shaw’s deadly mission. If, that is, he doesn’t have a nervous breakdown first. Sinatra, whose production company financed the film, gives one of his rawest performances as the depressed Marco. His scene on a train, at the moment he first meets Eugenie Rose (Janet Leigh), is perhaps the most naked Sinatra ever appeared on screen—despondent, exhausted, covered in flop sweat. That scene, by the way, is one of the most eccentric exchanges in American cinema, taken almost intact from Condon’s novel.

manchurian3Roger Ebert has made the intriguing suggestion that this scene is an indicator that perhaps Leigh’s character is part of the vast conspiracy underlying the film—and indeed, the sometimes nonsensical dialogue here sounds like it could be a series of code phrases. You don’t have to buy Ebert’s theory completely to have fun with the notion. This is a film of paranoia and complex double-crossing, and it contains its share of unexplained mysteries, out of which any conspiracy theorist worth his salt could build something suspicious. (Why, for instance, are there so many references to Chinese things, even by people who aren’t part of the conspiracy? Why a repeated image of a strong blond woman tending the wounds of the men—Raymond’s mother, Eugenie, and Raymond’s long-lost girlfriend, seen in flashback?)

Sinatra produced the film with the help of that unofficial Rat Packer, President John F. Kennedy. The story goes that the project was stalled because of its controversial nature when Sinatra talked to Kennedy himself, and the coammander-in-chief let United Artists president Arthur Krim know that he had enjoyed the novel and thought a film version would be a splendid idea. Sinatra had his pick of which role to play, and wisely opted for Marco, the human center of the picture. Sinatra had played a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly, an interesting 1954 film, in which the young actor’s angular features and raspy nastiness were just right for the role. Heavier and older by the time of Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra presents a drawn, wiped-out character, his face creased by booze and worry.

So Laurence Harvey got the role of Raymond. It’s one of the film’s running jokes that nobody loves Raymond, and Harvey fits the chilly, snooty role to the last degree. Harvey had become an international star on the strength of Room at the Top three years earlier, and he specialized in cads and empty-eyed careerists. His snotty demeanor fits Raymond, who hates Christmas, doesn’t keep personal letters, and is amazed at the one joke he manages to make (a pun on “Gaucho Marx”—even the throwaway bits are tainted with communist suggestions). Yet Harvey is such a good actor he finally makes Raymond a haunting figure—a walking game of solitaire.

Anyone who knows Angela Lansbury only as a cuddly TV detective will be duly horrified by her manipulative mom, a pit bull with her fangs buried in the flesh of her son. Lansbury received one of the two Oscar nominations for the film; the other went to editor Ferris Webster (the film does have a striking editing style, one that assumes the audience is accustomed to the quick flicks of the television set). Aside from Frankenheimer’s endlessly inventive direction, one richly-deserved nomination that didn’t happen was for David Amram’s unusual, very modern music score. (Amram, a celebrated composer in the years since then, has had only a furtive career in movies; prior to The Manchurian Candidate, he not only scored the Beat classic Pull My Daisy, but also appeared as one of the clowning beatniks in it.) Candidate’s chances for other nominations were probably doomed in a year that frowned on modernity—nominees for best picture of 1962 included The Longest Day, The Music Man, and the gas-bag remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.

The conspiracies of The Manchurian Candidate run so deep that they seem to spill out beyond the boundaries of the film itself. The film has a strange history, beginning with the similarities between the assassination in the movie and the shooting of President Kennedy a year after the film’s release. It has been a matter of debate whether this is the reason the film was pulled from general release for many years, to be re-released with great fanfare in 1987. The scarcity of The Manchurian Candidate all those years only added to its mystique, and its return from seclusion resulted in critical acclaim and tidy profit. Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake worked an intriguing visual/aural approach to the material, but failed to catch fire in updating the plot for an even more dismal political era.

Throughout its running time, The Manchurian Candidate emphasizes the idea that there is something deeply unclean going on beneath the public view of things; the movie is a string of “official stories,” covering up the truth: Raymond’s bogus Medal of Honor, the list of nonexistent communists, the teletype with word of Raymond’s false injury, newspaper headlines, TV stories, and the final, bitter cover-up of the last scene. All of public life is something stage-managed. Nothing in the decades since the release of the film has changed this ominous lesson, except to intensify it under the barrage of new media and the attendant spin doctors. Somewhere in Manchuria, Yen Lo is chuckling.

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