Skip to content

John Frankenheimer Blogathon-The Manchurian Candidate

February 19, 2015
(This post is being published by me for the John Frankenheimer Blogathon, one of his best movies to date. One classic piece of movie making with a tight narration, some great writing and an outstanding performance by Angela Lansbury as the domineering mother).
Spoiler Alert:  Some crucial scenes in the movie are discussed, readers please note.

It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.-Henry James

Quite often  it  is  said  that  if  even the  average  American had no  enemy, he  would have  invented one.  In  a way same holds true for   the  Russians too,  considering  they  rarely get  along with any of their  East European  neighbors and vice versa.   The  Cold  War,  was essentially a battle between two  paranoia,  the  Americans  feeding on the fear of the “Soviets” who  would  take over America or it’s  satellite  nations, and turn them into one  vast  military camp, replete  with gulags, psychiatric wards,  KGB  agents.  Not to be outdone, the  Soviets and  it’s   satellite  nations, played upon  the  fear of  “the  Decadent  Western world” corrupting  the  “pristine, ideology of  the  Revolution”.   It  was the  Cold  War,  that  gave  rise  to  an  industry  of  it’s  own,  the  conspiracy  theory  industry,  that  found  it’s  way  into  novels and  movies.   The  Cold  War was  a fertile ground for  the  conspiracy  theory  writers,   and  events like  the Korean War,  JFK’s  assassination,  Bay of  Pigs,  Fidel Castro,  Kim Philby, the  spy ring in Britian,  the arms and space  race provided a ready fodder  for  the  feverish  imaginations  of  novelists,  script  writers and movie  makers.  It  was  the time  of  novelists  like  John Le Carre,  Frederick Forsyth, Robert  Ludlum,  Graham Greene, who  churned  out  some  great  thriller  fiction,  mostly  built  around  conspiracy  theories.   The  end  of  the  Cold  War,  not only  saw the  demise of  the  Great Soviet  Empire,   but  to writers  who  reveled in building  conspiracy  theories,  the  major  enemy  was  not  there any  longer.   Bereft  of  the  great enemy,  writers, movie makers   did  not  really  know where to  point it.   Where  Moscow  was the focal  point, and all  conspiracy theories  seemed to emerge from there, now  the enemy  became more  ambiguous.  It  ranged  from  Colombian  drug cartels to  Arab terrorists  to    East  European rebels  wanting  to establish  a  Russian empire once  more ,  basically  which  ever nation  was  not in the good books of  Uncle  Sam,  became the enemy by default. For  a major  part of the 90′s,  you  could  guess who  was in Uncle Jee’s  bad  books,  just  by taking a look at  the  latest  Hollywood  blockbuster.   In  Stallone’s  John Rambo, the  baddies  are  not  the  evil  Ruskies,  it is the Burmese  military junta,  and  apna  Stallone  Paaji aids the  Karen tribes people  in their  fight  against  the  junta.  Of  course  i  bet  that it  would be  some  time since Hollywood  makes  a movie, showing   Stallone  Paaji helping the  Balochistan  tribes  fighting  against  the  Pakistan  Govt. Of  late though in  order  to  present  a more  friendly  face  to the  world,  Hollywood  has  found a  new  enemy,  it is  within,  or  the  enemy  inside.  So  the  introspection  has  resulted in  movies like Syriana,  where  the  enemy  is  not  some  nasty  Arabs,  but  more  specifically the oil and  energy  companies, that seek to prop  up  dodgy  regimes in the Middle  East.
The  major  difference  between  the  2004  and  the  1962  versions   of  The  Manchurian Candidate , Richard Condon’s Cold  war  conspiracy thriller  novel.  Where  the ’62  version  was  about a  Korean war  hero,  who  was  actually  captured and  brainwashed  by the  Communists( the  Russians and N.Koreans here) to act  as a  sleeper  mole,  the 2004  version  has  a  Gulf  War  hero ,  and  the  evil  agency  here  Manchurian Global,  an international  arms  manufacturer,   that   brainwashes  and  programs  the  protagonist.  I  feel  this  is  where  the  1962  version  has a  definite  edge  over  the  2004  version.  The  ’62  version  has  more  believable  villains  and  is  more  rooted  in  reality,  the   bad guys  being  the  Russian-N.Korean  agents,  and  also  with  the  Bay of  Pigs & JFK’s assassination   taking  place  around  the  same  time  frame,  it  looks  much  more  sinister.    The  Soviets  trying to  take over the  White  House using  the    sleeper mole  looks  much  more believable,  while  the  entire  thing of   a  global  Arms  cartel,  trying to  control  the  White House, looks  pretty much like  one of  those  Robert  Ludlum  novels.  Sure the  notorious  Arms  Lobby  in  US,  does  influence  Capitol Hill,  but  i  really  doubt  how  willing  they would be to  do a  take over of  the  White House.
Director  John  Frankenheimer,  had  earlier  helmed  the  biopic,  Birdman of  Alcatraz, about a  real life prisoner at  Alcatraz  who  makes  friends with the  birds  to get  over  his  loneliness.   The  Manchurian Candidate  was  his  first  shot  at  the  dark  and  murky  world  of   espionage  and  conspiracy,  and  later on he  would  also  direct  Seven Days in May,  that  starred  his  favorite  actor  Burt  Lancaster,  as  a disgruntled  US  General, who  tries to lead a coup  against the  President, with  Kirk  Douglas,  playing  a US  Marine, who  tries to foil  the  entire  conspiracy,  and  later on  Black  Sunday about  a  Palestinian  terrorist  attempt  to  explode  a bomb in a crowded US  stadium.   The  opening  scene,  starts  off  with  American  troops   stationed  in  Korea,  grumbling  about  the  fact  that  they  are  not  allowed  to  enjoy  at  a local  brothel  bar in  Korea,  thanks  to  Sgt.  Raymond  Shaw(  Laurence  Harvey),  who  curtails their  activities,  the  other  person  in  the  platoon  is   Cpt.  Bennet  Marco( Frank  Sinatra).    Shaw’s  gruff , surly  attitude,  makes  him  unpopular  among  the  platoon  members,  and  later  on  during  a night time  operation,  the  platoon  is  ambushed,  and  taken  away  as  captives  to  Manchuria.
As  the  credits  play  over  a  button  having  images  of  the  Star  and  Stripes  with  Queen of  Diamonds,  the  camera  now  slowly  shifts  to  the  image  of  a  military  band, beating a  drum,  having  the  image of  the  American eagle on it.    I  feel  the  recurring  image of  the  Queen  of  Diamonds could  be due to the  legend  about  it being  inspired  by  Agnes  Sorel,  the  mistress  of  Charles VII of  France, who  exercised  unlimited power  at  his  court.  Shaw  who  has now  come  back  as a  war  hero,  is  dominated  by  his  mother  Mrs.Elanor  Iselin( Angela  Lansbury),  who is  power drunk  and  has  high  political  ambitions.     Shaw  hates  his  domineering  mother(  shades of  Pyscho  here),  as  well  as  his  step  father,  Sen. John  Iselin( James  Gregory),  who is  an  onscreen version of   Senator  McCarthy, right  wing  in outlook,  idiotic  and  paranoid,  also  standing  for  Vice  President.  If  we  take  the  particular   shot  introducing  these  2  key players  in  the  drama,  the  camera  first  pans to the  Stars &  Stripes,  and  then to the  couple, pretty much  an  ironic  metaphor,  or  as  some  one had  stated,  “Patriotism is  the  last  refuge of  a scoundrel”. The  juxtaposition  of  the  American  flag, the  eagle  symbol  with  that  of  the  power hungry  couple, their  son,  is  a  symbol  that  patriotism  here  has  become  the  last  refuge  of  many a  scoundrel.  And  as  stated  earlier,  the  Queen of   Diamonds,  here  shows  how  both  the  father  and  son,  are  being  manipulated  by  Lady  Iselin.   Shaw  is  disgusted  when  he  comes to  know  that  the entire  victory  parade  was  organized by his mother.

Disgusting three-ring circus…Johnny’s up for re-election in November. You’ve got it all figured it out, haven’t you? Johnny Iselin’s Boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you one of the fifty thousand votes.

Pretty  much  sums  up  the  way  military  operations  have  been  used  for  politicians  for  their  own  benefits.   Raymond  further  manages  to  infuriate  his  mother and dad,  when  he  announces  he  will be going to New  York to work  for  a  publisher,  Holborn  Gaines,  who  has a  liberal  outloook,  something  that  is  anathema  to his  mother.  Predictably  she  denounces  Gaines  as a  communist,  standard  term  during  that  time,  for  any  person  whose thoughts  were  on the  more  liberal  side.   Watch  out  for  Angela  Lansbury’s expression  here,  forceful,  at  the same time  subduing  her  rage, quite  chilling.
Marco  is  now  serving in the  Army  intelligence,  and  a  voracious  reader.    However  his  rather  peaceful  life,  is  being  interrupted  a  recurring  nightmare.  For  a movie  that  was  shot  in the 60′s  and  in  B&W,  the  way  director  Frankenheimer,  depicts  the  surrealistic  symbolism  is  brilliant.   The  camera  does   a  360  degree shot,  showing  ladies  present  at  some  garden  party  in  New Jersey,  covering  one of them  speaking, and the  rest  taking  in her lecture.  As  we wonder  why  the  shot  of  the  ladies  party,  the  camera  now  cuts to the stage,  and  the  lady  speaking is  now  replaced  with  a  communist  doctor-spy  Yen Lo,    and  the  camera  again  pans  to the  audience.  It  has  a smattering of   Koreans,  Soviets, Chinese,  and  most  important, the  platoon  that  was  ambushed  and  captured  in  the opening  scene.  What  we  see  here  is  the  juxtaposition  of  the  reality  with  the  imaginary,  using  hypnosis.  The  Communist  regimes  were  pretty  much  notorious  for  using  psychological   techniques  to brainwash  people  or  get  the  information  out  from  dissidents.    What we  see here is  the  real  and  imaginary  overlapping, the  lady speaking  and  the  other  ladies  listening  is  what  the  captured  soldiers  imagine,  the  reality  is  Yen Lo, is  the  lady  in  question,  and  the   ladies  listening to her are  in  fact,  the  captured  soldiers.

Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.

That  comes  to  fore , when  in  one of  the  best  moments ,  Raymond  is  slowly  brainwashed,  by  what  he  imagines to be  the  elderly  lady Mrs. Whittaker,  when  in  reality  it is  Yen  Lo  doing  the  job.  The  camera  inter cuts  between the  3  characters,  Raymond, Ms. Whiitaker and  Yen Lo.    And  now  Shaw  fully  brain washed,  into a  killing  machine,  strangles  one of  the  soldiers, Ed  Mavole, on the  instructions  of  his  Communist  masters.   This  surrealist  dream sequence  itself  is  one  reason,  why  the  ’62  version  scores  over  it’s  2004  one.  This  entire  dream sequence  sets  up  the  plot, the  entire  raison d  etre.  The  ends  in  the  plot  are  tied  when  it  was  revealed, that  out  of  the  entire  platoon,  that  was  supposedly  “rescued” by  the  heroic  Raymond  Shaw, only  2  died,  one of  the  was  Ed Mavole.  While  Marco,  sees  Raymond,  strangling  Mavole  to  death in  the  dream, he is  not  convinced  of  his.  The  fact is he too has  been  brainwashed  into believing   Shaw  indeed  is  the “hero”  he  has  been made out to be.
Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. 
The  use  of  symbolism  becomes  more  apparent  later on,  when  Sen.  Iselin,  harangues  the  Secretary  of  Defense,  claiming  that  the  State  Dept  is  teeming  with  communists, after  he  announces  cuts  in  defense  spending.   Frankenheimer  uses  different  perspectives of  the  same  event,  on  one  hand,  you  have the  Senator  taking  on  the   Defense  Secretary,  at  the  same  time,  Ms. Iselin,  is  looking ecstatically  at  the  event on TV,  rocking  back  and forth,   leaving  no  doubt  in  the  minds of  the  viewer, where  the  real  power  lies.
The  plot  now  gets  thicker,  when  another  member of the  platoon,  Corporal  Al  Melvin( James  Edwards) begins to have  the  same  nightmare.  Another  shocking  scene,  in the dream like sequence,  when  Raymond Shaw,  shoots  one of  the  most  popular and  the  youngest  member of  the  platoon, Bobby  Tembeck, straight in the head.  The  blood  spilling  on to  a large  portrait of Stalin  in the  backdrop.   Strangely  Melvin too believes  that  Shaw indeed is a hero,  and  he  parrots  out  the same  line  which  Marco had done.   But  the  main  reference to the  Queen of  Diamonds  follows,  when  playing a  game of  Solitaire,   Raymond  Shaw, gets  a phone  call right at  the  point  when he  gets the  Queen of  Diamonds,  and  hears  a mysterious  voice  asking  him to come to a sanatorium.  The  fact  is  that earlier on in the  dream  sequence,  Raymond  Shaw  was  actually  motivated to turn into  a killing machine,  when the  lady( who in  reality  is  Yen Lo)   brainwashes  him  using  a game of  Solitaire.
In  another  chilling  scene,  Raymond  Shaw  is  now  met  at  the  sanatorium  by  a group of  Communists, that  includes   Yen  Lo  and  a communist  inflitrator  Zilkov.  The  brainwashing  further  proceeds,  as  Yen Lo  impresses upon   Shaw,  his  mission,  his  difference  from the  average  American.

Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?…A normally-conditioned American, who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now Raymond will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.

Marco  inspite of  all  the  brainwashing  is  not  convinced  that  Raymond is worthy  of  the  Military Honor. The death of   the  publisher  Gaines(  actually  assasinated  by  Shaw)  as also  Melvin,  begins to  convince him  that  something  fishy is  afoot.  But  the  biggest  motivation for  him  to  suspect  that  Raymond  Shaw,  was  not  really  the hero, who would  save  his  own  unit,  is   Shaw’s  own character.  He  was the  most  hated  men  in his  unit.
It isn’t as if Raymond’s hard to like. He’s IMPOSSIBLE to like. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever known in my whole – all of my life.
Marco,  now  on  a leave, begins  on  his  mission to get  the  whole truth  about  Raymond  Shaw.  A  mission  that  sees him  meet  with  a mysterious  female  Rosie  Chaney( Janet  Leigh),  on the  train.  They  have  a  pretty much  random conversation  about  some of  the  states,  a  football  team  and her real name  and nickname.  On  face  of it, looks  quite  random,  but  considering  that  nothing  is  what  it seems  here,  was the  entire  conversation  some kind of  cryptic  message.  Also  consider  this  Rosie  is  the more  dominating person here,   putting  across  the  conversation,  while Marco  is  the  passive  person.  Is  Marco  also  being  manipulated  by  Rosie here?
While  by now  we  are  pretty  much  sure  about  Raymond,  who  is  manipulated   by  the  Russians-N.Koreans,  we  are still  not  sure  of   the  relation between  Marco  and Rosie.  The plot  gets  thicker and thicker,  when  an “Asian”  gentleman  Chun Jin,  is  taken  in  as  Shaw’s  translator, something  which  Shaw  can  never  make  sense of.    The  Manchurian  Candidate  is  the  kind  of  pyschological  conspiracy  thriller  that  works  on multiple  levels.  At  one  level,   Raymond  Shaw,  is  the  Manchurian  candidate, the  helpless  pawn in the  entire  chessboard,  who  is  moved  by  his  masters  in  the  Communist  establishment.  But  Shaw’s  plight  is  even worse,  not  just  being  manipulated by the  Russians,  he  also  is  manipulated  at  the other  end  by  his  own domineering mother.  While  his  mother  and  the  Communists  are  at  the  opposite  ends of  the spectrum,  there  is  not  much difference in  the  way both  use  him, for  their  own  purposes.  The  threat  to  the  nation,  comes  not  just  from  the  enemy outside, it  is  as much  as  the  enemy  inside, power  hungry  maniacs  like  Eleanor  Iselin.    In  one  way  using  the  Queen of  Diamonds  card  to brainwash   Raymond  into  killing, is  symbolic  of  how  he has often  been  manipulated by  his own mother from childhood,  he  hates  it  but is helpless.
The  Manchurian  Candidate  is  a movie  that  needs to be watched,  for  it’s  rich  symbolism,  its  metaphorical  allegories,  as  also  the  deeply  multi layered  plot, that  reveals  a new  angle  every  time  another level  is  uncovered.  There  is  not  much  of  action,  except  for  one  karate  fight scene(  i  believe  the  first of it’s  kind in American cinema)  between  Frank  Sinatra  and  the  Asian  valet.  This  is a movie  that  works  entirely  on  its  plotting  and characters. Of  the  greyish  tones  it’s  characters  acquire,  and a  sinister  world  where  nothing is  what  it  seems.  And  add to it some  great  performances.   Frank  Sinatra is  excellent  as  Marco,  the  protagonist  who  strives  to dig deep into  what  seems  a  convoluted  mystery.   But  the  best  performances  would  go  to  Laurence  Harvey as  Raymond  Shaw, brilliantly  capturing the  guilt,  the  agony, the  ruthlessness of  a person,  who  ultimately becomes  a pawn  in a deadly game,  and  above  all  Angela  Lansbury,  in   a performance  that  is  just  awesome  as  the  ruthless, domineering Ms.Iselin, cold, chilly, ruthless,  she  manages  to terrify the  audiences, just  with  her  expressions.
One Comment
  1. Superb review sir! I didnt watch the new Manchurian but '62 version is just brilliant! The scene where opposition leader confronts media with number of communists in senate and keeps changing numbers… the chaotic manner in which lies are peddled and reason left to rot in the presence of over enthusiastic media personnel … that scene is just superb. Whenever I watch News, this scene comes to my mind!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: