John Frankenheimer’s chilling masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate
was the first and remains the best political thriller ever produced by Hollywood.
Adapted from Richard Condon’s controversial novel (which I regret to admit not having yet read but intend to very soon), the Manchurian Candidate takes place in the early 1950’s. On the heels of the Korean War, this was a time when the country was in the grip of the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings. While it’s true that there was a certain amount of paranoia and deplorable political witch hunting at this time, it’s also true that the communist threat was very real in the form of espionage and treason. Historical documents from the KGB archives temporarily released to the public in the 1990’s by Russian authorities confirm how far reaching the communist infiltration was in the various American spheres of influence and power.
Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has returned home from the Korean War a hero. He is being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on the recommendation of his commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) for saving the lives of nine men from his patrol while they were all MIA for three days.
Upon Sgt. Shaw’s arrival at the airport he’s given a hero’s welcome orchestrated in large part by his mother Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, the buffoonish and drunk Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory). It quickly becomes apparent that the Iselin’s are milking the publicity to assist Sen. Iselin’s re-election bid. Raymond’s loathing and contempt for his mother, but especially for his stepfather is also quite evident.
Also upon returning from the war, Major Marco begins to have recurring nightmares. I have to tell you the nightmare scenes are quite extraordinary, brilliant, and faithful to the book according to Frankenheimer (Again I have to take his word re literary fidelity as I haven’t yet read it but will). In the nightmare all the men from the patrol are sitting on a stage facing top Soviet and Chinese military brass and Party officials with giant images of Stalin and Mao behind them. There is an Asian bald man explaining to his audience the brainwashing that they have conducted on their American captives. He informs his audience that these American soldiers believe they are at the Ladies garden Club discussing hydrangeas and other horticultural interests. And here we witness the ingenious interposing of scenes between what the soldiers really see (Sino-Soviet military and party brass) and what they’ve been brainwashed to believe they see; flower hatted old ladies innocently discussing their hydrangeas.
Major Marco informs his military superiors about these distressing dreams that also include scenes of Raymond being ordered to murder two of his fellow soldiers and also of him making strange gestures with his hands. The army assigns Major Marco to take a public relations post with the Department of Defense but that doesn’t work out so well when he can’t diffuse an intense situation in which Sen. Iselin shows up at a news conference the Sec. of Defense is giving with Marco seated beside him. Iselin in McCarthyesque fashion interrupts the Secretary and launches into an accusation of widespread communist infiltration of the Pentagon, but he can’t even get his numbers straight. He keeps changing the number of “known infiltrators”.
But Major Marco isn’t the only one having nightmares. Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards) is also having unpleasant recurring dreams. Interestingly enough, Cpl. Melvin who’s African-American sees the Garden Ladies not as Caucasian but Black and interposed as well with the Sino-Soviet brass. And like Maj. Marco when asked how he feels about Raymond automatically responds, “Sgt. Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
Meanwhile, against his mother’s wishes, Raymond has gone to work for NY newspaper editor Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan). Mrs Iselin accuses Gaines of being a communist; never mind that he’s a Republican. But Gaines despises the Iselins and that makes his job proposal even more attractive to Raymond.
His Sino-Soviet operators soon get in touch with Raymond who is now living in NYC. Two years have elapsed since Shaw’s initial brainwashing took place in Manchuria, just across the Korean border. His controllers need to ensure that the assassin they’ve created is still properly obeying commands. With that in mind they place Shaw in one of their NYC safe houses which fronts as a private clinic where they undertake the ruse of Shaw convalescing after suffering injuries from a “hit and run”.
The Chinese party official believes Raymond is ready to be turned over to his American handler. After all, he’s sensitive to the hypnotic phrase “Why don’t you play a game of solitaire?” and instinctively responds to the trigger mechanism induced by the Red Queen of Diamonds. But the Soviet agent in charge of the US Eastern seaboard is not convinced. He wants to be reassured that Shaw will perform the mission they have for him and for which they have been preparing for years. They dispatch Raymond to eliminate someone he knows and is fond of as a “test drive”. Satisfied with the results they finally release him to his American handler.
Maj. Marco has been ordered on indefinite sick leave. While he’s traveling by train he meets Eugenie (Janet Leigh) who takes a strong liking to him. To be frank, I don’t understand why her character would be the least bit interested in a profusely sweating, nervous stranger on a train who can’t even light his own cigarette. Eugenie becomes Marco’s romantic interest. Again, her presence seems a bit contrived to me. Perhaps the book better explains her role and why she’s even there.
Chunjin (Henry Silva), an “oriental” man shows up at Shaw’s apartment looking for a job. We recognize him as the Korean interpreter who betrayed the American patrol at the beginning of the movie. Of course Shaw doesn’t remember the betrayal or subsequent brainwashing and hires Chunjin as a valet/cook.
When Maj. Marco decides to visit Shaw to discuss his nightmares and Raymond is not home but Chunjin is a fight ensues with Marco shouting at him, “What was Raymond doing with his hands? How did the old ladies turn to Russians?” Of course Marco is arrested, but after being bailed out of jail, he returns to Shaw’s apartment and meets an indignant Raymond cleaning up the mess Marco and Chunjin left behind. While discussing his dream, Marco learns from Shaw who received a letter from Corporal Al Melvin that Melvin too has identical recurring nightmares.
Armed with this disturbing new information Marco goes back to his military superiors who confirm receiving the same info from Cpl. Melvin regarding his own nightmares. After looking through various photographs from a projector, Maj. Marco is able to identify the same Soviet officials from his dreams as Cpl. Melvin. Army Intelligence now realize something is suspect and assign Marco to keep tabs on Shaw.
Marco proceeds to befriend Shaw and during one Christmas Eve drunken conversation, Shaw tells him, “My mother is a terrible, terrible woman.” And proceeds to tell him how the summer before he joined the army he met a girl, Jocie (Leslie Parrish), with whom he fell in love. The young woman is the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), a political adversary of his mother. While neither Iselin’s nor Jordan’s political affiliations are ever mentioned we find out later in the film that despite the virulent animosity between them they belong to the same party. We only know that Eleanor Shaw Iselin belongs to fifteen patriotic organizations. Also, in most scenes with Sen. Iselin there also appears a bust or painting of Abraham Lincoln. I’m not quite sure what the symbolism here represents as Iselin and Lincoln are worlds apart. Unless, of course, the Lincoln symbolism is alluding to the conspiracy brewing.
As Shaw tells Marco about his summer idyll with Jocelyn Jordan we learn that when Shaw first meets Jocie’s father and realizes it’s Sen. Jordan he blurts out, “The communist?” Sen. Jordan replies, “One of your mother’s most endearing traits is her tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her as a communist.” Does this sound familiar? In today’s political landscape just substitute the word “communist” for any other equally offensive accusatory name and you’ve got the standard modus operandi of the politics of destruction. But I digress.Shaw weepily narrates to Marco how his mother schemed to end his relationship with Jocie before he enlisted in the army.
Later Marco and Shaw agree to meet at a bar. Shaw arrives first and orders a beer. He overhears the conversation the bartender is having with a patron about how his brother-in-law can’t play poker and why doesn’t he play a nice game of solitaire? Upon hearing that Shaw orders a pack of cards from the bartender and begins playing solitaire. Major Marco walks into the bar. As Shaw turns over the Queen of Diamonds the bartender is telling the patron how he instructed his brother-in-law to take a cab to Central Park and go jump in the lake. Shaw immediately exits the bar and hails a cab to Central Park with a disconcerted Marco following him in a separate cab. In Central Park, Marco watches as Shaw walks straight to the lake and jumps in. A bewildered Marco helps him out of the lake and demands to know what’s gotten into him. Shaw, as if awakening from sleep, can’t remember a thing.
Marco and an army psychologist are starting to work out the existing link between the pack of cards and Shaw’s hypnosis but still have no idea to what purpose Raymond has been brainwashed.
Meanwhile Jocie Jordan has returned to NYC after several years living in Paris and strangely enough Mrs. Iselin decides to have a costume party in her honor at her home on Long Island. We discover that Eleanor’s purpose is to feel out Sen. Jordan regarding Johnny Iselin’s bid for the VP slot at the upcoming presidential convention. When Eleanor asks Jordan if he would block Iselin’s nomination, Jordan unequivocally responds, “I would spend every cent I own and all I could borrow to block you.” An angry Eleanor dressed as a shepherdess throws down her staff and marches off. The cards are all on the table now so to speak. Pun intended.
Days later, with time running out a desperate Marco finally gets a hold of a disheveled and forlorn Shaw. Armed with a full deck of only red queens, Maj. Marco begins to try and break into Shaw’s mind. Under hypnosis, Shaw tells him how they were worked on for three days by Soviet specialists from the Pavlov Institute. But Shaw genuinely doesn’t know why this has all been done. Only Berezovo in Moscow and his American handler know and it will happen at the upcoming Presidential Party Convention. Marco and his deck of queens tell Shaw that it’s all over. He no longer takes orders from the Red Queen nor plays solitaire. He also commands him not to remember the horrific events that recently occurred at the Jordan residence. As Marco is trying to deprogram Shaw the phone rings. It’s Raymond’s American handler telling him to get ready to go to the convention and await further instructions. The identity of the American handler has become evident to the audience for some time but it is now confirmed to a shocked Marco.
The action now hurtles forward to the night of the party convention where the presidential nominee will accept his party’s nomination and name his running mate. Although Shaw promised to call Marco and update him once he had his final instructions he does not and Marco and his commanding officer must race to the conventions to stop a national tragedy from unfolding.
Considering the movie was released a year before JFK’s assassination there’s an almost eerie prescience to it. I have seen this movie quite a few times and must say that in each viewing I discover that it remains just as fascinating and chilling as the first time.
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