The Manchurian Candidate is a rather wonderful piece of Cold War paranoia, with a handy bit of social commentary and a rather surrealist perspective thrown in on top. John Frankenheimer’s vision remains unnerving because of its occasionally absurd and strange imagery and subtext, much of which remains unsettling long after the end of the Cold War. While The Manchurian Candidate remains a fascinating story, and one which has seeped into pop cultural consciousness, It’s Frankenheimer’s direction that elevates the film, managing to convince the audience that there is some meaning and purpose to all the bizarre imagery and interactions.
There’s a lot in The Manchurian Candidate that doesn’t seem “quite real.” Of course, “quite real” is a subjective term, as the film seems at pains to point out. I don’t mean the brainwashing or the subversive plot to maneuver a witless foreign agent to the most important position in United States politics. Those are plot points, and easy enough to go along with in the grand scheme of things. It’s the smaller moments of The Manchurian Candidate that suggest things are “not quite right”, the quiet interactions where something something seems “off” or the finer details of the conspiracy against the United States that seems like it couldn’t possibly exist.
Consider, for example, the group brought together by the jovially sinister Dr. Yen Lo, as portrayed by Khigh Dhiegh. There’s something rather surreal about his experiment on the captured American troops, which all seems rather casual:
Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them, or brainwashed them, which I understand is the new American word, to 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. You will notice that I have told them they may smoke. I’ve allowed my people to have a little fun in the selection of bizarre tobacco substitutes!
He provides a variety of official-sounding citations for his research, but the impression is very clearly that Yen Lo is just messing around with their brains in an alarmingly casual manner.
He presents his finds to a bunch of interested parties in a meeting room that looks like it came from a James Bond film. He literally has constructed a “Legion of Doom” style operation, drawing together a bunch of international communist governments on no basis stronger than their mutual hatred of the United States. It seems strange to believe that Russia and China would cooperate so completely and so intimately on one evil plan, particularly when the two governments were in the midst of a “split.”
Sure, there’s some gentle macho banter between them (joking about how many “imaginary units” must be sacrificed), but they seem to be genuinely cooperating on this, in a way that would require unparalleled trust and openness. In a way, the people observing this demonstration seem far less likely than any of the subjects on display. It seems more like a plot concocted inside Senator Iselin’s paranoid head than anything that was ever likely to actually happen.
Of course, that isn’t the only example. It would be easy enough to write that slightly absurd scenario off as the product of a fevered imagination reconstructing what really happened. There’s also any number of strange inter-personal interactions that seem a little “off-cue”, so to speak. The most obvious is the first conversation between Major Marco and Rosie that doesn’t feel at all like two people interacting for the first time, it almost sounds like two sleeper agents exchanging passwords.
The scene is so surreal that Roger Ebert has suggested that Rosie is another undercover agent. Even screenwriter George Axelrod has admitted to being a bit confused, simply translating the text from Richard Condon’s source novel. The confusion is only enhanced by the fact that Josie spends the rest of the film as a perfectly conventional romantic interest from Marco, and the surreal nature of that first conversation is never addressed, only making it a little weirder. It’s all rather wonderfully disorientating.
And that’s before you get into any of the stuff surrounding the messed-up Shaw/Iselin family. “My daddy’s gonna be so pleased about this!” Ray’s girlfriend Josie states after he’s bitten by a snake. “He’s absolutely scared tiddly about snakes in this part of the country. I know that sounds terribly Freudian, but in this case, I don’t think it is.” Trust me, that’s virtually the only moment of Raymond Shaw’s personal life that isn’t “terribly Freudian.”
From the outset, it’s clear that it’s his mother, Eleanor Iselin, who is running the family. She manages Raymond’s homecoming to boost her husband’s polling numbers, and she’s also pulling her husband’s strings. Everybody in the film seems to agree that Iselin is an “idiot”, with his bombastic scaremongering rhetoric, as the Senator is unable to decide on the number of “card-carrying Communists” in the Defense Department – first it’s 104, and then 274. He complains to his wife, “I’d be a lot happier if we could just settle on the number of Communists I know there are in the Defense Department.” She proceeds to talk to him as if he were a child unable to remember a basic sum given to him.
It takes only a few moments for it to become clear how messed up the Shaw/Iselin family is. In the backseat of the car away from the airfield, Eleanor boasts, “My boys! My two little boys!” It rather wonderfully foreshadows the way that Eleanor conflates “lover” and “son” in her own mind. Ray’s repeated insistence that “Senator Iselin is not my father” seems curiously forced – to the point where he almost seems to be declaring it without provocation.
The influence his mother has over him is quite clear. Raymond is controlled, famously, through a deck of cards. The Queen of Diamonds, to be precise. Trying to deduce the card, an army psychiatrist comments, “Based on Raymond’s psychiatric pattern, I think we can safely eliminate jacks and kings.” It must have been a Freudian nightmare when Raymond’s love showed up to the party in a “queen of diamonds”costume.
To be fair, The Manchurian Candidate actually has a lot of courage in the way it overtly addresses its content. It is a lot more direct than the 2004 remake when it comes to just how creepy the relationship between Eleanor and her son really is. (Bonus points for finding a way to make it even creepier after the fact when a key detail is revealed.) The movie also – unlike the remake – has enough courage of conviction to explicitly identify Senator Iselin as a Republican.
There’s a bunch of nice stuff in here about McCarthyism, with Iselin serving as an effective stand-in for the Senator. As a fellow party member comments, “I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.” Iselin and his wife fall back on the crutch of labelling every potential political adversary as a “Communist”, much like modern American politicians are liable to throw around “socialist.” This prompts Ray to correct her and point out how far afield some of her allegations are, clarifying about his employer, “He’s not a Communist, Mother. As a matter of fact, he’s a Republican.”
There is some nice stuff here about the political process, and even a small moment that hints at political corruption, as Eleanor comments on the private jet that the family board. “A gift from the Citizens For Iselin Committee for his last birthday. It saved our lives during the campaign.” It’s that sort of “gift” that give a politician an inherent advantage over an opponent, and the movie makes it clear that Iselin is not succeeding due to any innate talent, but simply because of some very influential allies.
Of course, the film suggests that the whole Cold War is just a political farce, and there’s really very little to distinguish the Americans from their counterparts. Yen Lo, despite being a communist, seems to have a taste for the finer things in life, lamenting an extended flight on a simple aeroplane with the rest of the diplomatic staff. Visiting a facility housing Raymond Shaw, his Soviet colleague boasts, with some measure of pride, “It is one of the few Soviet operations in America that showed a profit at the end of the last fiscal year.”
Yen Lo criticises the inherently capitalist nature of the claim, before announcing his own plans for the rest of the day. “I had thought to spend the afternoon at Macy’s. Madame Yen has given me the most appalling list.” It seems that the philosophical differences aren’t quite as significant as we might make them out to be, and the people themselves are far from unrecognisable – even when as gleefully evil as Yen Lo is.
There’s also a note of commentary on an increasingly media-conscious age, a plot point that has grown considerably more relevant in the years since the film was originally released. The assassination at the climax of the film is meticulously planned and organised. The mechanics are simple enough, but the plot emphasises the precise moment that the shot must be fired – a media cue, so to speak. “It’s been worked on here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years,” we’re told, presumably to ensure that it has the maximum impact on “a nation of television viewers.” There’s a sense that it isn’t the murder itself that is important, but the fact that is orchestrated to produce the maximum drama.
The direction is taut. Frankenheimer seems to have a fondness for making his cast sweat, as it seems there’s scarcely a scene that goes by without one cast member or another dripping anxiously with sweat. It’s a wonderfully effective way of building suspense. Frankenheimer gives everything a creepy and surreal feeling that heightens the entire film. The Manchurian Candidate remains distinctly uncomfortable watch, precisely because of the skill employed in its construction.
Frank Sinatra makes a charming enough lead, but the show belongs to Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw and Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Iselin. Lansbury in particular is chillingly effective as the oppressive and vindictive matriarch with her own sinister plans and a lot of rage and anger in her heart. The entire cast is great though, and I love Khigh Dheigh’s deliciously sinister Yen Lo, who seems more like a cartoon character than a real person.
The Manchurian Candidate is a powerful film, one that remains unsettling and unnerving despite the hefty reputation that it has built up in the popular consciousness. It’s skilfully constructed and feels strangely divorced from reality, despite also being grounded in a very “real” American political landscape. It’s a movie of contrasts, but effective contrasts, and it remains as well put together now as it ever did.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Cold War, Eleanor, film, George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer, John Iselin, John Jay Iselin, Josie, Macy, Manchurian Candidate, McCarthyism, Movie, New Jersey, non-review review, Raymond, republicans, review, Russia, Soviet Union, United States, Yen Lo