Title: The Manchurian Candidate
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Director: John Frankenheimer
Music: David Amram
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Speaking of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, contemporary audience may still recall the 2004 remake headlined by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, directed by Jonathan Demme, which is a proficient political thriller and grafts the timeline from Korean War to Gulf War. Now it is time to revisit the original version directed by John Frankenheimer, the only film I have watched among his prolific filmography before this one actually is his final big screen feature, the romance-thriller mixed-bag REINDEER GAMES (2000), Frankenheimer passed away in 2002, and this 1962 black-and-white stunner is no doubt above a few notches over its comparatively problematic remake, substantially due to the Harvey-Lansbury pair’s Oscar-worthy performances.
This outlandish brainwashing plot can be gauged as a fantasised product of the heightened McCarthyism conjoined with the widespread paranoia towards Communism at that particular era in the USA, based on Richard Cordon’s 1959 novel of the same name, the conspiracy is undeniably ahead of its time, even now in 2015, half a century later, it still looks rather preposterous to believe in the first place, and all its technical explanations have been dumbed down to the hypnosis provoked by the sheer appearance of the “Queen of Diamonds” card and becomes an unwitting assassin, also our victim Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Harvey) is not literary “unwitting” to his merciless deeds, as it turns out, induced by Major Bennett Marco’s (Sinatra) deck trick, afterwards, he is able to memorise what he has done in the hypnotic mode. Don’t know what is the accurate medical term for his condition, in fact, Raymond resembles a man tormented by his uncontrollable transformation into another personality who is nothing but a killing machine, a multi-personae case maybe, but how on earth, North Korean scientists can pull off such a potent technique? The film never care to expound on that and Raymond’s wake-up call is also a moot point without any definitive clarification about the theory of Bennett counteracting the effect with his cards trickery.
But thankfully, all these puzzles do not shackle the film’s engrossing vibrancy, Frankenheimer is such an imposing conductor at the helm of a layered conspiracy, stresses soldiers’ PTSD quandary, juggles with the buffoonery of the so-called “diplomatic” political system, unblinkingly stages the abysmal tragedy we all fear to happen and its impactful ramifications on Raymond’s mental breakdown, and last but not the least, lures viewers into the love-and-hatred manipulation executed by Raymond’s scheming mother Mrs. Eleanor (Lansbury) with an incestuous allegation between them.
Angela Lansbury is righteously honoured with an Oscar nomination for her starry vehemence as the super-villainess steers a vicious political campaign and is unscrupulous in her endeavour to achieve what she wants even if it has turned her beloved son into damaged goods, Lansbury is a magnificent attention grabber in her slightly elderly make-up and conveys the pernicious verve of a woman much older than her real age since in reality she is only three years senior than Harvey. Frank Sinatra is quite compelling in his saviour’s character design, bestows audience with a pretty vintage fighting sequences with Henry Silva, who plays the Korean Chunjin, regrettably the casting director didn’t have the gut to hire a real Asian to play him. In spite of her third-billing, Janet Leigh’s entire presence is brief and unhooked to the major plot, the part where she gets instantly moonstruck by Sinatra’s Bennett is so bogus to swallow, a red herring or not, her character is plain nonsensical.
Laurence Harvey is the unsung hero in this picture, upstages Sinatra with his “I’m unloveable” monologue and his polarised personae are contagiously affecting out of his usual handsome dispassionateness. He is rapt with his sweetheart Jocelyn (Parrish) and her father Senator Thomas Jordan (McGiver), and utterly standoffish with his mother and even with Bennett, his tragedy looms large inevitably in the end, while the last-second turn of event is pretty much anticipated, his twist of fate still gives a lump in the throat. To a large extent, the film is a tall-tale engineered with the uppermost flourish with cinematic stunts and camera gimmicks, stands the test of time as the go-to pick of its genre.