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THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - 1962
United Artists / MGM
I love smart movies. You know how you can tell a movie is smart? Because the plot will
involve something happening that you think is wrong (not
morally wrong - factually wrong). This error threatens to destroy
your suspension of disbelief. But then the movie explains why the small
point you thought was wrong was not wrong. The movie anticipates your objection
and deals with it. That's a smart movie.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was directed by John Frankenheimer (PROPHECY, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) and written by George Axelrod (THE FOURTH PROTOCOL). The screenplay was based on the novel by Richard
The story opens in Korea, as in during the Korean War. Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey: NIGHT WATCH) and Captain Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra: THE FIRST DEADLY SIN) arrive at a Korean whorehouse and Shaw rousts the troops out, much to their displeasure. They end up on patrol near the front lines, lead by their Korean guide Chunjin (Henry Silva: ALLIGATOR, POSSESED BY THE NIGHT). Chunjin leads them into an ambush and all are taken prisoner.
We jump ahead to the arrival back in the U.S. (an unknown
amount of time later) of Sgt. Shaw, who has been awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor. Brief narration tells us that Shaw won the CMH (America's
highest military honor) for saving the lives of his squad.
Much to Shaw's surprise, his plane is met by a huge crowd, a band and lots of
reporters. This all makes sense to Raymond when he sees his step-father,
Senator John Iselin (James Gregory: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES), and his politically ambitious mother
(Angela Lansbury: THE MIRROR CRACK'D, MURDER, SHE WROTE [TV]). They try to milk as much publicity as they can from Raymond's achievement and it becomes clear that he despises them both.
He tells his mother that not only won't he help with the Senator's campaign
but that he is, in fact, moving to New York to take a job working for
newspaper man Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan: SHE-WOLF
"He's a communist!" hisses Raymond's horrified mother. But Raymond denies
this, saying, "He's not a communist. He's a Republican."
Arthur Krim, the President of United Artists and Finance Chairman of the
Democratic Party, felt uneasy about THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE'S subject
matter as it vilified Democrats and made a seeming war hero
a puppet of the communists. Then sitting President, Kennedy,
was a war hero. JFK, as a personal favor to his bud, Frank Sinatra,
called Krim to let him know that he had no objection to a film version
Never-the-less, after Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Frank Sinatra, who now owned
the film, took THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE out of circulation for 25
years. No public showings were permitted until 1987.
For more trivia, check out IMDb
Meanwhile, Captain Ben Marco is having a very bad dream. In the dream he and his
men are in the lobby of a hotel, listening to a Ladies Gardening group
discuss flowers. Only sometimes it's not a lady discussing flowers in
front of a group of other ladies. Sometimes it's a Chinese man named Yen
Lo (Khigh Dhiegh: THE MEPHISTO WALTZ) discussing
hypnotic conditioning in front of Chinese and Russian generals. These
scenes are brilliant and scary as what actually happened and what Marco
was told to remember get all mixed up in his dream.
Ben is convinced his dream means something and tells his superiors in military intelligence
about it. His boss (Whit Bissell: CREATURE
FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, INVASION
OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, SOYLENT GREEN)
assumes he's been working too hard and transfers him to light duty. Ben
decides to investigate the meaning of his dream on his own. In doing so
he discovers that the other surviving soldiers all have the same dream.
Why? And what is the story behind the pretty Eugenie (Janet
Leigh: PSYCHO, THE FOG), who meets Ben on a train and seems to fall for him instantly?
This story is set in the fifties, an era when communist plots were much in the news.
Today we laugh off such paranoia but it was very real at the time. Raymond's
stepfather uses accusations of communist infiltration of the defense department
to advance his political career and this all seems transparently false,
except for the fact that Raymond, Ben and the other soldiers of the squad
really are the unwitting accomplices in a communist conspiracy. To what
end isn't clear at first, but when it does become clear, in all its twisted intricacies, it doesn't seem laughable at all.
Yen Lo, the hypnotist, is especially chilling because he has a black sense
of humor and a blazing confidence in his work. When I first saw that the
movie was going to be about hypnotic conditioning the first thought that
popped into my head was that I've always heard: no one can be made
to do anything under hypnosis that they wouldn't do in real life. With
perfect timing, Yen Lo tells his audience of generals and communist party
officials that the idea that no hypnotic subject will do anything against
his nature is an old wives' tale. He dismisses the idea as nonsense and
proceeds to demonstrate that someone under his hypnotic control can be
made to do terrible things indeed.
But one thing that is never terrible is the
Our science today is political science, which is why I want to tell you
about something called the Venona Project. This was a highly classified
(and highly successful) effort in the 40's
and 50's to break the encryption of Soviet cables. From these intercepts
(later confirmed after the fall of the Soviet Union)
we know that there were many Soviet agents in the administrations of FDR
and Harry Truman (the best known being Alger Hiss),
that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg really were spying for the Soviets and
that many of the people Joe McCarthy accused of being Soviet agents actually
were Soviet agents (More details are available
Continued at SCIENCE MOMENT / Manchurian Candidate.
This is an excellent thriller that shows what a nation can do when it's willing
to experiment on people. That special kind of evil and ambition feels
all the more real even when the plan turns out to have a few flaws. I
give THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE a five on the shriek girl scale.
copyright 2004 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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DVD extras include, original Trailers and an interview (done in mid 80's) with the writer, the director and Sinatra. This
is where Sinatra revealed details like the fact that it was not a break away table that he put his hand through in the martial arts fight scene with Henry Silva. Sinatra broke (and permanently injured) his little finger.