The Manchurian Candidate Review
The Man from La Manchuria
Over half a Century later, and The Manchurian Candidate is still as gripping as it ever was.One of John Frankenheimer’s – and indeed star Frank Sinatra’s – career best films, this 1962 thriller was only the former live television drama director’s fourth full-length feature. However The Manchurian Candidate brought with it a then, and perhaps still now, prescient tale of politically-infused conspiracy which reflected the changing times. The film helped usher out the old 50s era mentality of societal ignorance and ambivalence to welcome in a decade of doubts, paranoia and conspiracy theories. In fact the film could be thought of as the father of the modern conspiracy theory movie, paving the way for such classics as The Parallax View and JFK.Indeed, so prescient was the film – released in the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis – that it was pulled from distribution little over a year later, after Kennedy was assassinated, and shelved for over a quarter of a Century. The story follows Sergeant Shaw, who returns from Korea and gets awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly saving all but two of his platoon from capture. But when his commanding officer starts to have recurring nightmares about alternative events that may have transpired behind enemy lines, he begins to question what’s real and what’s not, and question who the returning hero Shaw truly is.
With Sinatra putting aside his usual star demeanour in favour of delusional sweats, panic attacks and increasingly frenzied behaviour, Lawrence Harvey bringing a suitably robotic turn to his supposed hero, and Janet Leigh proving to be utterly gorgeous (and surprisingly smart, considering the representation of female love interests in movies at the time), it was actually Angela Lansbury – long before she became that interfering busybody Jessica Fletcher – who earned an acting nomination here, as the politically-driven mother obsessed with cashing in on her son’s heroics.
Indeed, it was Sinatra who suffered from bad luck throughout the production: putting in one of his career-best performances to a film that many would not be able to see for twenty-five years; stepping up for a well-staged fight sequence which stands out as the first ever martial arts vs. martial arts scene committed to film, and yet breaking his hand so badly during the fight that he ended up losing out on the chance to play Dirty Harry. Hell, even one of his key, climactic scenes – where he did his best take – was mis-filmed slightly out of focus, and it was so good that they decided to keep it in; thankfully at least it looks like an intentional attempt as skewing the perception of his increasingly disturbed colleague.
Frankenheimer might now be remembered for everything from French Connection II to Ronin, but some his best is here, in his early glory days.
The Manchurian Candidate was critically well-received and remains one of the first 100 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It’s a supreme exercise in taut tension and conspiratorial intrigue; a classic political thriller which will keep you guessing throughout. And it's a resonant now as it was at the height of the Cold War.
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