The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

These days, the theaters are in such disarray, even Angela Lansbury can’t get much love.

I say this as I look around for movies and all the things I’d like to see are squeezed between nearly half of all screens being taken up with Avatar Needs $2 Billion To Make A Profit and the other half full of incredibly unappealing Oscar-bait. I mean, The Whale seemed promising by comparison. But there aren’t even that many of those.

Avatar really needs that $2 billion, yo, and they’ll flood the theaters with it until you’ve seen it out of desperation, as if there was no such thing as streaming and home media.

I mention it because—well, first because I’m about to drive to Santa Monica to give the Bill Nighy film Living a view because literally nothing is worthwhile closer—but also because Angela Lansbury was enough of an institution in Hollywood where she could legitimately have had a week playing “best of” in a world where screens were not such rare commodities (even as the seats are mostly empty). Instead, we get not even a double feature, but just one movie The Manchurian Candidate.

Murder, She Plotted

John Frankenheimer movies are interesting. They’re so intense and serious, but also so dated. In this movie, Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a Korean war vet who was captured and brainwashed by Communists (Chinese and Russian) and sent back to be an assassin in the US. Frank Sinatra is Bennet Marco, an army intelligence officer who was a troop mate of Shaw and who, along with other members of the troop, got Shaw a Medal of Honor by reporting back that he had saved them all—this also due to amazingly effective brainwashing.

Marco has to unravel the puzzle, which is challenging because he’s on the wrong side of the brainwashing, while Shaw goes around murdering everyone with Hollywood-level silencers, and somehow not really suffering any really negative consequences for it. (We saw this a bit before seeing Experiment in Terror, also from 1962, which featured Glenn Ford as a hard-working but somewhat hapless FBI agent, but the similarities were enough to remind me of the various intelligence agencies’ PR pushes involving Hollywood.)

Even 60 years later, the movie has a lot of energy. The acting is top-notch. Noted Italian-American Henry Silva would begin his lifelong career of playing Asian baddies with his role as Chunjin, a Chinese assassin who can smash coffee tables with his hand but who is no match for a skinny, sweaty, 47-year-old Sinatra. Actually, I shouldn’t single out Sinatra for being sweaty: Sweat deserves a supporting actor nod for its work here.

The pain of having to pretend a punch from Sinatra could hurt you.

Leslie Parrish is at her loveliest (and the only surviving member of the cast, now that Silva has passed, I believe). John McGiver, James Gregory and Whit Bissell show up in various roles: You may not recognize their names, but certainly their faces will ring a bell. (Bissell is uncredited for some reason. I think our hosts explained the reason but I have forgotten it.) Janet Leigh, fresh off Psycho, picks a sick, delusional Sinatra up on a train and dumps her fiancée, which is hardly the least plausible moment of the film.

The least plausible moments, I suppose, involve the army intelligence guy being so absolutely clueless about brainwashing that he allows Shaw to run amok. MKULTRA was still under wraps, of course, but the core concepts of brainwashing were certainly well known by the time of the movie, right? I think the implication is that the election is the 1960 one—needless to say, the evillest character in the movie is Raymond Shaw’s mother, the very Republican Eleanor Iselin, played to perfection by Lansbury.

Strangers on a train.

Which is the point, after all. Eleanor’s so thoroughly and cartoonishly evil, you’d have to be alive in 2023 to believe such excesses are possible by public figures. And her husband (Gregory), the future President is such an inept puppet, so incompetently stupid, why, I can’t even imagine how they would expect him to win a nomination to the Presidency. (They don’t, actually, that’s where Shaw comes in.)

Nonetheless, Lansbury’s performance is tremendous. She’s nuanced, even if her character is not. (She’s also 37, and Harvey is 34. But she always had an older look about her.)

I suppose there’s something edgy (at least in 1962) to making the conservative Republican the tool of Communists, although in this telling, Eleanor figures she’s using the commies and will take care of them once she controls the Presidency.

I don’t know: Viewing things in the context of the American Myth, you can see here a major shot fired in the destruction thereof. At some point (pre-WWII, pre-Wilson) Americans had a view of themselves as independent, and the government’s powers were more rightly restricted to international affairs and wars. Here, if some maniac gets a hold of the Presidency, all is lost. And I think that’s been the dominant myth in the past 60 years, really.

Ironically, it undercuts the power of all future American movies.

They would switch from the Queen of Diamonds to “Catcher in the Rye” after this.

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