Starring: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey
Director: John Frankenheimer
Over half a century on, it’s hard now to grasp just how uncannily prophetic and tuned into the American zeitgeist The Manchurian Candidate was. Released in 1962, when the McCarthy era was still a recent memory, this tale of returning Korean vets caught up in a communist brainwashing conspiracy fearlessly mocked ’50s reds-under-the-bed paranoia, while at the same time ushering in a decade rocked by the high-profile assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
But even if a full appreciation of its historical impact now calls for a leap of the imagination, the film is still a dazzling piece of work and much more than just a superior techno-thriller. Director John Frankenheimer shows a flawless mastery of tone, binding together the disparate elements of the story – the Twilight Zone science fiction of the amphitheatre where the captured US soldiers are conditioned, the broad political satire of the scenes involving the oafish but nasty Senator Iselin, the Oedipal psychology of the hapless Sergeant Shaw’s relationship with his domineering mother – so that by the end it has a tragic power. The message, of course, is that so long as there are people like the Iselins in Washington, there’s no need for a communist conspiracy to screw up the country, Angela Lansbury is brilliant as the mother, but there’s also a career high performance from Frank Sinatra as Shaw’s commanding officer, who starts coming apart as the seams as he is plagued by surreal nightmares – his long scene on the train with Janet Leigh is probably the best thing he ever did in front of the camera. (And if that doesn’t impress, he also shows his more energetic side in a karate fight with Henry Silva.)
The transfer is a little coarse-grained at times, but the b/w cinematography has an inky depth, and most of the key set-pieces – Shaw’s brass band reception in Washington, the unruly press conference, Senator Iselin’s grotesque costume party – have an almost stifling detail and immediacy.
There’s a 58-min documentary about the director, including a welcome focus on his early days in live television. A good raconteur, Frankenheimer talks interestingly about films such as Birdman of Alcatraz, in which they had to tape bird food to Burt Lancaster’s fingers (“there’s no such thing as a trained bird, only a hungry bird”), although a slight mood of bathos sets in as the story moves onto his less distinguished later work. In a 13-min piece, William Friedkin enthuses about The Manchurian Candidate and talks about how Sinatra hated to do more than one take. Meanwhile, in a 7-min featurette, Frankenheimer, Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod reunite around a giant potted plant 26 years after the event; not much emerges, but we learn that the dream sequence took seven days to shoot. There’s also a very clear and informative audio commentary by Frankenheimer, in which he mentions his use of 18mm wide angle lenses and live locations, and goes into detail about the technical complexities of various set-ups, such as the 360 degree pan in the dream sequence. Along the way, it’s revealed that the Iselins’ private aeroplane in fact belonged to Sinatra, and that the long speech about hydrangeas was taken from a seed catalogue.