Directed By: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury
Tag line: "When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!"
Trivia: Angela Lansbury was thirty-six at the time of filming, only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played her son
“It's a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn't always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her”
This is how Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the tragic figure at the center of John Frankenheimer's 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, describes his relationship with his mother, Eleanor Iselin, played by Angela Lansbury. In the '80s, my mom watched Ms. Lansbury every Sunday night in Murder, She Wrote, the award-winning TV mystery series in which she was the kindly author, and novice sleuth, Jessica Fletcher. Having grown up with this squeaky-clean image of her, I couldn't imagine Lansbury as a villain. But after The Manchurian Candidate, I'm thinking Murder, She Wrote was the real stretch; she does evil too damn well for it to be an act!
A Sergeant in the United States Army, Shaw (Harvey) returns from Korea a decorated war hero, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery. The men who served under him hold Shaw in the highest regard, and every one, including his superior officer, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), believes he is the best of men. Shaw’s mother (Lansbury) and her second husband, the ambitious Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), take advantage of their son’s popularity, using it to fuel Iselin’s re-election campaign. But recently, Capt. Marco, now a Major, has been haunted by a fuzzy memory, one suggesting Shaw is not the hero he appears to be. In truth, he, Shaw, and the entire platoon were kidnapped while in Korea, and brainwashed by Communist agents. The same hypnosis that convinced Marco and the others Shaw was a great guy also transformed Shaw into a deadly assassin, who doesn't realize he's been conditioned to act against his country. Now back in the U.S., Shaw is at the mercy of his American contact, and will carry out his covert mission without any memory of having done so. Will Marco learn the truth in time to stop Shaw, or is he already too late?
Frankenheimer couldn't have done a better job casting The Manchurian Candidate. Frank Sinatra hits all the right notes as Marco, a tortured individual whose mind is crying out for relief, even as it fights him every step of the way. Laurence Harvey is cold as the hypnotized killer, yet colder still when portraying the “real” Shaw, a foul-tempered, abrasive man who argues with absolutely everybody. If anything, his hypnotic conditioning is an improvement on his character, sending him into a dream state that makes him much more sedate. James Gregory plays the idiotic Sen. Iselin with a McCarthy-esque flair, declaring time and again, and usually when the cameras are rolling, that Communists are taking over the Defense Department. But it's Iselin's wife who pulls the strings. As Eleanor, Lansbury is the perfect embodiment of concentrated evil, wielding a terrible power over the men in her life and casting insults and accusations at anyone who stands against her. It's truly a performance for the ages. And you won't want to miss Janet Leigh in a small role as Marco's “girlfriend”, whose dialogue suggests she may be a bit more involved in the intrigue than she's letting on (“Maryland is a beautiful state” she says to Marco when they first meet on a train. He replies “This is Delaware”, to which she retorts, “Yes, I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. Nevertheless, Maryland is a beautiful state”. Yeah...pretty strange stuff!)
The Manchurian Candidate is an intense motion picture, with memories that are always just out of reach, and a false reality greeting its characters at every turn. You can spot the tension in their eyes as the camera closes in on them, revealing the crippling anguish in control of their minds. With incredible suspense that only grows stronger as the movie progresses, The Manchurian Candidate is, without a doubt, one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever put to film.