Fiction has given the McCarthy era Red Scare an almost mythical quality, where a charge of communism can feel like both a life-ruining accusation and a playground insult. The 1962 suspense thriller The Manchurian Candidate may be one of the most self-servingly ridiculous tales in this regard next to other Cold War contemporaries, but thanks to performances that are above and beyond the call of duty and clever satire that’s remained quite on target, it easily stands as one of the best in its regiment. Now, thanks to a high quality restoration from Arrow Films, this brave little gem of American cinema can stand tall in your black and white Blu-Ray collection.
After harrowingly leading his platoon from the capture of Korean forces to the safety of American soil, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is awarded the congressional medal of honour. Whilst his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) uses her son’s newfound valour to further the political status of her senator husband, Shaw’s commander Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) begins to have vivid nightmares in which he and all the squad members are brainwashed by their Communist captors, who have seemingly chosen the decorated Sergeant as their mind-controlled pawn of choice in a dangerously calculated move.
Once you get over the silliness of the premise (trust us, you’ll have to), it’s easy to appreciate the spins this Cold War caper gives to both the very nature of espionage and to having any kind of blind, unquestionable loyalty to an ideal. It’s interesting to lay parallels between Shaw’s games of solitaire (the trigger mechanism used to control his actions) and the way political leaders themselves are reduced to nothing more than a pack of playing cards.
This hand of societal subversion is also nicely dealt with in the cinematography. Marco’s nightmare scene, in which the Communist top brass demonstrate Shaw’s obedience, is presented simultaneously with a meeting of a woman’s flower club, with the camera transitioning between the two in an indistinguishable, single take. Though the editing, freedom from censorship and impromptu karate fights feel like an understandable product of their time, the brutal moments of the film’s climax are exceptionally well shot by any modern standard.
One should never lay praise to The Manchurian Candidate though without suitably lauding the performances. Lansbury, playing completely against her Murder She Wrote character, won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy award for this role, which encloses equal amounts of bold, brutal ambition with an unquestionable level of motherly love. Whilst Laurence Harvey sounds oddly like a time-travelling Benedict Cumberbatch, he delivers a harrowing monologue in the second act that instantly redeems the cold-heart of his unlovable character. Even though this isn’t the best of Sinatra’s roles, he still lends his iconic voice to the quintessential, all American image of a post-WWII solider.
Despite having fuelled flames for discussions on the Kennedy Assassination and being filmed in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this commie drama succeeds at staying relevant thanks to clever risks in presenting its surreal story, and one of the most well matched ensemble casts of its time. By taking pot shots all over the political spectrum, it also serves modern audiences with a cautionary tale; even if there was no communist takeover behind all that anti-communist hysteria, the mimetic lunacy of the whole affair is history we don’t have to be doomed to repeat.
Words > Graham Ashton