Every once in a rare while a film comes along that “works” in all departments, with story, production and performance so well blended that the end effect is one of nearly complete satisfaction. Such is “The Manchurian Candidate,” George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer’s jazzy, hip screen translation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury all giving top performances, the picture not only has strong built-in boxoffice values, but the controversial makings for the kind of word-of-mouth that turns a good grosser into a blockbuster.
The exact nature of “Manchurian Candidate” may be hard to define, but perhaps “suspense melodrama” is the best term. Its story of the tracking down of a brainwashed Korean war “hero,” being used as the key figure in an elaborate Communist plot to take over the U.S. government, is, on the surface, one of the wildest fabrications any author has ever tried to palm off on a gullible public. But the fascinating thing is that, from uncertain premise to shattering conclusion, one does not question plausibility: the events being rooted in their own cinematic reality.
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As scripted by Axelrod and directed by Frankenheimer, who also double as coproducers under exec producer Howard W. Koch, “Manchurian Candidate” gets off to an early start (before the credits) as a dilemma wrapped in an enigma: a small American patrol in Korea is captured by the Chinese Communists. Shortly thereafter, the sergeant of the group, Laurence Harvey, is seen being welcomed home in Washington as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, having been recommended for that award by his captain, Frank Sinatra, who led the illfated patrol. But something is obviously wrong. Harvey himself admits to being the least likely of heroes, and Sinatra, though he testifies that the sergeant is ‘the bravest, most honorable, most loyal’ man he knows, realizes this is completely untrue. But why?
The captain’s subsequent pursuit of the truth comprises the bizarre plot which ranges from the halls of Congress, New York publishing circles and an extremely unlikely Communist hideout in mid-Manhattan, to a literally stunning climax at a Madison Square Garden political convention.
Like all the best films, there probably has never been anything quite like “The Manchurian Candidate” before, though in sheer bravado of narrative and photographic styles it shares the tradition of Hitchcock, Capra, Welles and Hawks. In character and incidental comment, it displays irreverence towards hallowed cliches, be they (all-consuming) mother love, the commercialization of Christmas (“‘The 12 Days of Christmas’?–one day is quite loathsome enough”), Iron Curtain spies (here the Russ agent is an apprehensive boor and the Chinese a whimsical, literate mind from outer Manchuria, if not space), to say nothing of homegrown political frauds who hide behind portraits of Abe Lincoln. A major character in the proceedings is a thinly disguised takeoff on the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, played with farsical but devastating gusto by James Gregory. “The Manchurian Candidate” thus restores a topical excitement to American films which has been almost totally lacking since Hollywoodites starting taking up residence abroad. This film could not have been made anywhere but in the U.S.
“Candidate” must inevitably come up for a bundle of Oscar nominations next spring. Most likely to succeed is Angela Lansbury, whose performance as Harvey’s scheming, caustic mother (“Raymond, why do you always have to look as if your head were about to come to a point?”) is one of the most poignant and diamond-hard of the ear. Equally good is Harvey, who succeeds in making appealing a character correctly described as “completely unlovable”–by far his best role since “Room at the Top.” Also ripe for kudos are Frankenheimer, as director, and Axelrod, for best script from another medium.
Less showy, but no less effective, is Sinatra who, after several pix in which he appeared to be sleep-walking, is again a wide-awake pro creating a straight, quietly humorous character of some sensitivity. A pleasant surprise is Janet Leigh as a sweet, swinging N.Y. career girl. The actress only has two or three scenes, but they count. One especially, on a Washington-to-New York train in which she picks up a semi-hysterical Sinatra, registers as one of the great love scenes since Bogart and Bacall first tossed non-sequiturs at one another in “To Have and Have Not.” (“Are you Arabic?” asks Miss Leigh, “Or, to put it another way, are you married?”). One of the brilliant achievements of the film is the way Axelrod and Frankenheimer have been able to blend the diverse moods, including the tender and explosively funny as well as the satiric and brutally shocking.
Supporting work, with perhaps one exception, is fine. Henry Silva is suitably sinister as a Red agent and pretty Leslie Parrish is lively and believable as Harvey’s illfated romance. Only John McGiver, as a liberal senator who, presumably, should be appealing, since he’s portrayed as being on the side of right, strikes a false note. It’s a mannered, pompous performance right out of summer stock.
Some mention should be made too of the form of the film. Though it includes three flashbacks (two of which are hypnotically weird dream sequences), the picture moves forward with a constantly increasing tension and momentum which never allow for audience second-guessing of the macabre plot twists or coincidences. The quick cuts and tricky juxtaposition of scenes match the flamboyance of the script. So do Lionel Lindon’s slick b/w photography and Ferris Webster’s editing. David Amram’s music is a witty, though never obtrusive counterpoint to the action.
1962: Nominations: Best Supp. Actress (Angela Lansbury), Editing