Friday, October 18, 2013

Another Look: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962 film)

Been years since I saw this movie and was pleasantly surprised after a recent DVR viewing at how well it holds up. It remains very powerful and actually quite chilling in a couple key scenes, even when you know what's coming.

I should make it clear that I have never read the 1959 novel by Richard Condon upon which this film is based, nor have I seen the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington. So my remarks here are based strictly on the 1962 film version --- considered a "classic" by many --- starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury (cast very much against the Bednobs & Broomsticks/ Murder, She Wrote character types she will likely always be best remembered for – despite her performance here receiving an Academy Award nomination).

The basic plot of MC is centered on the son of a prominent right-wing political family being brainwashed (along with the rest of his platoon) after getting captured by enemy forces during the Korean War. Their brief period of captivity takes place in Manchuria at the hands of a joint Soviet/Communist Chinese team of interrogation/mind control experts. The politico son, Lt. Raymond Shaw, is conditioned to become a "sleeper" agent upon being released and returned to the States. Shaw and the other men of the platoon are further brainwashed to believe that Shaw heroically "saved" the platoon (except for two members he actually killed in cold blood to demonstrate the success of his conditioning). Subsequently, back Stateside, Shaw is recommended for and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Shaw's mother-in-law, the driving force behind the political career of her otherwise inept husband, Senator Iselan (Shaw's stepfather), utilizes the CMH to reflect positively on Iselan in order to aid in his climb up the political ladder to the point of him becoming his party's candidate to run for vice president in the upcoming election.
Ultimately, Shaw's "sleeper" role is revealed to be that of an assassin assigned to kill the presidential candidate at a key moment during the convention and thereby elevate Iselan to the slot of new presidential candidate with tremendous emotional momentum behind him.

It is only when the nightmares of Capt. Marco, Shaw's commanding officer during the capture/brainwashing, finally break through and begin revealing the truth of what really happened back in Korea, instead of Shaw's platoon-saving "bravery", that Shaw begins to fall under scrutiny. Military Intelligence forms a counter team, headed by Marco, to try and figure out the complete plan set in motion by the brainwashers and then stop it before it's fully executed (no pun intended).
Everything comes right down to the last-second climax in as tense and suspenseful three or four final minutes as you're likely to find in any movie. And the opening sequence, as we are watching a demonstration of the brainwashing's "success" and the camera is cutting back and forth between the Soviet and Chinese captors who are present in reality and the Ladies Garden Club members who are merely an illusion as seen by the captives, is hardly less memorable.

Sinatra plays Marco, Harvey is Lt. Shaw, and Lansbury is Mrs. Iselan (Shaw's mother). None of them has ever  been better. The rest of cast is fine, too. And while it's never a chore to simply watch Janet Leigh on screen (and her performance here is slick and professional as always), the role she is given seems unnecessary and ill-fitted to the rest of the movie. Her whole introductory scene (where she meets Sinatra on a train) is awkward and extremely odd, then a romance between the two is established, then Janet sort of fades away in the last quarter of the film.

A final matter worth mentioning (at least I think so) is a fight scene that takes place between Sinatra and Henry Silva. In my humble opinion, it marks the first karate fight in American film. There are those who insist that distinction goes to Spencer Tracy in Bad Day At Black Rock, where he plays a one-armed war vet who dispatches baddie Earnest Borgnine with some Oriental fighting skills. To me, however, they seem more ju-jitsu than karate (with the exception of one or two chops, one to the back of the neck). At any rate, the Sinatra/Silva fight is much longer and better staged and certainly has a lot more chopping, kicking, flipping, and furniture smashing.

All and all, this is a very good movie. If you haven't seen it in a while, it deserves another look; if you've never seen it, keep an eye peeled and check it out if you get the chance. You won't be sorry.

1 comment:

Tom Johnson said...

Definitely one of the best Cold War films made. Thanks for the review, Wayne. I agree about the fight scene too, though I understand there was a double for Silva in the karate fight, but Sinatra looked good. Oh, Shaw was a sergeant, not a lieutenant.