This week Kevin elected to not show a short due to the length of the feature. Frankly (Frankenheimerly?) it really isn’t that long (only a few minutes north of two hours) but that’s neither here nor there. No short. The feature is easily one of the greatest films of all time and one that Kevin has been wanting to show for a while – John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
The one sheet for the film breathlessly tells us “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about!” You know what? That’s pretty much a bald-faced lie. The fact of the matter is that there’s not a lot of mystery surrounding the plot of The Manchurian Candidate, and Frankenheimer goes to great length to make sure that the audience understands the thrust of the movie from the early-going, and reinforces it over and over.
The film begins with a squadron of American soldiers being captured in the Korean War, victims of a betraying interpreter. Their escape is not shown, but it turns out that Raymond Shaw, stepson of Senator Iselin, is awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in their escape, in which two of the squadron were killed. But not all is well in Medal-mark. Shaw hates his mother for marrying his uncle shortly after his own father’s death…oh, sorry! Wrong story! But Shaw does resent both his mother and her new husband, whom he insists on pointing out is not his father to anybody who dares make the mistake. The rest of the squadron isn’t doing so well either. Major Bennett Marco is one of several who is the same disturbing dream, one that has driven him to drink.
They all revolve around the squadron being the honored guests at a Sino-Russian tea party where the Chinese and the Soviets morph between aging English dowagers and military folk and their American guests have been hypnotized into ennui. But the dream is far worse than just that.
You see, in the dream Shaw casually murders two members of the squad (the exact two who didn’t make it home wouldn’tchaknowit?) under hypnotic suggestion. It’s quite clear to the audience that this “dream” is the reality of the situation, and while Marco does not at first believe it to be literally true, he’s affected enough to be taken off of active duty.
Strange interlude time! Marco meets Janet Leigh on a train. They discuss odd, nonsensical things. She claims to be one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the current track, which is why she knows that they’re in Delaware despite non-sequiturially asserting that Maryland is a beautiful state. She can’t quite decide whether her name ought to be Eugenie or Ginny or Rosie and she uses weird code words like “arabic” for “married”. She insists on making a drunk guy memorize her phone number and then goes home an breaks up with her fiancé because she’s totally got a good feeling about that addlepated stranger on the train.
None of it makes any sense, and she does essentially nothing for the plot. But back to the good parts of the film.
We learn that Senator Iselin (the future Manchurian Candidate) is a nincompoop McCarthyist who can’t even keep straight the number of alleged card-carrying Communists he claims there to be in the State Department, largely because puppetmaster extraordinaire Mrs. Senator Iselin is leading him about by the nose. She astutely points out that people aren’t asking whether there are Commies in the State Department, but how many, and she considers that a success.
The Senator eventually settles on the very red number of 57 card-carrying Commies in the State Department.
Shaw hates his mother not only for her politics, but also for the fact that she played a key role in breaking up a relationship between himself and the daughter of a “Commie” Senator – they met one day by the lake near their respective summer retreats when she found him writhing on the ground and treated him for snakebite. If anybody’s got a spare water moccasin lying around, I think I could use a bit of a nip, myself.
While this whole backstory is coming through, Marco has been following Shaw around, trying to figure him out, at the same time that his Sino-Russian handlers are reactivating his programming – this they do by first asking him to play a game of solitaire (Always Canfield! No love for La Belle Lucie! No love for Forty Thieves! No love for Pyramid!) – a suggestion which he can’t refuse – and then they are able to implant his next instruction when he sees the Queen of Diamonds. They have him kill his boss at the newspaper where he works to make sure he’s still under their control in preparation to turn him over to his “American handler”.
Marco starts to put the whole thing together (perhaps a bit too facilely) when a bartender’s offhand suggestion of solitaire followed by an exhortation to go jump in a lake, directed at other customers, results in Shaw literally walking out of the bar and jumping into a lake in a sort of trance.
But in the meantime, Shaw’s mother is throwing a costume party. Ostensibly she tells him it’s intended to get him and his former girlfriend back together after she has taken a several year break from the world in France, but it would appear that her true purpose is to attempt to get the support of the girl’s father in her attempt to get Senator Iselin onto the Republican ticket as the vice-presidential candidate. But there’s even more than that.
The most bone-chilling moment of the film, bar none, is when Shaw’s McCarthyite mother takes him aside into an empty room…and suggests that he play some solitaire. She’s the American handler! The Red Scare Queen herself is working with the Reds! The political spectrum has wrapped around on itself just like the visible spectrum! But the Mrs. is distracted by other duties just long enough for the bizarre to happen.
Yep, the “Commie” Senator’s daughter comes in coincidentally dressed as Shaw’s programming trigger. Go figure. Thirty seconds later, she and Shaw have eloped. I wonder what she said to him?
At this point the action starts flying fast and furious. Having (unsurprisingly) failed to earn the support of her brand new daughter-in-law’s father, Mrs. Iselin programs Shaw to kill him, and when his own wife walks in on the event, he kills her too. Of course, he remembers none of it, and the vice-presidential nod goes to the nincompoop.
Marco, having figured out everything except the ultimate purpose of Shaw’s recruitment, tries to deprogram him in advance of his next assignment (one which Shaw does not yet know) and whether wisely or unwisely, lets Shaw go get that assignment so he can report back to the authorities.
The assignment turns out to be the assassination of the Republican presidential nominee at the RNC (during his acceptance speech, no less), which will elevate the unqualified Iselin to the candidacy and give him a consolidating wave of patriotic support, that he (and his puppetmaster wife, and the Chinese, and the Russians) will ride into the White House. President Iselin will be everybody’s stooge. But rather than report back to Marco and the authorities, Shaw goes black, and as he walks in a zombie-like trance into his assassin’s perch, Marco is desperately trying to find him, fearing the deprogramming hasn’t worked.
Oh, but it has! First goes the Senator, then goes mother. And that third bullet Shaw loaded into the rifle? “You couldn’t stop them, the army couldn’t stop them, so I had to…Oh, damn it, Ben!” he says, and shoots himself. No mean feat, with a rifle. He dies with his Congressional Medal of Honor on, which is a bit ironic, considering the events he earned it for were a complete Soviet/Chinese fabrication.
It’s a great film, and Angela Lansbury gives one of the finest performances in ever. Outside of the Janet Leigh subplot, it’s basically a perfect movie. And speaking of, Janet Leigh had a tendency around this time to star in films with overbearing mothers, didn’t she?