In writing about The Manchurian Candidate, I want to open with a facetious joke about how unimaginable for young people the politics of October 1962 must have been, but I am so very tired. I’ll just say that like most things from the Cold War, John Frankenheimer’s eerily dark film—steeped in the paranoia of spy thrillers of the time, and released in theaters as Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear annihilation—is recognizable in the most exhausting way.
As the film turns 60—as the height of the Cold War turns 60, as six decades separate us from McCarthyism—I guess we’ve gotta talk about its world: The one where Russian strongmen and snarling American demagogues rage at each other in the limelight while dancing with one another in the shadows. The lines on the map they fight over are incidental. Behind them, deep in the territory of their enemies, they’re perfectly capable of finding people vengeful enough, ambitious enough, morally bankrupt enough to be their allies.
In some corner of the Korean War, a group of American GIs lead by Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a commanding officer with the kind of Mid-Atlantic accent nobody has anymore, are led into a trap. Somehow, they make it out and back stateside. It’s an inspiring story: Raymond, the stepson of an ambitious senator and his overbearing socialite mother, is now a war hero credited with saving his entire unit during a near-disastrous operation. But Raymond’s recollections of the event are fractured, and more than one of his Army colleagues are plagued by horrific nightmares that tell a very different tale of what happened during the op.
One of them, Marco (Frank Sinatra himself) can’t shake himself away from the night terrors: In them, his entire brainwashed unit sits in a garden party for some gathering of proper Southern ladies. When we zoom out, though, we discover that they’re being exhibited as the successful products of psychological reprogramming to a roomful of Communist intelligence officers (some played by actual Asian actors, unlike other Asian characters in the movie…).
The premise is on display for the audience immediately: Raymond is so brainwashed that, on command, he murders two of his own squadmates as they passively allow it. It’s a profoundly dark and inventive set piece, and one of the reasons people haven’t forgotten the movie in 60 years. At one point, we see the illusory garden party from the perspective of a different member of Raymond’s unit, Corporal Melvin (James Edwards). Melvin, who is Black, sees the “garden party” as populated entirely by Black women. It shows both the lengths and the limits of the programming, while beating the audience over the head with the sheer dissonance of a Black woman dressed in her Sunday best as she affects the intensity of a Soviet spymaster questioning Raymond’s handlers about how effective this perfect spy and assassin really is.
The spectacle plays this close to dark comedy when you see it in the context of Raymond’s stepfather, the blustering Senator Iselin (James Gregory), who surely must tuck Black women and Russian KGB into the same folder in his mind’s one tiny, dusty cabinet. While returning as a hero, the prickly Raymond is greeted by stifling fanfare courtesy of Iselin and, of course, Raymond’s mother Eleanor (the late, great Angela Lansbury). Senator Iselin’s claim to fame is yelling about how many Communists have infiltrated the U.S. government (he plaintively suggests to Eleanor that she at least try to keep the numbers consistent when those pesky reporters push back on his accusations). Raymond wants nothing to do with either of them, and who could blame him?
Meanwhile, certain that his nightmares and fractured memories of Raymond’s supposed heroism are more than just PTSD, Marco begins to investigate the war hero, and the weird things Raymond gets up to when he happens to stumble across the queen of diamonds in a deck of cards. Whoever holds that trump card has the power to tell Raymond to do anything, no matter how awful or against his nature.
I served them, I fought for them, I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they will ever have in this country, and they paid me back by taking your soul away from you. ... Because they thought it would bind me closer to them. But now we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then, when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.
It seems from the first reel that The Manchurian Candidate has already thrown out all its creepy twists, but it does save its last one until very late. We do finally learn whose hand has been chosen to show Raymond the queen of diamonds. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: Raymond’s mother has controlled every other aspect of his life, after all.
The Manchurian Candidate is the world’s best possible opportunity to look back upon Lansbury’s incredible career, since her presence in this film is proof of her range as an actor. Eleanor Iselin has to be the darkest role she ever played. It’s clear from the get-go that she views Raymond as an underling, and has spent her whole life infantilizing and micromanaging him, stifling him in every way imaginable. There’s a reason he’s a friendless jerk whose unit seems on the verge of fragging him. Every single member of his unit reacts with a kind of panicked disbelief when they discover that, when asked about their feelings toward him, they mechanically reply with an identical line of bullshit about how great he is. We learn the lengths to which Eleanor will go to control her son and crush his happiness, flashing back to a summer when he fell in love with the daughter of one of his stepfather’s political rivals. Raymond caves to his mother’s imperious demands that he stop seeing her.
It is plainly hilarious that, back in the present and right before the true reveal of her villainy, Lansbury’s character tries to court this same political player to support her husband’s bid for a run at the presidency. She has no concept of loyalty or principle: Why on Earth wouldn’t the man she libeled, whose daughter she contrived to break the heart of, not just abandon his convictions and throw in with her for power?
What follows is absurdly tragic: Raymond’s brainwashing is momentarily broken when the young woman he abandoned (but still loves, and who still yearns for him) turns up to a costume party dressed as the queen of diamonds. It’s too delicious a contrivance to fault the film for; for a moment, Raymond is the happiest man on Earth and Marco is trying, in vain, to get him to remember about the Communist conspiracy he happens to be entangled in. Marco’s investigation is too late, and Raymond’s will too weak, to stop what happens when Eleanor Iselin gives her son the order to kill his new father-in-law. A crime interrupted by his new wife.
Lansbury isn’t just an omnipresent, stifling mother figure. She is an authoritarian ogre, her husband a brutish demagogue who doesn’t care what he needs to say to get into power, only that he’d just really like to be in power. Their house is a shrine to Lincoln, the camera lingering lovingly on every bust and portrait of the first Republican president. Iselin is a clear analogue to Joseph McCarthy, a guy so cuddly that Wisconsin hasn’t elected another Republican to his old Senate seat since. Eleanor is something deeper and darker: She scowls through every line—but watch her face light up like a Christmas tree when she talks about what she hopes to achieve with her nefarious plot: Policies that will make martial law look like anarchy!
With Sinatra as the headliner and Janet Leigh in a minor role, The Manchurian Candidate was a hot item. That it landed in the years when Hollywood was still reeling from the fallout of McCarthyism, during a time when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were daring one another to send nukes flying, makes it the perfect film for its time.
But it’s also pretty easy to see our current reality reflected back at us now in its plot, with Russia again screaming about how it’ll deploy nukes, with Republicans who yell “Socialism!” at absolutely everything while rooting for a twisted sociopath of a world leader who has ruled with an iron fist for 20 years and was an actual KGB agent.
It’s not the quiet ones you should worry about, The Manchurian Candidate argues, but the ones who drape themselves in the flag and will not shut up. Thanks to what shred of self-actualization he has left, Raymond sees that they don’t get what they want. History usually denies them that in the end. But, as in The Manchurian Candidate, the fix is too late and the cost is too high.
Kenneth Lowe is the the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.