Run Time: 126 Minutes
The best way to start out any review of a film that was based on a novel, is state whether or not you read the book. I have not. So “The Manchurian Candidate” exists only as a film to me, and this might be why it suffers. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what/who is The Manchurian Candidate?
Released in 1962 during the Cold War, the film is about a Medal of Honor winner who returns home from the Korean War, trained to be the perfect assassin for the enemy. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and his whole squad were captured by the double agent, Chunjin (Henry Silva). They are then brainwashed into believing that Shaw rescued them in a heroic act. Since each man believes this, Shaw’s commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), nominates him for the Medal of Honor. We learn over the course of the first act of the film that the men in their unit all suffer from the same recurring dream of a garden club meeting that turns into a horrific nightmare. The focus of the film is Major Bennett Marco, who attempts to convince his superiors that something else happened to him and his men in Korea, something other than what they remember. As the audience, we know the truth, and the film is about the journey of each character putting the pieces together.
It is a great story for Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco. He is placed on lighter duty due to his condition and, through him, we see the sub-plot of the film take hold. Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is a prominent senator’s wife who hopes to use her son’s medal to further her husband’s political career. Shaw despises both his mother and his stepfather, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), so much that he ends up the suitor of their political rival Senator Thomas Jordan’s (John McGiver) daughter. This is not on purpose, but allows us a chance to see a softer side to Shaw’s unlikeable character. Marco is assigned to a political attachment and sees the extent to which Senator Iselin and his wife are willing to go to sell the fear of Communism.
So what goes wrong? The film itself suffers from two things. This is clearly Frank Sinatra’s film, as he is the lead bill of all the actors. So his Major Marco gets a love interest in Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh). What is so off-putting and a huge missed opportunity is that Leigh’s character comes out of nowhere, dumps her fiancé for Marco, and in a few short minutes they talk about marrying one another. Marco was brainwashed, too, so if Leigh was a Communist agent sent to control Marco, this would have explained their quick relationship and why she fell so hard and quick for him. She is not a Communist agent and merely there to give one of the biggest stars of all time someone to play with. So, Marco wasn’t Brainwashed to do anything other than say what a hero Shaw was? Nor were any of the other soldiers who returned home safely? All this leads me to believe that there might be more to the story of The Manchurian Candidate in the book. With a novel, we aren’t interested in screen time for big stars. We also don’t have to deal egos and love interests that “have to” be there. I feel as if this is Marco’s story, yet a lot of time is spent giving the character a love interest in a story that really doesn’t need it.
The other huge issue is that Laurence Harvey is not that great of an actor. First and foremost, his English accent slips, which is incredibly jarring as he is to be this American war hero. He can portray a cold-calculating killing zombie perfectly, but can’t for the entire film. His best work comes playing opposite of girlfriend, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), where the cold exterior really washes away. However, again, this doesn’t happen enough in the film to make you feel anything for him.
Director John Frankenheimer had a reputation of working with whom he wanted and pulling off the film he wanted to make. Angele Lansbury speaks of this in a new interview in the special features. She is the reason that so many viewers flock to The Manchurian Candidate time and time again. Her domineering mother is a role you rarely see in Hollywood anymore. The role won her the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Despite “Old Blue Eyes” giving a stellar performance, Lansbury’s mother from hell is the main reason this film has endured.
New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio commentary from 1997 featuring director John Frankenheimer
New interview with actor Angela Lansbury
New piece featuring filmmaker Errol Morris discussing his appreciation for The Manchurian Candidate
Conversation between Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and actor Frank Sinatra from 1987
New interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the Cold War brainwashing scare