In the wake of the death of the legendary Angela Lansbury, I thought I’d take another look at her third Oscar-nominated performance in the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s a film that disappeared for a while, so it’s lost a recognizability factor that other films produced in the early sixties still have. But this is one of the best of its kind, its kind being a paranoid thriller that gave birth to the genre that includes The Parallax View, Marathon Man, Blow-Up, Blow Out, and The Conversation.
The film is a great example of the taut early sixties, black-and-white films made by directors who began in television and moved into feature films, e.g., Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, James Brooks, Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, and of course, John Frankenheimer, the director of The Manchurian Candidate.
For those who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that this is a film released at the height of the Cold War involving communists, the Soviet Union, China, left-wingers right-wingers, brainwashing, and American politics of the time. However, one cannot help but notice the similarities between then and now. Surprisingly, the film functions as a one-size-fits-all film for those looking for contemporary resonance; lefties and righties alike can claim the byzantine conspiracies and evil power-brokers as extensions of their own world-view. Yet even then, the questions arose over whether the real bad guys were the feared communists or the McCarthyite communist-hunters.
While the overall plot of the film makes sense, there is a lot that doesn’t, which is one of the reasons this film has lasted; the things we might not completely understand only serve to add to the head-swirling the film consistently delivers. Janet Leigh’s character comes out of nowhere and raises a lot more questions than answers, a series of confusions that works in the film. How did lead Laurence Harvey’s mother and stepfather ever get together, and how did she ever become the monster she became? The film refuses to tie up loose ends and answer every question, and even ends with only a response, not any kind of answer or explanation.
But what a ride this film is. The brainwashing sequence toward the beginning is the stuff of legend, and is equal parts cinematically thrilling and deeply distressing. We see a lot more gore these days, but what occurs here is as shocking as any jump-scare in a modern horror film, yet all the more brutal in contrast to its matter-of-fact presentation. As the film slowly unveils its varied conspiratorial threads, the tension mount incredibly until its climax, which is both satisfying and devastating.
The film gives Frank Sinatra top billing, and he has the more dramatic character of the two male leads. But the film’s storyline belongs to Laurence Harvey, who does numbed and deadened characters as well as anyone. Sinatra, at this point an Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated, and greatly respected actor, leans into his sweaty, tortured, aging ex-serviceman who is caught between his own suffering and his desire to find out the truth behind it. There is no vanity in it, and his character’s angst is almost painful to watch at times. (Also, Sinatra engages in one of the first martial arts fights in an American film, something that comes off as surprising as any of the revelations of the film’s script.)
One note for those that have been as misinformed as I: This film was not banned after President Kennedy’s assassination the year after this film’s release. It is true that it was censored in several Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union for a time, and it was held back for a time by Sinatra in the 1970s, when he acquired the rights to it. But it first showed on television in 1965.
Frankenheimer’s style is clear and bracing, and has a surprising number of avant-garde touches that can be enjoyed. But he never slows down to indulge his own style or a performance; this is a film that moves. Frankenheimer wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award and a Golden Globe. The film was nominated for a BAFTA as well for the Best Film from Any Source. But the one towering performance is that of Angela Lansbury, who will erase all memories of her Oscar-nominated work in Gaslight in 1944, her Oscar-nominated work in The Picture of Dorian Gray the next year, Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and of course, Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.” Here she is the smartest person in the room, cold as ice and as calculating as they come, with a relationship with her son that is twisted in more ways than one. (To add to the discomfort, Lansbury, who often played older than she was, was only 36 to her movie son Laurence Harvey’s age of 33.) Lansbury lost her Oscar that year to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, which is understandable. But Lansbury’s performance is just as rich, if not as emotionally satisfying for the viewer. Keep your eye on her in every scene she is in, and you will see a master at work. She is brilliant and chilling.
As 1960’s Psycho was the originator of the modern horror film, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate is the mother (word chosen carefully) of the modern political thriller, specifically of the paranoid variety. Yes, it was remade with great actors and color. But this is the one you want to see.