This film is in my personal pantheon because it does such a great job of creating a disquieting nightmare onscreen. The skeleton of the story is a realistic one involving ambition and political machinations. In its fleshed-out final form, however, it rotates ever so slightly towards fantasy, creating an unforgettable dream-like tableau.
The film opens with an army squadron being betrayed and being captured by the enemy. We go to the opening credits. Then, we see Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who was one of the captured soldiers, being feted as a homecoming hero. So, how did the men escape? Then there’s the famous “Garden party”, where we see the men, still in uniform sitting in on a ladies discussion on hydrangeas. It takes a while to register that this is related to the soldiers’ brainwashing sessions. This jumbling of timelines, and switching between reality and dream is meant to disorient the viewer. It works.
Harvey’s portrayal of the cold, brittle Shaw is one of my favorite performances. Laurence Harvey was an interesting actor. Despite being hugely handsome, he invariably came across onscreen as a cold fish. That persona dovetails perfectly into the character of Raymond Shaw. At the aforementioned rally, Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather (James Gregory) are quick to attach themselves to him. He’s having none ofit, even proclaiming to the peporters present “He is NOT my father!” The distain that Raymond feels for these two comes off him in waves.
Then there’s the other landmark performance in TMC – That of Lansbury as the scheming mother. If you only know her from her TV fare like Murder, She Wrote, then this film is going to be a shocker for you. This is a lady who is thinking large – She wants control of the White House, and there’s nothing she won’t do to get it, including turning her son into a killer.
If you’ve read filmscreed much, you will recognize that I am someone who tries to see “sub-plots” everywhere. As such, The Manchurian Candidate is manna. First of all, there’s the Janet Leigh character, who dumps her fiancée after a 5 minute meeting on a train with Frank Sinatra’s Ben. The theory gets floated that she is also a Manchurian controller, and when you watch her initial conversation with Sinatra, it sure seems like he could be in a trance. The film dangles this possibility, but doesn’t go anywhere with it.
Then there’s the matter of Raymond and his mother. As I noted earlier, he has a pure, unalloyed hatred for her. I guess she loves him, but it’s a love that is all tangled up with her own agendas. She uses her control over him to force him to kill her chief rival, and also the man’s daughter – who happens to be the woman whom Raymond loves. I haven’t read the Richard Condon novel, but I know that Raymond beds his mother in it. The film naturally doesn’t go that far, but it offers a tantalizing hint in the form of a decidedly non-chaste kiss that mother lays upon son.
I just can’t say enough about the finale, as Sinatra rushes to try to thwart the assassination. I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, and although I know exactly how things are going to turn out, I still get drawn in. Frankenheimer turns the screws expertly and the tension amps up and up – and then he pulls the rug out from under us. And I love it when that happens.