It was a bit of surprise when I once learned that Frank Sinatra was considered for the role of “Dirty” Harry Callahan. As far as I knew, Sinatra was a singer, not some tough guy actor. Heck, when I did learn that, I don’t think Sinatra had appeared in a single movie in years, so why should I have thought of him as an actor?
At some point, I saw The Manchurian Candidate and realized what a talent Sinatra was.
That said, there’s a lot going on in The Manchurian Candidate beyond Sinatra playing a good, no-nonsense tough guy caught in the middle of a Communist plot to plant a puppet in the White House. There’s a taught script, moody direction from John Frankenheimer, and great supporting turns from a cast that includes Janet Leigh and Lawrence Harvey.
Oh, and then there’s Angela Lansbury.
There have been a lot of evil mothers in cinema over the decades, but somehow I doubt any come across as twisted as Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin. Even before she is revealed as the communist agent giving the final set of instructions to her brainwashed son to assassinate his own father-in-law, an act that also leads to the death of Medal of Honor winner Raymond Shaw (Harvey) to kill his sweet, innocent wife, we see Iselin goading her son, controlling her Joe McCarthy-esque simpleton Senator husband, and generally being more about political advantages and nasty put-downs than anything resembling a loving mother.
And Lansbury was only three years older than Harvey…
But this is a movie where the audience can probably sit there wondering how much of what is happening isn’t part of this grand communist plot. The movie opens with a U.S. Army patrol in Korea being called to order by the group’s Sergeant Shaw. Led by Captain–later Major–Bennett Marco, the patrol is captured by communist agents, and all but two are later released with a story of Shaw’s heroics, enough to win Shaw the Medal of Honor and make him a national hero (with his mother using his return as an opportunity to promote her husband’s relection campaign). There’s just one problem. Marco, now working for Army Intelligence, is having nightmares about a meeting of a horticultural society meeting where the little old ladies gradually shift and change into Chinese and Soviet agents.
You know, we learn later the other survivors of the patrol are having the same nightmares, but in a nice detail, the patrol’s lone African American soldier sees the old women as black instead of white. In a more distracting moment, this was clearly made back when all Americans assumed all communist states automatically got along. Today we know the Chinese and the Soviets weren’t exactly the best of friends…
But what happened during their time as prisoners? The soldiers were brainwashed with special attention paid to Sgt. Shaw. To show how complete his brainwashing is, Shaw strangles one soldier and shoots the most beloved member of the patrol.
The plot, essentially, is to use Shaw as an assassin to put his step-father in the White House. His own mother, who spends a good deal of screentime bashing commies at every opportunity, is his handler, and it becomes a race against time for Marco to figure out what happened to Shaw and stop him before he does something he’ll regret…or at least stop him from doing something that could ruin the nation. And with agents everywhere, it can be forgiven if the audience thinks Marco’s love interest Eugenie (Janet Leigh) might also be an agent of some kind given how the two meet on a train and the odd conversation they have,
That’s a credit to the script. But another big piece of what makes this movie great is director Frankenheimer. This is a movie full of stark angles and deep shadows, where defacing symbols of America happens rather frequently. Take a climactic costume party scene where Iselin attempts to put some final instructions into her son. She’s already decided to let Shaw marry the daughter of one of her husband’s political rivals in the hopes of getting the man’s support for her husband’s bid for the Vice Presidential slot in the upcoming presidential election. The first shot of the party shows an American flag cake with a guest taking a big section of the center of it. Iselin’s husband’s costume is Abraham Lincoln. And in a later scene when Shaw goes to shoot his father-in-law, he does so while standing under a bald eagle plague.
Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised the visual trigger for Shaw is a playing card, namely the Queen of Diamonds, a red woman, with red being both blood and communism.
With tension that could be cut by a knife, the movie ends on the same sort of stark note it began on. It may end with good American values triumphing over the traitors amongst us, but it also ends with a poor, virtually friendless man shooting himself in the head after his own mother had him doing all manner of horrible things. A film like this, that may be the best hope actually has.
NEXT UP: It’s another of my all-time favorites, one I typically rank at #3 on my list if anyone actually asks, the 1976 television satire Network.