Political and conspiracy thrillers do not always age well. Many of them are so firmly anchored in their day and age that the passing of time and changes in society render them naïve, illogical or ridiculous. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is certainly of its time: the era of the Cold War, Reds under the bed, a succession of Asian wars and the McCarthy witch hunts, the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the Kennedy assassination, which it is often seen as prefiguring. So why does it retain its ability to shock and its relevance to generation after generation? Because for all the James Bond shenanigans and the talk of Communists and Chinese, it’s not really about any of those things.
At first The Manchurian Candidate seems to play out like a comedy. Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra, an excellent performance he considered his personal best) has been having nightmares. He sees himself and his unit from the Korean War sitting in a hotel lobby, bored out of their minds, while a local horticultural society holds a meeting about hydrangeas. Then the image changes; now they’re in a lecture hall surrounded by Russian and Chinese officials, and it’s not flowers they’re discussing but the fact that the hated sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed and reprogrammed as a remote control assassin. These hints and half-glimpses are enough to convince Marco and his superiors that something serious is under way. Meanwhile, Shaw’s domineering mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and her boozy, under-intelligent husband Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) are revealing to the world that large numbers of ‘card-carrying communists’ have infiltrated key US government departments.
It’s a move straight out of the McCarthy playbook, and Iselin is a scathing, deliberate caricature of McCarthy (Richard Condon’s original novel was published two years after the senator’s death). Like McCarthy, Iselin never actually provides any concrete evidence to back up his claim; after all, he only says there are 57 communists in the Department of Defense because he happened to see a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup that morning. In private Iselin is dominated by his brilliant, callous wife, and on screen Gregory is overshadowed by a captivating Lansbury performance. It’s only when it becomes clear just how willing she is to mentally, spiritually and eventually physically obliterate her son in furtherance of her own ambitions that Eleanor Iselin Shaw becomes one of the cinema’s most memorable villains. By that point the Chinese and Russians have long since faded into the background, their hackneyed representations rendered obsolete (and unnecessary) by Eleanor’s diabolical schemes, schemes that go much further than Communist takeovers.
Ultimately that’s the reason why The Manchurian Candidate has lasted better than its contemporaries. Not only is the central conspiracy entirely feasible and practical, but in just a few minutes it’s possible to come up with a sizeable number of examples from history where similar things have been tried and (for the more paranoid viewer) have quite possibly succeeded. Whether you’re in favour of remakes or not, a post-9/11 reworking of The Manchurian Candidate was an utterly logical step, and the surprising quality of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version suggests that certain points still need to be made.
Watch the original theatrical trailer: