Spy 100, #6: The Manchurian Candidate

Its inclusion on the list is unassailable, but on this viewing I wonder if The Manchurian Candidate (1962) might be a bit over-ranked. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely memorable fare, but I think it succeeds more as a fierce, pointed political screed than as a straight-up spy film.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns to the United States a decorated war hero, having single-handedly saved nine men in his unit from certain death. Or did he? Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) starts to question his memory of events when disturbing dreams begin disrupting his peacetime life. In the dreams, he recalls his Korean experiences differently: he and his squad mates, Shaw included, are surrounded by cultured ladies — or are the communist military leaders? — undergoing a strange sort of conditioning. And the heroic Raymond Shaw seems to be callously murdering his friends. Something’s not right, and as the dreams start to derail Marco’s career, he goes rogue to confront Shaw and find out what’s going on. His investigation leads to troubling revelations: he thinks the entire squad may have been brainwashed, and Shaw in particular may have been programmed to commit crimes against his own country. Not entirely sure he isn’t cracking up, Marco sets out to crack the mystery of what happened to him and his unit, and stop the enemy from making use of Shaw.

Oh, I love The Manchurian Candidate. This is John Frankenheimer at his incisive, artistic best, and the film’s eery, Twilight Zone-esque dream sequences set a very compelling stage. It’s got Frank Sinatra at its center, sweating and twitching and oozing paranoia. Angela Lansbury shreds the screen as Shaw’s vicious, horrible, politically connected mother. There’s Janet Leigh, underused but glowing with riveting, Old Hollywood star power. For us Mission: Impossible geeks, it’s full of familiar faces, from James Gregory to Khigh Dhiegh to Albert Paulsen. And the film just drips with the nasty political edge and creeping paranoia of Frankenheimer’s best work.

But the genre enthusiast in me found aspects of this one wanting, particularly in terms of plot logic. It lacks that sense of carefully structured inevitability that the best spy films seem to possess. It also telegraphs its moves a bit, failing to capitalize on opportunities for surprise and intrigue. I think, in the end, it’s more interested in its overarching political metaphor — as eloquently laid out in a blazing monologue from Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) — than in its espionage mechanics.

Which is, of course, fine. It’s still a great movie, which — along with Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May and Seconds — constitutes some of my favorite 1960s cinema. Its final plot twist makes for a quite satisfying exclamation point, and much of the genre furniture is perfectly in place. I think #6 may be a smidge high in terms of its list placement, but overall The Manchurian Candidate is definitely must-watch spy cinema.

2 thoughts on “Spy 100, #6: The Manchurian Candidate”

  1. I agree with you, but I think some of our reaction is because this is was a very new concept — brainwashing hadn’t been something people took seriously. My parents lived in NYC then and met Condon a few times and always said that was what made the book especially powerful and creepy at the time which was during the Cold War.

    I still think it’s brilliant, especially in the way it’s shot (the circle shot where the flower club changes to the enemy), and Angela Landsbury is amazing. I still don’t understand why they bothered to remake this one. Did you see it?

    Favorite trivia — Landsbury was only 3 years older than Harvey.

    1. I did see the remake, years ago. It did seem a story weirdly out of context…although I remember being impressed by Liev Schreiber as Shaw. But yes, this is far superior. And I think its impact (and perhaps it ranking on the list) is quite era-specific.

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