"What The Manchurian Candidate did prefigure - what it acted out, what it played out, in advance - was the state of mind that would accompany the assassinations that followed it, those violations of American public life. It prefigured the sense that the events that shape our lives take place in a world we cannot see, to which we have no access, that we will never be able to explain. If a dream is a memory of the future, this is the future The Manchurian Candidate remembered. " (Marcus, p.75)
In this BFI Classic Greil Marcus constructs with striking unconventionality in brilliant elliptical dimensionality an explorative text demonstrating how The Manchurian Candidate (1962) has burrowed deeply into American culture, becoming at once an ineradicable piece of contemporary mythology and an enigma as yet unresolved.
Post-1963 America, presided over by: a President who succeeded because of an assassination that has never been officially admitted; a President who was removed from office; a President who was not elected and who was informed by his Vice-President (who was also not elected) that he did not care to run. Respectively Johnson, Nixon and Ford. A sham democracy run by secret forces . . . How did this break down? Only by plan? Stitching together the loose threads of post-war history - Cuban minions, CIA novelists, Mafia assassins, West Coast defence contractors - a seamless cloak of conspiracy can be fabricated.
A nightmare still shelters in the public psyche. A long, national nightmare to be precise. Gerald Ford claimed the nightmare was over when Nixon resigned, but maybe this was premature. The Kennedy assassination, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, MIA's, radiation experiments on terminal patients, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roswell. Where will it end?
Where exactly the nightmare began is a more definable notion: 1947. That year saw the beginning of the cold war, Nixon first took office in Congress, the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) began "investigating" communist "infiltration" in the media, and the apparition of the "Roswell crash".
"When a movie has become part of the folklore of a nation, the borders between the movie and the nation cease to exist. The movie becomes a fable; then it becomes a metaphor." (Marcus, p.14)
In 1962 John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod produced The Manchurian Candidate. Intelligent, darkly comic, superbly written, beautifully played and brilliantly directed, it is a study of the all-embracing fantasy in everyday social, emotional and political existence. The narrative follows Korean war veteran Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) who is continually disturbed by a nightmare in which Congressional Medal of Honor hero Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) carries out Communist instructions to shoot fellow American POW's. Working for Intelligence, Marco unravels an enigmatic Red plot to brainwash and turn Shaw into an assassin. Shaw's father-in-law is a ranting McCarthyite, Senator Iselin (James Gregory) a mouthpiece for Shaw's ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury) a political background which gives the killer access to the highest power-figures. Who is Shaw's American control? When and where are they going to aim him?
"The plot of The Manchurian Candidate is an exploration of terrors floating in the air in 1959: the terror of McCarthyism, where in the United States any citizen could at any time be called a Communist and then blacklisted, deprived of her job, cast out of his community; the terror of Communist brainwashing, good American boys in Korea tortured with beatings, castor oil, drugs, with unimaginable techniques, until they denounced their own country and praised their own enemies. " (Marcus, p.44)
Effortlessly shifting to historic/"real" time Marcus relates how Frankenheimer (a campaign supporter) witnesses Robert Kennedy's assassination - an event that subsequently haunted Frankenheimer's life - "Bobby said, "When I say, "Let's win it in Chicago", go and get the car. I'll come right out." I was standing there in an archway, feeling like someone in The Manchurian Candidate," Frankenheimer said; and in the scene in his own movie set in the briefing room used by the secretary of defence, he found the action taking place both in the flesh and on TV screens. "I can see Bobby's face on a big television monitor in the ballroom and I can see his back for real. As I stood there a figure went by me and it was as if there was electricity coming out of his body. I've never felt anything like it before or since. Of course it was Sirhan Sirhan."
The greatest virtues of Frankenheimer's version of Richard Condon's tragically prophetic 1959 novel reside in the complex use of frames within frames - often TV monitors in the foreground - to provide a wealth of information within a single image. Equally effective in creating mood is its brilliant balancing acts - political satire and taut thriller, the twin lunacies of Left and Right, and the outrageously funny dialogue during the parallel courtship set against the sadness of unlovable Shaw's predicament. However, it is the assassination sequence that gives the film its resonance, appearing, as events unfolded, to be an uncanny forecast of the death of a President.
At the end of the film, as Raymond Shaw perches high in Madison Square Garden - positioned to assassinate the presidential nominee but instead shoots his stepfather Senator Iselin - there is an instant cut to Raymond's mother, seated next to the senator, as she realizes what's coming. A second bullet goes through her forehead, and her hand jerks to her head - just as everyone who has seen the film since November 22 1963 has to remember, President Kennedy's hands would go to his neck.
The plot of The Manchurian Candidate is an excuse - an excuse for the pleasure of its violence. That is you see everything you believed was fixed and given suspended in the air and then crashing and burning on the ground. That's the thrill. The Manchurian Candidate revels in absurdity, works off its energy, takes absurdity as a power principle: the power of entertainment.
When you watch The Manchurian Candidate, a black and white film comprising of fragments and sections of Hitchcock and Orson Welles, of Psycho (1960) and Citizen Kane (1941) most notably - and perhaps less directly, but more completely, taking Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) out of sci-fi and re-positioning it in its history - what is overwhelmingly apparent is a sense of what the film does that films not longer seem to do. The dynamics of the film are so strong, you may not grasp the dislocating paranoia until the second time you see it, the third or even the tenth - but that sense, that compulsion will keep drawing you back.
Reviewed by Adrian Gargett