The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer

The next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Dr. Strangelove is Frankenheimer’s incredible thriller that still has the power to chill to this very day. In fact, it seems even more relevant today than when it was released.

It’s 1952, during the Korean War. An American patrol, including soldiers Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), are seized by a Russian force and held for three days. They and their squad undergo indoctrination and ‘brain-washing’ and Shaw becomes their prize pupil.

Released three days later, with no memory of the incident only troubling dreams (which are put together incredibly well) the men try to go back to their lives State-side, where they are hailed as heroes. This is something that Shaw’s mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury – who was only three years older than Harvey) and senator, and presidential hopeful John Iselin (James Gregory) plan to make political hay out of.

But there is even more going on, as the Russian’s plan is put into action. A plan overseen by the most terrifying and highest reaching people in the government, with Shaw being used as the weapon and tool to implement it.

Marco knows that something more is going on, and he knows Shaw is at its centre, he just needs to prove it, and stop it before it’s too late.


Incredibly chilling, tightly paced, and wonderfully acted, the themes, and just the idea of Russians being involved in our political process, rings a lot of bells.

I also love the pairing of Sinatra and Harvey. Sinatra brings a rough-edged grit to his role, while Harvey, with that perfectly nuanced and toned voice is able to deliver the pathos as he descends into the horrors he’s made to perform.

Janet Leigh, who plays Sinatra’s love interest Eugenie, is sadly relegated to the sidelines, having little to do with the actual plot. Which is unfortunate, every time the story cuts away to interact with Marco and Eugenie, the film slows, not quite losing momentum, but it definitely falters.

The use of Lincoln in the Iselin household serves as a thematic contrast to their plans, one that recurs in pictures, busts, even costumes. It’s unnerving, but not nearly as much as the use of the deck of cards, and the immediate effect it has on Shaw.

In fact Harvey’s performance is incredibly chilling, especially when he is no longer able to control his actions. There are two assassination sequences, and the first one is stunning, quick, violent, and heartbreaking. All you see is the physical side of things, until Shaw leaves the house with tears streaming down his face.

It had been a while since I had the pleasure of sitting down and watching this one, enjoying Frankenheimer’s camera angles, and storytelling. Everything about this film seems to work, and while I enjoyed it when I first saw it, countless years ago, this time, it not only entertained, it chilled.


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