Written by Richard Condon and George Axelrod
Directed by John Frankenheimer
I had never seen the original version of The Manchurian Candidate until just prior to seeing the remake. The two movies are set in entirely different time periods, and although at times it seems like we’re headed down the same path, the original had the era of McCarthy-ism to work with to further enhance the specter of fear surrounding the events of the film.
Laurence Harvey is Ssgt. Raymond Shaw. He is a Korean War veteran whose heroic deeds have earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. His mother (portrayed by Angela Landsbury) is married to the McCarthy-like Senator Iselin (portrayed by James Gregory). At a time when women still were not welcome in the political world, Mrs. Iselin is a force to be reckoned with. She craves power, and the only way for her to get it is to ride the coat-tails of the men around her.
The fears of the Communist era are something that many people born just before or after the fall of the Berlin Wall will not comprehend to the fullest. They are the bad guys here, instead of a faceless multi-national corporation. It was easy for me to relate to the hate and fear conveyed here by casting them as the overall “bad guys” and the fact that some people chose to align themselves with them to achieve their nefarious end is even more horrific knowing what an impact the fear of the Communists landing had in people.
On the other end of the spectrum is Frank Sinatra as Captain Ben Marco. He’s been having a series of recurring dreams which lead him to question the events which took place in regard to the unit to which he and Shaw belonged. Although he spouts the rhetoric about Shaw being a hero and deserving the Medal of Honor, something nags at his psyche. He has soon enlisted the help of a new girlfriend, (portrayed by Janet Leigh) in trying to unravel the mystery of just what actually happened and what purpose the events serve.
The story is told very well. I actually think the pacing of the original is better than the re-make. Sinatra gives what I felt was a remarkable and surprising performance, considering that I would place him first as a club singer/entertainer over actor. It’s sort of like the first time I caught Robin Williams in a more dramatic role and was taken off-guard, although I think Williams was the better actor of the two. Sinatra is not the first person I would have thought of for the role of Ben Marco, in that decade or any other. I can’t say that his performance makes the role his own, but he conveys Marco’s confusion and frustration at not being able to figure out exactly what has been going on with a good balance of those emotions. However, as the character delves further into the mystery and learns more about who and what are behind the events which have taken place, he doesn’t seem affected by what is unraveling around him. There’s no recoiling in horror as to the events begin to play out in murderous fashion, nor a bounty of guilt for his role, albeit inadvertently, in the deaths of several people. Perhaps it’s the soldier in him or the effects of what he has been through, but I thought there should have been more emotion as he became more caught up in the events set in motion.
At the same time, Sinatra have overshadowed Laurence Harvey and I think that’s unfair. Harvey’s performance is outstanding. He captures the inner turmoil of Shaw as the programming he has received conflicts with his inner-self. The fact that he seems as if on auto-pilot at times is a good thing, rather than bad for this role as it shows the line between what he really feels inside versus what he has been told to feel and how to act. He has a few moments of conflict with his mother when his “real” personality seems to come out., and those moments are the ones I found myself rooting for him to get away from the forces which were controlling him.
By far, though, the best performance is that of Angela Landsbury in the role of Shaw’s opportunistic and driven mother. That she didn’t get an Oscar for this performance is a sin, in my opinion. Her portrayal of the evil, overbearing, and at times protective mother of a son is the sort of thing that makes my mother-in-law look good (and that’s saying something).
The supporting cast is rounded out by Janet Leigh, James Gregory, and Leslie Parrish. Leigh is mostly wallpaper, used as a mirror for Sinatra to work out exactly what is happening to him. Parrish is really a non-entity. She is the only competition for Shaw over the forces which are controlling him, and the one time that he might assert himself and break through ends in disaster. Gregory is good as the McCarthy-like Senator, easily controlled by a devious woman with a sharper mind than he.
If for any reason you are like me and haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and see this before seeing the recent re-make. This one holds back the pieces of the puzzle and lets the audience join in solving exactly what is going on, while the newer one assumes you know what’s going to happen already. I found it more fun to watch this one because of that. Kudos to John Frankenheimer for a terrific job as director adapting Bernard Condon’s novel to the big screen.
The performances are good, and Sinatra really surprised me here, although I still think there were a few actors who could have done a better job. The story is a terrific one for capturing the degree of fear we once felt toward the Communist Eastern-Bloc of countries.
Bonus Materials on DVD:
• Commentary by John Frankenheimer – the movie was originally turned down by every studio in Hollywood. Commentary mostly about filming locales and techniques used, how ideas changed over the course of the making of the film.
• Interview in 1988 with Sinatra, Frankenheimer & screenplay author George Axelrod.