The Manchurian Candidate review

This 1962 cold war political thriller is being re-released by Park Circus in a spanking new print. Over the years it has acquired a quasi cult-like status and a reputation for being something of a classic. Quite why is a mystery. The praise is undeserved. It's the work of a hack director (Frankenheimer) and a lazy star (Sinatra) though George Axelrod's script from Richard Condon's novel is still literate and sharp in places.

Sinatra and Harvey play American soldiers who have fought in the Korean war. Back in the US they have to adjust to life on home soil again. Sinatra is plagued by nightmares of being brainwashed and keeps having dreams where he and his fellow grunts are at an old ladies flower show and witness commanding officer Harvey shoot and strangle two of their fellow soldiers. This whole sequence juxtaposed with the real setting for the brainwashing is the best in the whole movie. Over time, he is convinced a major conspiracy is afoot, and that Harvey isn't quite what he appears to be. His suspicions are correct - his colleague is under the control of red agents. If he sees a playing card bearing the Queen of Diamonds, it programmes him to perform an assassination. His stepfather is a high ranking Republican senator. Perhaps he will be the next target, or it might be his left wing opponent (McGiver).

It's obviously very dated now but Axelrod's script is quaintly subversive for its time getting in digs at communism, free speech, big business etc and the overheated political atmosphere is well maintained. But Frankenheimer's direction fails to instill tension and, apart from the climax, the enterprise lacks suspense. He keeps the camera static in mid shot too long in some scenes and Sinatra is not good enough an actor to keep one intrigued. He was well known for reputedly doing no more than two or three takes and it shows. While he's certainly charismatic his casual manner doesn't make his scenes forceful or pointed enough. A movie actor today wouldn't dream of adopting such a lackadaisical approach.

Thankfully Harvey is more impressive. His suave, theatrical style is well suited here and he imbues his role with the right tone of arrogance and torment. Best of all though is Lansbury playing his mother - light years away from TV's Jessica Fletcher. She is the machiavellian heart of the piece and is excellent at radiating deep secrets and strong determination as the unsympathetic and manipulative harridan. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved. Overall, however, the film seems ponderous now. While it's effective in parts it lacks power. An interesting curio then but not the worthy great one had been hoping for.

The Manchurian Candidate at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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