One of the biggest clichés used to describe a movie, especially when looking back at an old classic, is to say that said film was “ahead of its time.” The sentiment is anything but original, however I can’t think of a better phrase to heap upon THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which you can go see on the big screen at Slaughter Lane this week on 8/7 and 8/9. Adapted from the 1959 book of the same name by Richard Condon, the story centers around the return of Medal of Honor recipient Raymond Shaw and the American soldiers he allegedly saved from an attack in the Korean War.
Years after the soldiers return many of them have recurring nightmares about Shaw murdering his fellow patriots during a demonstration on brainwashing and hypnosis. One of these men, Captain Marco (played by Frank Sinatra in his finest and most complex screen role) finally searches for the answers surrounding the disturbing dream. His investigation leads him to the top of the American political ladder.
Condon’s book and George Axelrod’s screen adaptation centers on political corruption and paranoia, but the film digs much deeper into darker and larger psychological issues Americans, especially ex-soldiers, were facing at the time. After the Vietnam War not only were anti-war films in abundance, but also films that tapped into the darker psychological thoughts that all disillusioned Americans were feeling during that time period. For every DEER HUNTER and APOCALYPSE NOW there was a CHINATOWN and TAXI DRIVER.
A decade earlier, in the 1960’s, this wasn’t the case. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, while not having an anti-war message, was one of the first films to come out of Hollywood after the Korean War that touched on the darker themes and issues that plagued Americans. These included political corruption, but also complications of masculinity and heroism, and a graying of black-and-white moral values.
The film’s pioneering themes are enhanced by the craft of both director John Frankenheimer and editor Ferris Webster. The former’s inventive docu-drama style gives the film an atheistic realism while Webster’s work allows the story to have emotional and psychological depth. The film also has great performances by the aforementioned Sinatra, the overlooked Laurence Harvey, and the against-type evil matriarch Angela Landsbury, who gives one of the most chilling screen performances of all-time.
This combination of great work behind and in front of the camera makes THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE one of the best, most influential, and relevant American films ever made. (R.J. LaForce)