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The Manchurian Candidate  

I was talking to my friend not too long ago about how the films of the past seemed to appear much more controversial than those of today. While there are a number of films from the past decade that claim to be controversial (Basic Instinct, etc), they seem to be so merely because of its sensational content, such as nudity and sex. Rarely does a movie come out which is truly provocative. How often do we see a movie with the same impact as something like A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, or Last Tango in Paris?

The Manchurian Candidate feels like a case in point to me. The story is a political one, always with potential for controversy. And the film was obviously so touchy that the star, Frank Sinatra, had it pulled from the public for over twenty-five years, due to a scene which he felt came too close to the Kennedy assassination (which occurred the very year after the film`s release) to be acceptable to viewers.

The story, in any case, is both bizarre and complex. During the Korean War, a group of soldiers (including Sinatra), led by Lawrence Harvey as the general have been mysteriously captured by a bunch of renegade Koreans. The next shot is after the war, in which Harvey is honoured for having saved his troops in a daring escape. But something is not quite right here. Sinatra is having disturbing nightmares involving his capture. And when Sinatra is asked how he felt about the general, he suddenly turns robotic, and claims that Harvey was the kindest, bravest man he has ever met. Sinatra sounds as if he is under a hypnotic spell....... is this true? And what really happened in Korea?

There is another storyline, involving Harvey`s turbulent relationship with his mother, played by Angela Lansbury in a role miles, if not countries, removed from Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. She and her new husband, campaigning to be re-elected as senator, have launched a strong campaign against the supposed Communist influence in certain sectors of the American government. Harvey not only dislikes mom`s politics, but actively loathes her as a human being, and shocks her by taking a job for a man whom the mother sees as a Communist of the worst kind. (Harvey snaps back by saying that the employer is an active Republican)

These two storylines come together, because it is revealed fairly quickly that something did happen in Korea. That something is the hypnosis of Harvey by the Communists, who took advantage of his cold, detached personality and excellent marksmanship to make him an unwitting assassin. And there is an even more shocking revelation linking these two plots, one which creates all sorts of implications.

There are some truly wicked scenes. The hypnosis nightmare is well-staged, as the camera slowly circles around a gathering of old ladies discussing flowers, with the soldiers as guests, only to reveal, as the camera returns to the podium, that in fact, we are in a room filled with Communists, demonstrating the effectiveness of hypnosis. The soldiers are made to believe they are at a silly garden show. The scenes involving Angela Lansbury are pretty bizarre as well, as her political aspirations are more extreme than we could imagine. While these scenes are biting, I would hesitate, unlike other critics, to call this comedy. While this film does contain elements of satire, and humour, all of the political variety (I really liked how Lansbury and husband finally decide on the number of Communists the husband will claim exist in the Defence Department), the film as a whole is very unpleasantly chilling, especially for an early 1960`s picture, especially in the second half of the film, in which two important people from Harvey`s past resurface. As well, the hypnosis nightmare is bizarre and surreal, and chillingly presented, and so is the final sequence, crucial in Sinatra`s decision to ban the film, in which Harvey goes on one last mission.

Old Blue Eyes is alright acting-wise, but certainly not the main focus of this picture. He is needed in order to begin the investigation, and to move the plot forward. But Janet Leigh, unfortunately, is useless. She begins a romance with him halfway through the picture, and that`s it. I guess Sinatra needed someone to talk to, so she was created. The real forces in this picture are Laurance Harvey and Angela Lansbury. I`ve seen Harvey in Butterfeld 8, with Elizabeth Taylor, and wasn`t too impressed by his stiff, stuffy Brit mannerisms, but he is right-on in this movie. His character is repressed (watch him at the beginning of the movie, when he sees his subordinates frolicking in a Korean whorehouse) and generally pompous, which makes his situation all the more convincing. It is obvious that even without his being trained against his will to be an assassin, Harvey has had little choice in his life. For one, he has had a long lost girlfriend whose father was one of his mother`s bitter political enemies, and, of course, he had his wonderful situation with these two people ruined by his mother, which creates much bitterness and anguish at his loveless and lonely life. These two people resurface, only to be unwitting parties to even more cruel acts against them, to put it mildly. No other character or actor could say the words Harvey says about his past without sounding a bit ridiculous, but he gets away with it, because we know this is the most he has come to expressing himself fully. Lansbury is great as well, and a surprise to those who only know her as her beloved Jessica Fletcher. With this movie and her performance in Gaslight, Lansbury proved she could play decidedly nasty roles.

Overall, The Manchurian Candidate is a powerful political thriller, and painful proof that they just don`t make them like they used to.

David Macdonald

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