Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

As with 3: 10 to Yuma, I’ve decided to watch two versions of the same film in one day and (hopefully) compare the two.

John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller is about a small group of soldiers who get captured in Korea and are brainwashed by enemy forces, with Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) chosen to be their conditioned assassin. As the enemy plan slowly becomes clearer, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) realises that something is amiss and works to unravel the conspiracy.

There are great performances to be found in the film; Frank Sinatra plays the determined protagonist very well and Lawrence Harvey is equally as good playing the aloof, distant and unsmiling Shaw. Having said that, the film does allow him to show a more sensitive side as well, as he reminisces about his lost love and that particular scene is genuinely emotional and moving, allowing us to truly sympathise with him. Later scenes where he is forced into doing unspeakable things, including a certain assassination that is incredibly shocking and unexpected, as well as the parts where he starts to lose his mind are expertly acted and shot.

And then of course, there’s the great Angela Lansbury, who plays Shaw’s cold, ruthless, manipulative, Lady MacBeth – type mother. Far from the likes of Murder, She Wrote or Beauty and the Beast, here she plays a truly memorable villain, ruthlessly pulling the strings of her weak-willed Senator husband and controlling the life of her son. She is certainly a dynamic screen presence (especially in a certain scene where she clearly doesn’t even blink!) and she is a considerable merit to the film.

The Manchurian Candidate features several dream/nightmare sequences, experienced by two members of the army unit, where they remember their brainwashing ordeal. It is shown in an extremely clever and fascinating way: it initially appears as though the men are sitting in on a hydrangea lecture given by a group of women but in reality, it is actually a demonstration on the unit’s brainwashing, being given to the communist military. Throughout the scene, the characters alternate between being the “hydrangea women” and the communist leaders as we see both the reality and what the soldiers believe they are seeing. In addition, as a different soldier re-lives the experience, the surroundings and the women are noticeably different.

A very laudable part of the film is its script, which allows the mystery to be slowly unravelled as the central plot becomes clearer. It successfully “plants the seeds” and leads the audience into constantly wondering just who can be trusted and what the enemy endgame actually is. I was intrigued as to what Shaw was actually being manipulated into doing and eventually, the pieces fall into place as the final plan is revealed. The confident direction gets us to constantly question most of the characters’ motives and leads us into constantly searching the screen, trying to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

Much like Derren Brown, The Manchurian Candidate excels in its use of psychology, suggestion, misdirection and showmanship.


An intriguing, mysterious, clever political thriller with solid direction, great performances and a wonderful script.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

And now I’m off to watch the 2004 remake . . .

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