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A Selection from My Collection: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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By Chris Kavan - 09/08/11 at 09:07 AM CT

Amidst the Cold War John Frankenheimer crafted on of the most chilling political thrillers of its day and, despite the passage of time, it remains as powerful today as when it first premiered.

**The Queen of Diamonds compels me to tell you there may be spoilers ahead.**

The idea that a foreign power could “plant” an agent isn’t a novel concept. Many films have used the same idea to varying degrees of success. The Manchurian Candidate may have used the Red Scare as its basis, but the story is so compelling you could practically fill in your enemy of choice and still have it work out. The brainwashing thing does seem a bit silly – but its fun watching a bunch of ladies at a garden party suddenly turn into the communist leaders they really are as a group of POWs are re-wired.

The story is a diabolical plot to elect a president, the “Manchurian Candidate” in the title, who will essentially give the communists power in the highest level of government. In order to achieve this goal, some lives will have to be sacrificed. Laurence Harvey plays the brain-washed “war hero”. Frank Sinatra is a fellow POW whose memories are coming back as he tries to solve the mystery. However, Angela Lansbury has the best role as the truly frightening Eleanor Shaw Iselin – the evil mastermind behind the scenes. Believe me, if all you remember her from is voicing Mrs. Potts or being a kindly detective, you’ll see her in a whole other light.

Janet Leigh stops in a role that has befuddled viewers as to whether she’s working for or against the good guys. James Gregory and Henry Silva round out an impressive cast – Gregory as the man who is to become the Manchurian candidate and Silva as an operative Chunjin, making sure everything is going according to plan.

The best thing about The Manchurian Candidate is that the plot is always keeping you on your heels. Even up to the very end, that tense feeling stays with you. However, that’s not to say the film isn’t without issue. It was adapted from a novel and a lot of dialogue was lifted straight from the book. Unfortunately this leads to some bland, stilted lines. Also, while Harvey is a decent choice, it’s hard to fathom him a true war hero – and his accent gets a bit distracting at times. Finally, more of a pet peeve, the one, true fight Sinatra has is more laughable than exciting.

Inevitably, when Hollywood has a good idea, it’s bound to be copied. While I have nothing against the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep and the manipulative mother – not to mention being directed by Jonathan Demme – it has the intensity, it adds nothing new to the mix. Likewise, the even more current Salt uses a sleeper agent story – this time a female agent as a Russian spy – to so-so effect. It just goes to show that no matter how hard you try, it’s almost impossible to match the original.

In the end, The Manchurian Candidate may have played on the fears of the time, but it presents a portrait of political manipulation that remains chilling no matter what year it happens to be.

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