Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Manchurian Candidate


It is now the third day of the Republican National Clusterfuck. Again, no one has been killed, unlike the action that went down in Richard Condon’s fictitious convention of 1956, which saw the assassination of Senator John Iselin and his horrible wife by her brainwashed son. (Or as the jolly Chinese Communist monster Yen Lo put it, “dry-cleaned.”) There are Republicans who are actually calling for Hillary Clinton to be put up against a wall and shot. I won’t descend to their level. But I can fantisize, can’t I?

This is one of the best thrillers ever written, or filmed. I remember vividly going to see it when it was new, and being just stunned at what was happening. It got off to a good start, with Lt. Marco’s (Frank Sinatra) squad being ambushed and kidnapped in Korea, then cutting to Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) arriving back home to get the Medal of Honor. What happened? Why, he heroically saved the lives of everyone in the unit. He was also a swell guy. Just ask them. Every one of them will tell you “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Word for word, delivered robotically.

But Marco is having disturbing dreams, and here is where the movie becomes sheer genius. We see the soldiers, bored out of their skulls, sitting on either side of a matronly woman who is lecturing about begonias. The backdrop is some sort of greenhouse wall, and the stage is covered with flowers. What the hell is going on here? The camera begins a slow pan that will cover 360 degrees. There are the other matronly women in their hideous dresses and hats, then more of them, then around to the soldiers again … only there is now a North Korean soldier sitting at the side of the stage. The background has changed completely. And then it just goes bugfuck. The actual speaker is Yen Lo, and the audience is all higher-up Soviet and Chinese generals. It is all intercut ingeniously, with the woman speaker saying some of the doctor’s lines, parts of backgrounds appearing and disappearing between cuts. The world has gone topsy-turvy. (The black soldier sees a room full of elderly black women!)

We learn that the men have been drugged, hypnotized, and brainwashed so thoroughly that they see the flower society and nothing else. They have been conditioned to follow orders. Yen tells Raymond to kill two of his squad-mates. He does it without question, and the others are not even interested. It is one of the creepiest scenes I have ever witnessed. Simply jaw-dropping. Raymond has been turned into a weapon, a perfect assassin, since he doesn’t even know he is an assassin. He can only be activated when he is told “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” And when he gets to the Queen of Hearts, he is primed and ready to do anything anyone tells him to do. Absolutely anything. Which will lead to absolutely horrendous results.

On the off chance that you haven’t seen this I won’t say much more. There are stunning surprises and reversals along the way. Sinatra, Harvey, and especially Angela Lansbury as Raymond’s nightmare mother, are superb. It’s probably Sinatra’s best work. At one point Lansbury delivers what may be the creepiest, ugliest, most chilling speech I have ever heard. She was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. It was a good year for acting and the winner, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker was certainly great, but I’d have voted for Lansbury.

I must put in a word here for what may be the most under-appreciated people in the cinema world: the grips. That 360-degree shot was hideously complex, and had to be done quickly and perfectly. Huge false walls had to be moved and new ones shuffled in, in less than a minute. And the end result is perfectly seamless. These days, of course, they would simply use a green screen, but back than it was all practical. Bravo, grips!