The Manchurian Candidate: An Iconic Political Thriller

The Manchurian Candidate thrilled audiences in 1962 while addressing McCarthyism and the Cold War in its own way.

I first saw the Denzel Washington remake back in 2004. Unfortunately, I went into the remake without having seen the original. It was not until this week in which I finally got around to watching the original thriller on 4K UHD. The June 2023 release features a brand new HDR/Dolby Vision master comes from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. There are some differences between the two films but the gist of the plot remains the same. Anyway, the film would not have happened without Frank Sinatra having an interest in getting it made. Studios may have been hesitant to touch the adaptation of the Robert Condon novel but Sinatra flew to Hyannisport, Mass. in late 1961 and received President John F. Kennedy’s seal of approval.

At the start of the film, a U.S. Army platoon is captured by Soviet and Chinese soldiers during the Korean War in 1952. Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Captain Bennett “Ben” Marco (Frank Sinatra) are returned but the damage is done as viewers are about to find out. During the three days, Sgt. Shaw becomes brainwashed into being a sleeper assassin for the Communists. Captain Marco, on the other hand, has no memory of the events but little by little, he uncovers the conspiracy. Adding onto the intrigue is that Sgt. Shaw’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), is an anti-Communist U.S. Senator and soon to be the party’s Vice Presidential nominee. His mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is very controlling, taking advantage of his war record. All in all, Shaw is just a pawn in a bigger game and his mother is playing a key role.

While Eleanor is rather dominating, the other women in Shaw and Marco’s life are not. Shaw has a relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) while Marco is in love with Eugenie Rose “Rosie” Cheyney (Janet Leigh). They are trusting of each other. Rosie enters the film out of the middle of nowhere, meeting Marco on the train. Leigh’s performance works, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like the role could also be written better.

Angela Lansbury’s performance would earn an Oscar nomination. It’s very deserving as she just dominates every single minute that she has on the screen. Unfortunately for Lansbury, she lost to Patty Duke’s performance in The Miracle Worker. The only other Oscar nomination would be for Ferris Webster’s film editing. Believe me, the editing nomination is very deserving. Sinatra actually broke his finger during a fight scene. It also shows his range as an actor.

James Gregory’s performance as Iselin might seem satirical on paper. But when you look at the McCarthyism playing out in real life, it no longer seems to be funny. The numbers of Communists in the government–like McCarthy–keeps changing. Regardless, the film’s views are very similar to that of many Americans during the Cold War. Hell, the theatrical release came during the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis!

In a bonus feature, the late filmmaker William Friedkin describes some of the shots and framing as if director John Frankenheimer filmed The Manchurian Candidate as a documentary. He refers to Frank Sinatra’s performance as being flawless. Sinatra didn’t like doing more than one take. Their styles probably don’t mesh well but my G-d, there’s some stupendous filmography in this film. Visually speaking, John Frankenheimer allows things to play out in two shots when a scene has some drama.

Given what happens in the film, it’s not surprising that the studio would withdraw it from circulation. That’s not to say that the JFK assassination is the reason why. Films run their course and this one is no different. It wouldn’t be until a 1987 New York Film Festival screening that it would start getting attention again. The screening led to the studio requiring the rights and putting it back in release once again.

The Manchurian Candidate tries so hard to be a satire but the reality is that it is a political thriller. It would also prove to be prophetic with some of what came out of the government in the years to come–look up Project MKUltra and all that it entails.

Bonus Features

  • Audio Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer
  • THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE INTERVIEWS: with Star Frank Sinatra, Director John Frankenheimer and Screenwriter George Axelrod (7:48)
  • QUEEN OF DIAMONDS: Interview with Actress Angela Lansbury (14:48)
  • A LITTLE SOLITAIRE: Interview with Filmmaker William Friedkin (13:15)
  • PHONE CALL: Outtake (0:26)
  • HOW TO GET SHOT: Featurette (1:07)
  • Theatrical Trailer

DIRECTOR: John Frankenheimer
SCREENWRITER: George Axelrod
CAST: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, with John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh, James Edwards, Douglas Henderson, Albert Paulsen, Barry Kelley, Lloyd Corrigan, Madame Spivy

United Artists released The Manchurian Candidate in theaters on October 24, 1962. Grade: 4.5/5

Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Buttondown.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

You Missed

JAWS @ 50 to Premiere in 2025 on National Geographic

JAWS @ 50 to Premiere in 2025 on National Geographic

Freaky Friday: The Sequel Is in Production and Releasing in 2025

Freaky Friday: The Sequel Is in Production and Releasing in 2025

Don Bluth Goes Behind the Scenes in Somewhere Out There

Don Bluth Goes Behind the Scenes in Somewhere Out There

Spermageddon – Annecy 2024

Spermageddon – Annecy 2024

Michael Phelps Returns to Broadcast Booth for Olympics – Paris 2024

Michael Phelps Returns to Broadcast Booth for Olympics – Paris 2024

U.S. Olympic Trials – Track and Field – Paris 2024

U.S. Olympic Trials – Track and Field – Paris 2024