Tom Vanderbilt

  • The Manchurian Candidate: BFI Film Classics by Greil Marcus
    BFI, 75 pp, £8.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 85170 931 1

There is no evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald saw The Manchurian Candidate, which was released in 1962, a year before Kennedy’s assassination. A more plausible cinematic influence on him is Suddenly (1954), in which Frank Sinatra plays a President’s assassin who acquired his taste for killing in the Second World War. Yet the idea was there in The Manchurian Candidate: an emotionally unstable man returns from a mysterious stay in a Communist country to shoot the President-to-be with a rifle. It’s not surprising, then, that the film acquired its own myth – that it was too sensitive to be screened, at least until the late 1980s (in fact its disappearance had more to do with a falling out between the producers and United Artists). As with everything to do with the Cold War, it mutated in the imagination. As Greil Marcus suggests in his short study, the film ‘prefigured the sense that the events that shape our lives take place in a world we cannot see, to which we have no access, that we will never be able to explain. If a dream is a memory of the future, this is the future The Manchurian Candidate remembered.’

I first saw The Manchurian Candidate when it was re-released in 1988, at the Majestic Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. I was 20, and it should have been easy for me to regard the film simply as a piece of Cold War kitsch, yet after decades of exile in the darkest corners of the post-Zapruder national imagination, it breathed with a forbidden vitality, reanimating familiar fears. Why didn’t the film feel safely trapped in history? Part of the answer is to do with its still shimmering quality. The film was an alchemical success: Frank Sinatra, John Frankenheimer, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey would never better their performances here. ‘Something in the story, something in the times,’ Marcus writes, ‘that had to have been sensed, felt, but never thought out, never shaped into a theory or a belief or even a notion, propelled these people out of themselves, past their limits as artists or actors or technicians, and made them propel their material, Richard Condon’s cheaply paranoid fantasy, past its limits.’ And part of the answer is to do with the power of that fantasy, the way in which The Manchurian Candidate links into the enduring pattern of paranoid politics in America.

Despite its talk of Communists, The Manchurian Candidate is not a properly political film. In it, being a Communist means having thick moustaches and tinted monocles and prancing about in a Sino-Soviet spectacle designed as if Rodchenko were in exile in Hollywood and working for Busby Berkeley. Being an anti-Communist means wearing a robe, drinking a Scotch and genuflecting before a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Yet no film gets closer to the way politics was felt during the Cold War: the miasma of repression (political, sexual and otherwise), the tension between American affluence and creeping insecurity – the ‘hour of maximum danger’ of Kennedy’s inaugural speech. The movie’s labyrinthine plot – ‘If you come in five minutes after this picture begins,’ the trailer said, ‘you won’t know what it’s all about’ – produced more meaning than it ever intended, or could hope to contain. The plot at its simplest: Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Harvey) is a Korean War veteran, winner of a Medal of Honor, who, along with his soldiers, is brainwashed by a Communist cabal into becoming the perfect assassin (‘without those uniquely American traits of guilt and remorse’, his handlers declare). Guided by his American operator – actually his mother (played by Lansbury), the wife of the McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) – Shaw is set to assassinate the Presidential appointee at Madison Square Garden, clearing the way for her husband’s ascendancy. The film doesn’t give much of an explanation – the book is no better – for the Lansbury character’s embrace of Communism. In the novel, Condon has her as ‘not being naturally lustful herself except for power’. Whatever non-sectarian lust she does possess seems reserved, in the film, for her son.

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