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“There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he’s doing now.”
--The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
In every presidential election, the term “Manchurian Candidate” gets lobbed like a hand grenade -- by the press, and voters -- at some aspiring politico who is feared to possess allegiances beyond the American populace.
Such a candidate -- a Manchurian one -- is widely defined as an individual “seeking elective office who appears to support one thing or group, but is actually supportive of another thing, or another group.”
The 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate concerns a hard-right-wing candidate, Johnny Iselin, who was secretly (and perhaps unwittingly) the tool for Russian and Chinese communist interests.
These foreign powers, in the film, interfered in an American presidential election using brainwashing and murder.
So on one hand, the film’s candidate, Iselin -- described as “a clown and a buffoon” in the dialogue -- is a McCarthy-like hunter of communists who makes rousing, patriotic speeches. But on the other hand we have the knowledge that this candidate is a craven, grasping, hapless tool controlled by insidious foreign forces that stand to benefit -- or be rewarded -- by his election to the highest office in the land.
Back in 1962, the John Frankenheimer film (based on the novel by Richard Condon) was generally considered far-fetched, imaginative, and wild in its plot and details.
Today -- with a mounting evidence pointing to foreign influence in our most recent election -- we might view the film as prophecy; as the shape of things to come.
The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004, but it is the black-and-white 1960s effort which remains the superior work of art, in part because of the director’s careful use of symbolism (mainly images of Americana), and in part because of its use of contradictions, in terms of character and plotting, to constantly engender surprise and shock.
It’s true that the film has aged some, as all works of art do.
Instead of casting a Korean man in a crucial supporting role, for instance, the filmmakers cast Henry Silva…a Sicilian, in that role. When this character speaks, he does so in the kind of broken English you hear in black-and-white World War II movies. Accordingly, the performance doesn’t translate well to today’s more culturally-aware context. Similarly, there’s a talk, late in the film, of sending a Christmas card to a Buddhist that is, if not in bad taste, at least unnecessarily insensitive.
These are very small things, however, when one considers the remarkable artistry of the film, and its weirdly prophetic nature.
After all, consider the following: This film not only predicted the idea of a sort of right-wing double-agent running for President, but imagined -- the year before the assassination of JFK -- how a “loner” (or patsy) could possibly be harnessed to inflict terrorism on a population.
“It’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years.”
In 1952, during the Korean War, a troop of nine American soldiers are captured by Russian forces, and helicoptered into Manchuria, where they are brainwashed by a scientist from the Pavlov Institute.
Among those captured are Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), step-son of Communist-bashing, right-wing U.S. Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory).
The soldiers are returned to the U.S. believing a false story that Raymond saved their lives. He is decorated for this act of (fictional) gallantry, but in truth, he is now an agent acting against the United States, though he does not realize it.
Instead, he is triggered to obey his American handler (his mother [Angela Lansbury]) when he sees a Red Queen in a deck of playing cards.
Disturbed by nightmares of his brainwashing experience, Bennett Marco investigates Raymond Shaw in his capacity as a military officer. He comes to befriend Raymond, a not very “loveable” or likeable loner.
When Raymond is ordered to kill a U.S. Senator Harding (John McGiver), and Harding’s daughter, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) -- Raymond’s new wife -- he must obey. But his hatred for his mother grows.
When he learns that he is to be the assassin at a political convention, and pave the way for a “Manchurian” candidate, Raymond acts of his own accord, and earns the medal that his country awarded him.
“I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you…”
Although I have described The Manchurian Candidate as prophetic, it also takes inspiration from recent American history.
The character of Johnny Iselin is clearly based on Republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1989); a homegrown demagogue who made a name for himself in the U.S. Senate, and across the nation for his accusation that the U.S. Government had been infiltrated by communist agents and sympathizers.
McCarthy undertook a witch-hunt to find and slime his enemies on those terms (as Angela Lansbury does in The Manchurian Candidate), and at one point claimed he had a list of “205 names” representing communist sympathizers in the U.S. Government. Later, he claimed to possess a paper with “57” such names instead.
In The Manchurian Candidate, Iselin first claims “207 names” and then, after seeing a bottle of Heinz 57 Ketchup, likewise modifies his claim to “57” communists.
The shift to 57 is both a biting attack against McCarthy, and a joke at the same time. The number 57 is easy for Iselin to remember because of effective product placement. It appears on a ketchup bottle. And like Heinz and its ketchup, Iselin is similarly advertising himself as a kind of brand name: a brave communist hunter!
What The Manchurian Candidate suggests, via Iselin’s comical inability to settle on a particular number of communist infiltrators, is that the man is indeed a clown and buffoon, but a dangerous one who has the full attention of the national press.
Reporters record and mindlessly transmit across the nation (via TV) the McCarthy-like senator’s every accusation, and that’s the point. Iselin is a huckster, but one who understands how to manipulate television and thus make a name for himself.
As Mrs. Iselin notes, no one questions that there are communist sympathizers in the government after Johnny Iselin’s televised “stunt.” They only question the number of them. In political conversations and rallies, lies are accepted as facts, even without evidence, if they are repeated often enough. It's fake news.
What The Manchurian Candidate comments on, then, is the dangerous power of the Mass Media to not only inform, but to mis-inform. The press can spread truth, or fiction with equal power. It can highlight the words of a statesman, or an unrepentant, attention-hungry liar. Many people in the audience cannot discern which they are seeing, honest patriot, or serial liar. That’s a big problem for democracy, and one not easily solved.
Iselin, after all, gets the vice-presidential nomination of his party in the film, not for statesmanship, not for political accomplishments, but for his crusade to find communists in the U.S. Government, a crusade built entirely on fictional accusations. His lies are his experience. His lies are his portfolio. And he nearly rises to the highest office of the land based on those lies.
As other reviewers and scholars have noted, Iselin and his wife are associated, throughout the film, with imagery of Abraham Lincoln.
Not simply Americana, but specifically of our sixteenth President.
Iselin’s reflection, for example, is seen in a Lincoln portrait at one point. And at a party for his son and Jocelyn, Iselin actually dresses as Lincoln. Throughout the film, busts of Lincoln are seen in the Iselin study too.
Why associate a McCarthy-esque charlatan with Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom so many hold such high esteem?
Well, some scholars have suggested that the Iselins have selected Lincoln as a paragon to hide behind. They have gone overboard with their Lincoln love, only to cloak their true anti-American proclivities.
After re-screening the film, I think there’s more specific commentary here. After McCarthy - and especially today -- one must ask: what has happened to the party of Lincoln?
This was the party that freed the slaves and ended slavery in America. How has it gone from the heights of Lincoln to the depths represented by McCarthy?
How has it gone from holding the fabric of a nation together, to manipulating the press to tear that fabric apart for individual or personal gain?
The multitudinous images of Lincoln throughout the film remind us how the noble have fallen, how a party has fallen from greatness. It’s not just that the Iselins’ hide behind Lincoln, it’s that they use his party as a base from which to launch an attack on the greatness of our nation. They appear to be extreme patriots, and are, in fact, betrayers.
The Manchurian Candidate also associates the Iselins’ nemesis (a very responsible and noble member of the party of Lincoln, by contrast…), with a symbol of Americana even more ingrained in our national psyche than that of Lincoln: the bald eagle.
When Raymond declares his desire to marry Jocelyn, Senator Harding is seen in front of a huge symbol of a bald eagle, with wings unfurled.
These wings seem to sprout, literally, from his shoulders. Similar eagle imagery is seen in association with him, later. When Raymond is a programmed assassin, he crosses the threshold into Harding's kitchen to murder the senator. Over the threshold, the symbol of an American Eagle is visible. If Iselin is a corruption of the Republic party, Harding is the party's (and nation's paragon).
The wings in the former example make Harding appear angelic (and thus on the true side of right), but also link him to the beloved national symbol of all Americans: “The eagle, full of the boundless spirit of freedom, living above the valleys, strong and powerful in his might, has become the national emblem of a country that offers freedom in word and thought and an opportunity for a full and free expansion into the boundless space of the future.”
In the latter example, the symbol of the eagle showcases Raymond's point of transgression. The murder of Harding is the murder of liberty.
Also, consider the symbolism of Iselin wiping his cracker across the surface of a cake decorated as Old Glory, the American flag. It's a desecration. Just as Iselin's rise to office is a desecration to democracy, the Constitution, and to America.
So what does the film’s symbolism reveal to us then, if taken in conjunction?
Iselin is a McCarthy-esque demagogue who, if elected, would take the party of Lincoln down, and literally serve a foreign power. Harding, by contrast (a man of the same party) understands the real spirit of America, even though Mrs. Iselin has called him a “communist.”
The battle in the film is thus between those who stoop to exploit patriotism and nationalism, and those who understand the real, true values of America, and seek to protect it.
Raymond, similarly, appears to be a loner and assassin, but he is actually the courageous savior of American freedom, appropriately eulogized in the film’s moving coda.
I wrote in my introduction about the contradictions in The Manchurian Candidate, and how well they function to craft this particular.
Consider, in this film, we meet a man who is a bitter, nasty loner, but who desires only to be lovable. Everyone seems to hate him, and he is a pawn of the villains. But, as noted above, he gives his life to save our country. So the jerk and brainwashed assassin is also a great patriot, taking matters into his own hands when he knows the army and police are too late to act.
We also meet a nefarious communist scientist/agent, who loves a good joke. He is no Fu Manchu stereotype, but a jolly man who loves a good guffaw, and encourages humor in his compatriots. He doesn’t present as dastardly, but as jovial.
Similarly, we encounter a monstrous (and indeed, incestuous…) woman who hides behind the imagery of Abraham Lincoln, and calls out other Americans as communists when, in fact, she is a communist agent herself.
Part of the joy inherent in viewing this film, even several times, is grappling with these contradictions, and the way they simultaneously shade and reflect character, or identity.
What are we to make of the eerie coincidence that Jocelyn shows up at the masquerade party as the Red Queen, the very figure that “activates” Raymond, the wolf in sheep’s clothing?
For years, many have also speculated about Janet Leigh’s character, who befriends Marco and engages in a weird conversation with him that also seems to suggest, at least tangentially, that she is a spy sent to handle him.
This, my friends, is a film with layers, and the contradictions are part of that layering. We are asked to look beyond the surface, and search for the truth.
And let’s face it, these contradictions are also a key part of the down-and-dirty fighting of American political campaigns.
The camera records people and events, but it can’t tell us who is lying, or who is being truthful. It can’t expose the contradictions for us. We have to be smart. We have to be critical thinkers.
Unfortunately, the camera goes to the loudest blowhard, not the smartest or most judicious individual. Our very media, our method of discourse, appears to encourage and reward extreme behavior, and the most extreme candidates.
The Manchurian Candidate saw this problem clearly more than a half-century ago (as did A Face in the Crowd in 1957.)
The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made, well-filmed effort. Consider, the moment, for instance, at the Lady’s Garden Club, when the true nature of the event is exposed. Frankenheimer’s camera goes around in a circle. Upon the completion of the circle, the ladies have been replaced by the communist agents and audience.
Or consider the karate fight sequence, between Silva and Sinatra, which is masterfully choreographed and cut, and starts with a kind of lightning bolt or shock, as Marco recognizes Silva's character.
The film’s craftsmanship holds up well in terms of relating the twisting narrative to audiences, but the production’s use of symbol-laden imagery makes it a document of value and enduring truth in terms of understanding American politics.
The Manchurian Candidate reminds us that the most independent, patriotic voice in the room -- or on camera -- may not, in the final analysis, be either independent or patriotic.