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What Have They Built You to Do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America

Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González

(University of Minnesota Press)

The first and best movie called The Manchurian Candidate debuted on 24 October 1962, exactly two days after President John F. Kennedy’s speech announcing the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, quite possibly, the imminent end of civilization. It’s even possible John Frankenheimer’s film played some small part in shaping Kennedy’s actions at the time, since he’d seen the picture in late August, just as reports arrived that the Soviets had almost completed their new ICBM sites in Cuba.


Be this as it may, the movie’s Kennedy connection acquired truly strange contours when the president was assassinated on 22 November 1963, in a manner that uncannily recalled the picture’s climax. (“Was Manchurian Film a Prophet?” wondered a Hollywood newspaper.) According to showbiz legend, the film was pulled from distribution because of this morbid coincidence. In reality, it had several TV showings between 1965 and 1975, and its disappearance for the next dozen years can be blamed on Frank Sinatra, who owned the rights and apparently forgot to keep it in circulation—or, by another account, sat on it because a reissue would enrich the releasing company more than him.


But hey, the JFK hypothesis still sounds good. A conspiracy theory or two should orbit around this picture, which is arguably the screen’s all-time-ingenious treatment of conspiracies, American style.


What Have They Built You to Do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America, by film scholars Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González, looks at the 1962 movie through the lens of the cold-war culture that spawned it. Like the novel it’s based on, written by Richard Condon in 1959, it’s a product of the fabled 1950s era, which started immediately after World War II and lasted well into the 1960s, when conformity and consumerism didn’t so much vanish as morph into strange new shapes.


Paranoia took many forms during those postwar years, but fear of the communist menace—linked to various other menaces, from the Yellow Peril to sexual deviance—was easily the No. 1 enemy. A major subcategory was brainwashing, fueled by reports that American minds were crunched by commies during the Korean conflict. The Manchurian Candidate ingeniously exploits the dread of mental manipulation with its story of an American soldier (Laurence Harvey) transformed into an assassin controlled by his politically ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury) and tracked down by an army officer (Frank Sinatra) whose mind has been semi-twisted by the same communist villains.
The only previous book on Frankenheimer’s movie is a monograph by Greil Marcus, who says the filmmakers and stars were “working over their heads,” propelled less by pop-culture savvy than by some vague, intuitive tie to the story they’d stumbled on. But the facts say otherwise. Sinatra was up to his neck in liberal politics, and Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod were angry at the everyday brainwashing wrought by commercials, advertising, politicians, and biased media. In short, the filmmakers understood Condon’s novel—and the social issues it grappled with—as thoroughly as Condon did.


Like any work of art, though, the movie surpasses the intentions of its creator(s) in all kinds of ways. Jacobson and González get at this by examining its social, cultural, and political contexts. Among the subjects they tackle are 1950s belief systems, McCarthyism, family ideology, misogyny, Orientalism, the legacy of Fu Manchu, and the matriarchal “momism” perceived by some pundits as a threat to American males.


Some of these topics are thinly developed; the Orientalism material seems scattered, for instance, and the pages about Alfred Hitchcock’s great Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest are more clever than convincing. But at their best, Jacobson and González offer a careful and nuanced analysis, demonstrating that The Manchurian Candidate is at once a suspenseful thriller, a pointed satire, a left-wing deconstruction of media manipulation, and a right-wing melodrama that anticipates “evil empire” rhetoric by depicting a totalitarian conspiracy that’s as real and ruthless as McCarthyism claimed.


This freewheeling mixture of ideas and moods is a key reason—along with excellent acting, vivid cinematography, and razor-sharp editing—why The Manchurian Candidate remains rich and resonant. In its own day, though, audiences weren’t quite ready for it. Nor were critics. Calling it “the best-told story of the year, ” the Saturday Review said it was “also the most irresponsible.” Time complained that it “tries so hard to be different that it fails to be itself.” Saying it could “scare some viewers half to death,” the New York Times reviewer also called it “so fantastic that one is suspicious of the author’s sincerity.” So much for getting the point. Whatever else it may be, The Manchurian Candidate is so saturated with sardonic irony that probing it for “sincerity” is scary and fantastic in itself.


As with other delayed-action hits that took years to build an audience—Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life—no merely intellectual dissection can yield up all the factors that give The Manchurian Candidate its enormous power. Jacobson and González tease out many of the elements that make it fun to watch and stimulating to think about, but they overlook what I think is the movie’s real driving force: the fact that it’s fundamentally a horror movie, tapping into viewers’ minds on levels far deeper than satires and political thrillers can reach. While it may have connections with the Hitchcock films mentioned above, the one it most closely resembles is Psycho, released just two years earlier.


Think about it. The Manchurian Candidate and Psycho each has a climax illuminated by a bare light bulb; each finishes with a mournful monologue; and each features Janet Leigh in a limited but pivotal role. Beyond these incidentals, both are haunted by an all-controlling mother who has colonized her son’s consciousness to such a totalitarian degree that he kills for her without recollection or remorse.


The instrumentalities at work are very different, of course. The mother is dead in Psycho, kept mentally alive by her son’s psychotic dependency, while in The Manchurian Candidate she’s a vigorous presence, empowered by sinister psychologists from two hostile nations. Yet the similarities are strong, especially when the Lansbury mother reveals her incestuous attachment to her son and, in their last scene together, virtually hypnotizes him (and us) by articulating her all-consuming lusts for control and dominance.


Even her political purpose is so extreme that it takes on a quasi-supernatural glow. After the assassination that cements her supremacy, she and her senator husband will be swept “up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy,” she gloats. What would such awesome powers consist of? It’s impossible to imagine, and therein lies the moment’s ultimately mystical force.


In the end, then, what makes The Manchurian Candidate so spellbinding is that it’s about spellbinding, with a doomed wayfarer (Harvey) trapped by an evil enchantress (Lansbury) so malevolent that not even an intrepid hero (Sinatra) can readily break the chains her pitch-black magic has forged. This underlying scheme holds true from the pre-credits sequence, with its night-shrouded violence, to the climax, when Harvey’s character, dressed as a priest, dons his Medal of Honor talisman before committing suicide. And beyond this to the final shot, with Sinatra intoning “Hell … Hell” as nature mourns with cracks of thunder. For all its agility in reshuffling and updating the story, the 2004 remake by Jonathan Demme lets this dimension sag, which is why it will never replace Frankenheimer’s classic in the popular imagination.


The analysis in What Have They Built You to Do? has much to say about the movie’s other ingredients. But for a full understanding of The Manchurian Candidate, watch it again, imagining Lansbury as a wicked witch and Harvey as a victim no less destined for destruction than the most clearly damned character in myth or legend. Although it’s a great movie for election day, its ideal viewing time is Halloween.

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