Angela Lansbury plays her trump card…
A War Hero is brainwashed to kill others as part of an International Communist plot.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD 1080p], HD Retro Trailers and photos © United Artists
In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Angela Lansbury is cast in a role completely different from her author and detective role, Jessica Fletcher, Murder She Wrote (1984-96) character. The film was nominated for two Oscars, with Angela Lansbury getting her third Best Supporting Actress nomination. Rightly so with her chilling and stirring, portrayal of an apparent war hero’s mother. Before you think, I don’t do political movies, this is one of those rare political dramas that hold your attention throughout with its shocking, timeless plot.
Reading more, the film immediately got my attention for several reasons. Firstly the film is based on a novel – with the same title – written by Richard Condon. Condon also wrote one of my favourite Jack Nicholson movies, Prizzi’s Honor (1985). Like this film, a thrilling tale with a helluva twist and a splash of romance with Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as the star-crossed lovers in the movie.
The casting of The Manchurian Candidate had Frank Sinatra in a dramatic role. This also got me interested, as Sinatra is an actor that I’m used to seeing as singing and dancing his wee heart out in films like High Society (1956) and Young at Heart (1954). The latter film was one I disliked his character in. He played a grumpy, pessimistic man who won Doris Day’s heart, causing her to leave Gig Young.
The back story starts in 1952, during the Korean War. Sergeant Shaw (Harvey) is hated by his platoon. He and Major Marco (Sinatra) drag these men away from a night of drink, women and debauchery to go on a night patrol. There Shaw and his men are knocked unconscious and taken to Manchuria in China as prisoners of war.
Under hypnosis, they are brainwashed into believing they are back home attending a talk from what looks like the Women Institute. The other men are made to believe that he saved their lives in battle. Their reality is shown in conflicting scenes as Shaw is seen being programmed as a trained assassin.
This impulse is triggered after he finds the Queen of diamonds as he plays a game of solitaire. This programming is witnessed by officials from the Soviet Union and China. Eerily, Shaw is commanded to kill two of his men. Their murders were witnessed by his squad. The Chinese and Soviet Union hope to use Shaw for their own political ends, these reaching as far as The White House.
The men all return to America, with Shaw given a Medal of Honor. He is lauded as a War Hero. hanks to the recommendations of his (brainwashed) men. A jamboree and photographer celebrating this medal, and was organised by Shaw’s mother, Mrs Eleanor Iselin (Lansbury).
She’s a domineering, ambitious woman who seems more into personal gain than being a proud mother. Her son dislikes her with a passion and she is married to Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). Who is not his father. The platoon goes their separate ways after this event. All seems well. Shaw adapts to civilian life and gets a job with The Press.
However, Major Marco starts to get recurrent nightmares about this brainwashing incident. In this nightmare, he sees Shaw kill the two men. Marco often wakes up in a cold sweat following these. He learns others from his squad have the same disturbing dream.
However, despite this, the men believe Shaw to be a wonderful and respected leader. All believe him to be “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”. Meanwhile, Eleanor is trying to out the Communists in the American government. This by using her henpecked husband as a puppet in her quest for political power.
Shaw is directed to come for a medical “check-up”. However, he is involved in an “accident” en route and then seen in an isolated ward. Looked after by a man seen in those nightmares. This man tests Shaw’s assassin training is working. Shaw is instructed to kill a colleague in a bid to check his “functioning” before he is handed over to his American operator.
After playing Solitaire, Shaw is triggered to kill after seeing the Queen of Diamonds in the pack. He then leaves and kills his workmate. Shaw has no memory or guilt for the killing, and this makes him the perfect weapon. The test is deemed successful.
Marco meanwhile has been put on sick leave from his job in Military Intelligence. This is due to these stressful dreams. He takes a break aiming to visit Shaw. On his way, he meets a pretty blonde, Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) on the train. She likes him so much she promptly dumps her fiance. He befriends Shaw and recognises his man-servant from their days in Korea.
Marco returns to work and tells the Military Intelligence about his concerns about Shaw. Slides of officials are shown to Marco, with him recognising two men from his dream. Others in his squad have recalled the same men from their similar nightmares. With Military Intelligence now backing him to investigate Shaw.
Meanwhile, Shaw’s mother is still using her husband. She discovers the identity of the Ministry of Defense workers with Communist leanings. This time with the help of a ketchup bottle. Her dislike of Communists is of no surprise to her son.
A drunken, unhappy Shaw tells Marco of a time he felt loved, with his girlfriend Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish). However, his mother’s disapproved of this girl. Eleanor is adamant Jocelyn’s father a Communist. Then against Shaw’s wishes, she wrote a letter from him to end the relationship.
Back in the present, Eleanor is encouraging Jocelyn and Shaw to resume their relationship. This is in her hope for Jocelyn’s father to back John’s bid to become Vice President. Jocelyn reenters Shaw’s life at a fancy dress party organised by Eleanor. She’s dressed as a playing card, the Queen of Diamonds…setting off that trigger, and then his KGB handler is revealed…
This film had a wonderfully eerie premise. The film initially released just before John F Kennedy assassination makes it all the more chilling with the many conspiracy theories this event evoked. The film was withdrawn from cinemas back in the 1960s with the reason for this up for much online debate. Suggestions including it out of respect for the President, and the surrounding conspiracy theories. But it’s commonly thought that the audiences had lost interest.
Sinatra I believe was seen in his defining role as a dramatic actor. I’d confirm from my own experience you’d easily forget his more musical roles and instead admire his acting talents during this movie. I was enthralled by his portrayal of this character and his strong performance in this role. This is in contrast to other acting musicians, who in less effective acting portrayals you expect to burst into song or a dance.
Harvey, as the unwitting assassin gave a powerful and vulnerable performance. But it was a tragically sad role too. Like all tragic characters, you hope things would turn out better for him. The plot has a few red herrings thrown in which add to the suspense.
These red herrings still keep you thinking after the credits, with many a what if? moment after the film. Such as what if Jocelyn had chosen a different costume? What if Eleanor had chosen to deprogram her son, rather than encourage him to kill? And what if Eugénie had other motives in her relationship with Marco?
Angela Lansbury playing Shaw’s mother came over as a frighteningly fearful character. Her first moments on-screen where she is seen exploiting her son seemed small fry compared to later scenes. Her remit of outing the Communists seemed in time with the MacCarthy hearings of the time. Her character then took a new abhorrent dimension.
After Eleanor discovered her son had been brainwashed by the Soviet Union as an assassin, she showed a darker side. As instead of getting him the help he needed, she continued in her quest to get her husband as President. We see her using her brainwashed son as a pawn so as she can hurt those who programmed him. This told in a wonderfully acted but frightening monologue.
Although only three years older than Harvey, Lansbury was chosen – over Sinatra’s suggestion, Lucille Ball – after impressing this film’s producer. Lansbury made a strong impression as both a believable villainess and a mother gaining many accolades for this role.
Lansbury reports that this evil role was to her disadvantage, despite proving herself as an actress. As instead of meatier roles, she was cast more often as a matriarch, and these including in Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961). With CBS News reporting:
“This is what you have to have, that ability to dominate the other characters,” Lansbury explained to “Sunday Morning.” “And if you can do that effectively at any age, you’ll be cast in that role. And I was really cast in that role over, and over, and over again.”
Now more recently I’ve watched Lansbury as an “auntie” in Murder She Wrote. Now after watching her role in this reviewed movie, I put over this theory. Angela Lansbury plays the role of an American handler in this TV series and where she has her nephew also brainwashed and trained to kill. This is triggered by her typing a book title on the typewriter and her nephew killing all the series victims. He believes he’s innocent and some poor suspect is being framed… this is a plot that really is the stuff of nightmares. Or is it??
Weeper Rating: 😦😦😦😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂/10
This post added to my Adoring Angela Lansbury blogathon. Angela Lansbury stars in my Death on the Nile, Magnum PI and Murder She Wrote reviews. Frank Sinatra in Magnum PI, High Society and Young at Heart. James Gregory also starred in The Love Boat. Janet Leigh had roles in Circle of Fear, The Fog, The Night of the Lepus, Murder She Wrote and Fantasy Island, Lawrence Harvey starred in Columbo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.