"If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won't know what it's all about! When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!" That was the tagline for The Manchurian Candidate when it was released on October 24, 1962. Aside from being one of the longest taglines in cinematic history, it was also one of the most accurate. The Manchurian Candidate is a dark political thriller with several twists, turns, and genuine surprises. There was nothing like it before, and there has been nothing like it since.
The Manchurian Candidate was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Richard Condon. The novel was successful, but it did not have the impact that the 1962 movie adaptation did. Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Manchurian Candidate did respectively well at the box office. Since that time it has become to be regarded as a veritable classic. In fact, there are those who believe it is the greatest political thriller of all time.
Once one has seen The Manchurian Candidate, it is easy to understand why it has the reputation it does. The Manchurian Candidate has a complex plot, involving Cold War politics, McCarthyism, the Korean War, and a conspiracy that makes the schemes of Bond villains look positively benign. Aside from a sterling screenplay by George Axelrod (who also wrote screenplays for The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, and Breakfast at Tiffanys), The Manchurian Candidate benefits from some of the strongest performances in a thriller of any kind. Frank Sinatra gave what may be his best performance as Major Bennett Marco, a U.S. Army officer who soon realises his nightmares signify a sinister plot that is actually unfolding. Laurence Harvey also gave the best performance of his career, as the tragic Raymond Shaw, bringing sympathy to a character who is essentially an aloof, unfriendly loner. In what was a master stroke of casting, John Frankenheimer cast Angela Lansbury as Shaw's mother, Mrs. Iselin. Now known for her warm, friendly characters, Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin is as cold and calculating a character as ever seen on the screen. In 2007 Newsweek ranked Mrs. Iselin among the ten greatest villains in cinematic history. In 2003 the American Film Institute ranked her number 21 in their list of 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains. Curiously, while Angela Lansbury is very convincing as Shaw's mother, she was only two years older than Laurence Harvey!
While The Manchurian Candidate is a very complex, very intelligent film, it does have its share of action. In fact, it was among the earliest films made in the West to feature karate. This occurs in an extended, very violent battle between Major Marco and Shaw's Korean valet Chunjin. Not only is it one of the first scenes involving karate in a film made in the Occident, but it is still one of the best as well.
It is a mark of the complexity of The Manchurian Candidate that the film features some pop culture in jokes for those fast enough to catch them. The members of Major Marco's platoon are almost entirely named for cast and crew from The Phil Silvers Show, including Silvers (as in Phil, Sgt. Bilko himself), Allan Melvin (who played Corporal Henshaw on the show), Hiken (as in Nat, the creator of The Phil Silvers Show), Lembeck (as in Harvey Lembeck, Corporal Barbella on the show), and so on. The Manchurian Candidate also visually referenced the Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sprinkled through the film are references to Pinocchio and the silent film Chu-Chin-Chow.
While being made and following its release, The Manchurian Candidate would provoke some controversy. Even as the book was commissioned as a film, United Artists President and then Finance Chairman of the Democratic Party, Arthur Krim was more than a little nervous about the book's subject matter. Frank Sinatra had to ask his friend, President John F. Kennedy, to call Krim and let him know he did not object to the film being made. Once The Manchurian Candidate was released, it was censored and even banned in many countries behind the Iron Curtain. Even neutral countries, such as Finland and Sweden, censored the film, considering a bit too politically charged. In most of the countries behind the Iron Curtain the film would not be seen until after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. over thirty years after its release.
While The Manchurian Candidate did provoke some controversy upon its release, it was not withdrawn from circulation following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as popularly believed. In fact, it made its television debut on The CBS Thursday Night Movies in September 1965, less than two years after JFK's murder. It was shown again on CBS later in the 1965-1966 season. The Manchurian Candidate would also be shown on NBC in the spring of 1974 and the summer of 1975. The urban legend of the film being withdrawn following the assassination of JFK appears to have arisen after the rights to the film reverted to Frank Sinatra in 1972. While Sinatra may have been negligent in keeping the film in distribution at times, it was never fully withdrawn from distribution.
After infrequent sightings since the early Seventies, The Manchurian Candidate was re-released in 1988. Despite the fact that it had been 26 years since its first release, at a time when McCarthyism was ancient history and the Cold War was coming to an end, the film had nearly as much impact as it had in its first release. A generation not even born at the time of the Communist witch hunts of the Fifties embraced the film, to the point that it is not only regarded as a classic, but even a legendary film.
Not surprisingly given its nearly mythic status, The Manchurian Candidate has had a huge impact on pop culture. As early as 1964 it was an influence upon A Shot in the Dark and future Inspector Clouseau films, the practice fights between Clouseau and his valet Cato parodying the fight between Marco and Chunjin in The Manchurian Candidate. The fight scene from The Manchurian Candidate would also influence the fight between The Bride and Copperhead in Kill Bill Volume 1. The Phantom of the Paradise paid homage to the movie in a visual reference. The Manchurian Candidate has also been referenced in films such as Ladri di saponette, The Player, and The Contender. It has been referenced in television shows ranging from The Gilmore Girls to Homicide (mentioned, of course, by pop culture savvy Detective Munch) to Heroes, as well. The movie has even had an impact on popular music. The plot of the concept album Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche is obviously inspired by The Manchurian Candidate. Slipknot made a reference to the movie in their song "Wait and Bleed." Indeed, the movie has had an impact on pop culture to the point that the term "Manchurian candidate" has even entered the English language.
Richard Condon's original novel would be adapted again in 2004. The new film would stray from both the novel and the original movie (which was very faithful to the book) in such ways that it can hardly be considered an adaptation of the novel or a remake of the original film. The alleged 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate lacked any of the impact of the original, its inadequacies made only more obvious by the greatness of the original.
No less than Pauline Kael said upon its release, "It may be the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood." Roger Ebert counts it among his list of "Great Movies." It is also one of the very few films that enjoys a 100% rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes. The reason that The Manchurian Candidate is so highly regarded today is perhaps because the film does not seem to have aged at all. Despite the fact that McCarthyism is over fifty years in the past, despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for nearly twenty years now, The Manchurian Candidate feels more contemporary than even some contemporary films on politics. For over forty years The Manchurian Candidate has remained fresh, its surrealistic plot still intriguing viewers today.