The Manchurian Candidate

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Scene from Manchurian Candidate

In my on-going quest to watch the AFI Top 100 in its entirety, I was very excited to discover my local PBS station was featuring The Manchurian Candidate for their weekly cinematic feature. Armed with a bowl of popcorn, my pups snoozing beside me, I settled in – excited to see Frank Sinatra in a dramatic role. Little did I know I was about to experience a film with such lasting impact.

I watched this movie several days ago, yet it still pops into my head – periodically redirecting my thoughts. I’m not usually a huge fan of political thrillers, but this movie truly moved me. More details come to the surface and present themselves to me while I’m doing a mindless or repetitive task around the house.  Elements that were forgotten while I focused on other aspects of that moment in the movie. New questions, new discoveries bubble up.

Beyond the story line, I found that the cinematography mirrored the suspense perfectly and the cast was well-composed (Angela Lansbury’s performance in particular completely captivated me). All of these things come together to create a timeless cinematic treasure. But there’s a couple things that surprised me about this film and I’m excited to get your two cents in the comments below!

JFK and Sinatra – unlikely partnership?

This film is based on a novel by Richard Condon, published originally in 1959. The overall plot focuses on the role of brainwashing, manipulation, and politics during the height of anti-Communism in America. Take a moment to consider the timeliness of this tale – the McCarthy hearings had cast an enduring shadow over the Washington landscape and the Cuban Missile Crisis kept the nation in a constant state of alertness. For a decade that started off with such promise, people watched in horror as the threads of hope began to unravel. Total destruction seemed inevitable – did people want this message repeated during a cinematic escape? Can reality and theater co-exist?

Quick reader poll: do you think black and white films are able to show suspense more effectively than their modern, full-color counterparts?

In a period defined by unrest, Hollywood lacked direction. Studios weren’t sure if art could imitate life – if life wasn’t all that grand. The early 60s saw a scattered mix of feel-good comedies and historical dramas. But nothing that cut so close to reality as The Manchurian Candidate. When the studio heads got cold feet about the project, Frank Sinatra rallied for the right to brave, relevant artistic expression. Of course, he had a little help from his friend – none other than JFK! The presidential blessing swayed the studio executives to take the leap and the film went into production.

One of my all-time favorite Presidential portraits!

John F Kennedy’s Official Portrait

In 1962 (two days into the Cuban Missile Crisis) Frank Sinatra’s passion project was released. The film was a failure from a commercial perspective, not even breaking even. After the assassination of JFK, it was promptly whisked into the shadows. The pain of such a destructive, violent tale was too real – for America and for Sinatra himself. Frank even purchased the rights to ensure it remained in the archives. Only after the threat of the Cold War had faded did the movie rediscover its audience.

The history of this film reminds me that censuring voices may be an ongoing activity for our society, but the actual act of the individual censure does come to an end. Eventually future generations become curious, wounds heal, battles that seemed at once insurmountable become distant memories. Tough stories and situations do get revisited. And this is exactly what happened to this movie. Can you think of a modern example that may experience a similar fate?

The original anti-hero?

I’ll leave you with something I’m still trying to process: this is a tale about an unlikable hero. For me, the moment his humanness, his vulnerability, and his spirit were revealed to me was the moment it was all ripped away again. That flash of compassion for his situation, his being, is also very nearly the same moment when he abandoned it all to become the true hero. Talk about a roller-coaster journey. I still honestly can’t tell you how I feel about it. So many emotions compete for verbalization: the utter tragedy of a promise cut short, the remembrance of time’s quick pace, general anger at the whole situation, and sadness – plain, ol’ grade A sadness.

While I sort through my emotions, I encourage you to share your thoughts on the film. Whatever your opinion may be, I think we can all agree – if we’re still interested enough to engage in this discussion fifty four years later Frank Sinatra achieved his goal. Very glad he fought for the ability to make this film!

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