Manchurian Candidate, The (1962): Politics of Release and Re-release

The movie went from failure to classic without passing through success.
George Axelrod, screenwriter

MGM is releasing a special edition of “The Manchurian Candidate”, the great 1962 noir thriller. The DVD should enable viewers to draw comparisons for themselves between John Frankenheimer’s original film and Jonathan Demme’s remake (See Review).

The transfer of the black-and-white film, photographed by Lionel Lindon, is great. It reuses commentary from the previous edition by Frankenheimer, screenwriter Geroge Axelrod, and star Frank Sinatra. The new edition also contains an interview with Angela Lansbury, who gave a most memorable, Oscar-nominated performance in this film, as the ultimate castrating and manipulative mother. William Friedkin, who was influenced by Frankenheimer, talks about the film’s impact on young American filmmakers.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is one of those rare films that was so far ahead of its time–prophetically so–that it helped to create a new cultural era in its own image. The definitive Cold War film, “The Manchurian Candidate” opened a political Pandora’s box of dangerous, previously unencountered issues, such as brainwashing, conspiracy theories, the use TV as a political tool, political corruption.

The re-release of “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1988 brought forth a much-deserved press attention due to the fact that, unfortunately, many of the film’s themes had become acceptable and regrettable realities 26 years later. Watching the film in the late 1980s left viewers with feelings of sadness about how uncannily this dizzyingly creepy, feverishly noir film depicted the corrupt course that American history would take in the second half of the twentieth century.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is particularly tragic within the context of the Kennedy assassinations. The film predicted what would happen not once but several times. There was so much that Americans had the good fortune of not knowing in 1962, so much that unfortunately they knew by 1988. All of a sudden, it became probable that a lone assassin, possibly under the influence of a foreign government, could shoot an American leader. While it would be a stretch to suggest that “The Manchurian Candidate” had a direct effect on the Kennedys assassinations, presidential assassinations have become an integral part of our culture, reflecting our most pessimistic feelings about our country’s politics and future.

The 1962 narrative centers on an American unit of Korean War heroes who have been brainwashed by Chinese and Russian military. One of the men, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), has been programmed to assassin a presidential candidate. The film revealed the Korean War’s negative repercussions, its devastating mental effects. At the same time, “The Manchurian Candidate” was not just an agit-pro Commie-bashing since it also presented a critical view of the American military and politicians.

The film’s most nerve-racking scene describes the soldiers’ brainwashing. This brilliantly unsettling sequence begins with the prisoners listening patiently to a talk about hydrangeas, delivered by a sweet-faced old lady in a straw hat and a burly brainwashing expert, Yen Lo. The episode concludes with a demonstration of Raymond’s talents as a lethal weapon for a crowd of onlookers. Strong echoes of this unforgettable sequence later appeared in the Cambodian brainwashing scenes in Roland Jaffe’s “The Killing Fields” (1984).

Since 1962, the film’s own history has become its own tinsel town controversy. Frank Sinatra, who acted in the film as part of his $15 million deal with United Artists, was reported to have taken the film off the market for 25 years. The film was withheld from television, theaters and video release because of Sinatra’s rumored stubbornness.

The film’s huge commercial failure put Sinatra out of reach of any profits. Some suggest that Sinatra had a personal vendetta against United Artists, which had never really supported the film and broken many promises made to Sinatra, Axelrod, and Frankenheimer. UA. Others claim that Sinatra pulled the film because of the President Kennedy’s assassination. Sinatra had campaigned aggressively for Kennedy, who was a close friend, in the 1960 elections.

The connection with Kennedy legacy is the most interesting yet horrifying thing about the film’s legacy. Sinatra apparently found out that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched Suddenly (1954), a Sinatra film also about an attempted presidential assassination, a few days before Kennedy was shot. Sinatra withdrew Suddenly from the market. When “The Manchurian Candidate” was re-released, Sinatra appeared on CNN’s Larry King Show, insisting that he didn’t even know he owned the rights and didn’t know the film was not in circulation.

Why would Sinatra not tell the truth?

According to Sinatra’s biographer Kitty Kelley, “Old Blue Eyes” and President Kennedy discussed the film in September 1961 in Hyannis Port prior to the start-up of production. At that time, UA president Arthur Krim raised objections about distributing the movie. As the national finance chair for the Democratic Party, Krim felt that the film’s politics would hurt the Kennedys.

However, Sinatra’s conversation with Kennedy revealed that the President had actually admired the novel and wanted to see the movie version. This issue was resolved, when Kennedy called Krim and reportedly gave him the “go-ahead.” In other words, the movie had Kennedy’s stamp of approval from the outset. Sinatra also arranged for a private screening for Kenndey but there’s no public record of his reaction.

It’s hard to imagine Kennedy embracing a film that had such dangerous subject matter. As Tom O’Brien noted, “The Manchurian Candidate” was seen by all involved as “an oddball” — “it-couldn’t-happen-here film. Not in America.” This information began to resurface with the 1988 re-release, which in many ways had a more significant impact than the film’s first run. Programmer Richard Roud included “The Manchurian Candidate” in the 1987 New York Film Festival, sparking interest in the film. The idea was to promote the film’s video release, but the overwhelming success of the second theatrical run was a surprise, attributed to the coincidence with the 25th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death.


For a 1962 film, the text espoused incredibly confused politics that could not be described as either leftist or rightist, but they somehow fitted snugly into the ambiguous politics of the post-Camelot era. George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay, based on a 1959 Richard Condon novel, recalls that during the film’s initial release, “French Communists picketed outside a theater on the Champs Elysees, while Red-baiters were picketing in Orange County. ” This was indicative of the confusion of moviegoers who didn’t know how to take the film’s political satire. Indeed, viewers opted to take sides on a movie that didn’t offer any sides to take. Communism is just a motif in the film, not a political philosophy, and no character comes close to being right and correct. In this respect, “The Manchurian Candidate” posited a new, ambiguous political universe.

The movie rendered the ideological war between Democracy and Communism as ridiculous and contemptible. But the story couldn’t have been more symbolic in its depiction of an innocent man who, having been sacrificed by both sides for their own purposes, seeks out to avenge himself. “The Manchurian Candidate” transcended the assumptions of 1950s ideology, giving impetus to the darkly comic view of politics that became more dominant in the late 1960s and 1970s

Tone: Axelrod, a well-known humorist who wrote The Seven Year Itch, infused the script with black comedy. In 1962, people were uncertain as to whether they were supposed to take the film seriously, as an ominous psychological horror, or as a dark humorous satire. Arguably, by blending a savage satire of politics with suspense and even romance, “The Manchurian Candidate” helped changed Hollywood’s notion of what was permissible and acceptable to the mass audiences.

The movie was made in what’s considered to be the last year of American innocence; it’s no coincidence that American Graffiti is also set in 1962 Within a year of the film’s release, the country would begin to explode with assassinations, race riots, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. “The Manchurian Candidate” was sort of a preview of what was just around the corner.

Neo Film Noir

The Manchurian Candidate was a Cold War thriller that at once reflected and updated the themes of film noir. The film’s atmosphere is corrupt and oppressive, and many of the the characters are deliberately grotesque, such as the predatory Chunjin (played by Henry Silva) or Lansbury’s monstrously ambitious mother. The noir universe, usually populated by tough guys, private eyes, con men, and losers, is replaced by the new slick and pretentious world of politics. The same types of greedy, grim, hopeless characters populate this upper-crust world, only this time they wear tuxedos and drink Martinis. The difference between noir of the classic era and this film is in the filmmakers’ sophistication and self-reflexivity.


Frankenheimer’s rapid, elliptical direction pushes the narrative to the brink of sanity, stretching the suspension of disbelief to its limits. His stylish direction combines Hitchcock’s slick thriller techniques with arty and flashy camera tricks of the young Orson Welles. The awkward camera angles and elliptical editing seemed confusing and unnerving to the mass public at the time.

In one famous scene, a staging of the actual brainwashing incident, Frankenheimer juxtaposed a realistic image of the American POW’s under the influence of their Communist captors with scenes illustrating the experience as it appears in the minds of the men. In its surrealist touches — the exaggerated lines, distorted images and shapes, the film was meant to mirror a world gone mad. It’s noteworthy that Frankenheimer achieved the feverish style without any loss of dramatic tension or sacrifice of either physical or intellectual tension.


Frankenheimer made two other films in that vein, “Seconds” and “Seven Days in May”. The film opened the way for other Cold War films, which were more commercially successful, such as “Fail Safe” (1964) and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1965). Though “The Manchurian Candidate” is not an overtly anti-war film, it’s a landmark in terms of the reevaluation of the Korean War, a reevaluation that climaxed with the Vietnam War and the release of Robert Altman’s scathing satire, “M * A * S * H”, in 1970.

In its satire of Senator McCarthy, The Manchurian Candidate was candidly cruel. In the film, Senator John Iselin clearly stands in for the alcoholic, demagogic McCarthy. It was the first time in which Hollywood felt “safe” to lash out at McCarthy and his blacklisting without any restraint.

McCarthy-bashing later became a trend in Hollywood films, such as The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen.