Malevolence is the key word that I think of whenever I conjure up the main villain in John Frankenheimer's masterpiece of political suspense, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. The film has a screenplay by George Axelrod based on the book by Richard Condon published in 1959. The subject matter was actually quite contemporary since the film was made only three years later.
Oh by the way, though I normally do not like to give things away, there will be
SPOILERS AHEAD, because I want to talk about the entire film.
For me there can be no movie villain more malevolent than Angela Lansbury as the iron willed, cold as an iceberg mother willing to sacrifice a son's sanity for a political end. There is malevolence in the very 'normality' of her sophisticated appearance - Eleanor Shaw Iselin is the ultimate Washington D.C. political wife, help-mate and devoted mother of a Medal of Honor winner just back from Korea. At her doting husband's side, she is only too willing and able to lend a guiding hand.
Her husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (the always effective James Gregory) is a McCarthy-like functionary whose strident claims that communists are lurking in government have given him mileage and made him a likely Vice-Presidential candidate. That he is a fumbling half-wit with little political acuity goes by the wayside when the possibility of communists hiding under every rock is accepted as fact. (Let's not forget that in reality we were at the height of the Cold War.)
Senator Iselin has risen through the ranks guided by a brilliant wife who understands how to manage fools and does so with cold-hearted determination. This is an old story in Washington politics. Never more blatant than in this duplicitous marriage with only one end in sight: the presidency of the United States.
I've often thought how frustrating Mrs. Iselin's job must have been when it was SHE who really wanted the presidency for herself, she who wanted to wield ultimate power at a time when the presidency was exclusively a man's club. (Then and now, apparently.) How this barrier must have thwarted her at every turn while at the same time adding fuel to the fire of her ambitions.
Brilliant, ambitious women (especially those without an ounce of empathy or sentiment) have never had an easy road. Most of the time they have had to sublimate their dreams in favor of whatever man was at hand as cover - especially in politics. Angela Lansbury plays Mrs. Iselin very much as a dedicated woman without remorse, one who is so twisted that she is devoid of any semblance of humanity. It is a chillingly brilliant performance. Especially for such a well-liked and likable actress.
A patrol of soldiers is captured in Korea. They are brainwashed with new techniques (the 'garden party' scene alone is worth the price of admission) which work indecently well. Then, memories of the entire episode buried in their sub-conscious, the men are sent back to America with an amazing story of combat and the heroic exploits of Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) who will go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor for a non-existent event.
(The guys have been brain-washed into thinking they are at a Garden Club event in New Jersey.)
Back home, when questioned, the men seem devoted to their leader, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life," they respond. In truth, because of his aloofness, he was the least liked man in the entire platoon.
But Raymond Shaw is the son of Eleanor Shaw Iselin and the Senator's step-son and he has reasons for his perceived aloofness. He is an unwitting pawn in the all-encompassing political aspirations of a mother who has sold her soul to a political cause. Plus it doesn't help that Raymond hates her and his step-father.
As played by Laurence Harvey, a normally cool and uninvolved sort of actor, Raymond comes across as stiff, awkward, lonely and isolated. It is Harvey's best performance - his normally stand-offish persona working very well here. In reality Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Harvey, which makes her Oscar nominated performance even more impressive.
Shaw and his fool of a step-father are merely stepping stones for Eleanor Iselin who is a deeply embedded Communist agent now well on her way to achieving the goal of getting her husband into the Oval Office by hook or by crook. To that end she plans to have him swept up by manufactured nationalistic frenzy (remind you of anything?) when later, by her command, the actual presidential candidate is scheduled to be assassinated at the convention and her 'grief-stricken' hubby will then give an emotional 'America first' speech while holding the dead body of his 'friend.' The speech is meant to catapult Iselin to the top of the ticket. It is a powerful speech worked on as she says, "here and in Russia on and off for eight years."
To that ignoble end, Mrs. Iselin is willing to compromise and destroy her own son. A son, whom, by the way, she has ensnared in an incestuous relationship. He is the assassin set up by the communists - having been brain washed in Korea (unemotionally killing two of his fellow soldiers in the process) to carry out the death of the presidential candidate. Raymond's state-side handler is none other than his own mother. His 'trigger' is the Queen of Diamonds in a deck of playing cards. Once he is shown the card, Raymond will blankly carry out any order he is given.
Frank Sinatra's troubled character in the film is another mind-altered member of the original platoon. Major Bennett Marco, re-assigned to Army Intelligence state-side, has been having vivid nightmares about his experience in Korea. When he learns that a fellow veteran, Corporal Allen Melvin (James Edwards) has also been having similar dreams, they begin to put two and two together. Marco comes in contact with Raymond Shaw and little by little he begins to realize that the story they 'remember' about Korea may not have actually happened.
In the end, it will be up to Marco to try and stop Raymond Shaw from carrying out his imbedded instructions.
In the meantime, Eleanor Iselin learns that Raymond has taken up with an old girlfriend, Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan played wonderfully by John McGiver. The warmth of that father daughter relationship comes as a temporary balm to Raymond's inchoate coldness. He, at last, might have found a bit of happiness.
At first, Mrs. Iselin approves of the relationship since she wants the influential Senator Jordan's public approval of her hubby's Vice Presidential bid. But when the Liberal Senator makes it very plain that he will, under no circumstances, approve Senator Shaw, Mrs. Iselin instigates one of the cruelest and more heart-rending events in the film. And the way that director John Frankenheimer develops the infamous 'carton of milk' scene makes for one of the most devastating moments in film history.
Mrs. Shaw shows Raymond the Queen of Diamonds card and orders him to kill Senator Jordan. When Raymond, an automaton without any will, goes to the Senator's townhouse and confronts him in his cozy kitchen, he not only shoots down the Senator in cold blood but as Jocelyn Jordan accidentally enters the scene, Raymond kills her as well. Later he is utterly heartbroken to learn the news of his friends' deaths since he has no clue it was he that caused it.
When the evil Mrs. Shaw realizes that maybe she might have gone a little bit too far with her son's mental health, she tries to explain to him that she had no clue that the commies would choose him as the assassin and that once in the White House she would crush the commies responsible. (Yeah, right. I believe her. Don't blame a confused Raymond if he has doubts.)
Near the end Marco finally breaks the hold the communists have on Raymond's mind and believes he's stopped whatever it is that Shaw is supposed to do.
But later, in one of the most creepily powerful scenes in the film, Mrs. Iselin, unaware of Marco's interference, goes ahead with her instructions to Raymond, topped off with a very un-motherly kiss.
Later, Raymond shows up at the political convention in disguise and calmly goes up to a room from where he can survey the entire stage. A desperate Marco races to find and stop him. As Raymond sets up his rifle, he is cool, collected, and completely in charge.
Has Marco failed? Will Raymond's brain washing re-assert itself? Will he kill the presidential candidate and catapult his odious mother and step-father into the White House?
In one of the best endings to any film I've ever seen, Senator Shaw and Raymond's mother sit side by side near the podium, awaiting what must happen - the next step towards the fruition of their dreams. Suddenly a shot rings out and Shaw rears back, shot in the head. As he slides to the floor, his frightened wife looks up towards the room where she knows Raymond is hiding and she too is shot.
As the cops and Marco break in the door upstairs, Raymond Shaw kills himself. Marco finds the medal of honor affixed to Raymond's jacket.
What a film. John Frankenheimer's gritty direction is excellent as is the editing which adds another element to the tautness of Axelrod's script. The acting, needless to say is superb. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remains an especially relevant story, especially now, considering today's political climate.
"According to rumor, Sinatra removed the film from distribution after the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue by MGM/UA denies the rumor. According to him, the film's apparent withdrawal was not due to the assassination, but by 1963 the movie had simply played out (in those days it could take a film months to play across the country). The film became the premiere offering of The CBS Thursday Night Movie on the evening of September 16th, 1965, and was rerun in April 1974 on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. Sinatra's representatives reacquired the rights in 1971 after the initial ten-year contract with United Artists expired. After two successful showings at the New York Film Festival in 1987 renewed public interest in the film, the studio reacquired the rights and it became again available for theater and video releases." Wikipedia.
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