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Friday, 20 February 2015

Classic Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate stars Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, a former Korean POW who has been brainwashed into becoming a political assassin. On his return from combat, he was awarded the highest military honour available, something his mother Mrs Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) are pleased to shout from the rooftops. They're waging a war against potential communists in positions of power, though Eleanor is very much the driving force. The trouble is, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having flashbacks of his POW experience with Raymond Shaw where he seems to recall Shaw killing two members of the team and casts doubt on the heroic feats that gained Shaw his medal. Marco feels like he's going mad but a chance encounter convinces him he's right. From then on, his aim is to work out what's going on with Shaw and how he can stop it. This film also stars Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, a woman Marco meets on a train heading to New York.

I suppose the revelation for people who hadn't already appreciated the depth of their talents would be the brilliance of both Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra. Lansbury certainly should've won the Oscar for her supporting performance that easily steals the film. The way the character develops from an enthusiastic mother to master manipulator is a brilliant evolution that feels completely natural thanks to Lansbury's subtle performance. The best scene of the film easily belongs to her, though I won't ruin it for those unfamiliar with the plot. Frank Sinatra, too, puts in a stellar performance as the tortured Marco who then drags himself back together to try and stop the assassination attempt. As a dramatic actor, Sinatra is often overlooked but his roles in this film and in From Here to Eternity (1953, reviewed here) are proof that he was more than just a musical star.

I did have a few niggles with The Manchurian Candidate, though I understood the reasoning behind them. The flashback scenes where Shaw explains how his relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) began and ended feels a little shoehorned in but, since the character becomes important very quickly, it was a necessary evil, and also allowed for another riveting Lansbury scene. Equally, Janet Leigh was monstrously over-billed, and I say that as someone who adores her in every role, regardless of the quality of the film. Her performance was excellent, yes, but her role was a small one.

Overall, this is another film that deserves all the praise. It's long but the last half an hour is a lesson in how to ramp up tension and keep it there. A fantastic film that is an intricate as it is suspenseful.

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