Hello, Ms. Lansbury…
Gen X-ers like me and those who were born later most likely think of Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote or as Mrs. Potts on Beauty And the Beast. Lansbury is a nice, motherly lady with scads of class and moxie. However, Lansbury does mix things up now and then, and when she goes dark, she goes really dark, such as in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Lansbury’s part isn’t huge, but she casts a very long shadow.
The first five minutes of the film set up the rest of the story, and the release posters weren’t kidding when they said the movie makes no sense without them. It legitimately doesn’t.
The film opens in Korea in 1952. A company of soldiers are having a raucous party at a bar when their staff sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) comes to break it up while his commanding officer, Captain Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), waits in the truck. Shaw’s men look at him as being kind of a buzzkill, of course.
Next, the company attempts to take a hill when their interpreter, Chunjin (Henry Silva) betrays them to Chinese forces. Ben and Raymond are both knocked unconscious, and they and their men are spirited away.
Later on, Raymond returns to the United States to a hero’s welcome. Ben has recommended him for a Medal of Honor, and there are generals saluting, a band playing, and a crowd waving signs and cheering. Pushing through the throng is Raymond’s mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury), who has Raymond’s stepfather, John Iselin (James Gregory) take a few pictures with Raymond under a banner proclaiming “John Iselin’s Boy!”
Raymond’s relationship with Eleanor is a contentious one. He hates his mother so much that he puts his hands over his ears when she talks to him. She’s incensed when Raymond tells her that he’s going to work for Holburn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), one of the most prominent political writers in America. “That Communist?” Eleanor spits out.
“He’s not a Communist,” Raymond replies. “He’s a Republican.”
Meanwhile, Ben, who’s been promoted to Major and assigned to Intelligence in Washington, D.C., is haunted by a recurring dream every night. He sees he and his men at a meeting of the Ladies’ Garden Society, looking bored while the chairwoman goes on and on about hydrangeas. Then the camera spins around, showing them in a classroom in Manchuria, where Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) is demonstrating the marvelous job of brainwashing he’s done on Raymond and the other men in the company.
Chunjin sits calmly next to Ben taking notes while Lo brags that his hypnosis techniques are so effective they can make people act in ways they find morally repugnant. With that, he orders Raymond to garrotte one of the men, Mavole (Richard LaPore), with a scarf. The garden club and the Communist exhibition blend together until Ben wakes up screaming.
Ben wants to find out what the deal is and if any of the other men in his old company are having similar experiences. When someone mentions Raymond being with Ben in Korea, Ben says in a strange monotone, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” His colleagues think it’s a delayed reaction to a year and a half in Korea, and temporarily assign him to the Public Relations Corps.
At an Iselin presser, he reveals a list of suspected Communists, which sends the room into an uproar. Iselin leaves in a huff. Ben hurries after him and asks how many Communists were on the list. Iselin tells him there were one-hundred seventy-five and then says there were two-hundred four, but doesn’t want to give any more detail.
Corporal Allan Melvin (James Edwards) is having the same nightmares as Ben, except that in his case, the Garden Society is made up of African-American women, and the dream picks up where Ben leaves off. He sees Dr. Lo order Ben to recommend Raymond for a Medal of Honor, and then he tells Raymond to shoot the youngest man in the company, Bobby Lembeck (Nicky Blair) in the head.
Allan wakes up screaming, and his wife suggests he write to Raymond and tell him what’s going on. Just like Ben, Allan rattles out, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
That kind, brave, warm, wonderful human being is a cold fish and a loner living in New York. He comes home from work and is reading his mail when a mysterious voice on the phone tells him to pass the time playing Solitaire. Mechanically, Raymond deals a hand, and hesitates when he sees the Queen of Diamonds. The voice on the phone calls again and says Raymond will be brought in for a checkup.
Yeah. It’s a checkup, all right, and that weaselly man from the dream is no dream. He visits Raymond in the room where he’s pretending to be laid up with a broken leg and orders him to kill Holburne Gaines.
Ben’s been placed on indefinite sick leave. He says he doesn’t need it, but his commanding officer knows better. He tells him to find a girl and lie in the sun. Ben has to concede because he knows there’s something wrong with him. He knows Raymond is a repulsive human being, so that line he spouted about the guy being the salt of the earth is extremely fishy.
On the train, Ben meets Rosie (Janet Leigh), a lady from New York. She sees how much trouble Ben is having lighting a cigarette and starts talking to him. A very sympathetic soul, Rosie asks Ben to call her, and she and Ben fall in love. Her character was just kind of there, but she does serve to lighten up a very heavy storyline.
Ben also makes contact with Raymond, but not before he has a knock-out, drag-out fight with Chunjin, who has installed himself as Raymond’s valet. The police are impressed by Ben’s pugilistic prowess.
Having relieved his feelings, Ben befriends Raymond, and after a few bottles of wine, Raymond pours his heart out. He’s a tortured soul whose ambitions have been thwarted by the overly possessive Eleanor, who has done nothing but make his life miserable. He joined the Army to get away from her, and has never stopped resenting her. He even tells Ben about killing Gaines. Ben takes pity on Raymond and sets out to free him from his chains. He just has to find the key.
Joseph McCarthy died five years before The Manchurian Candidate was released, having never turned up any Communists within the State Department. Like Iselin, the number of Communists McCarthy suspected fluctuated wildly, and he was finally censured by Eisenhower. Candidate turns that on its head, as it shows McCarthy’s accusation coming true, with the issue very much in doubt.
Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor is a huge factor in the suspense. It’s obvious she’s overly controlling of Iselin and her son, but how many strings she’s pulling doesn’t become clear right away. Even when she’s not in a scene, her presence is very much felt, and calling her creepy is an understatement. She’s slimy and sleazy under her perfect Congressional wife exterior, making Maleficent look like a Care Bear. When she dresses as Little Bo Peep for a costume party, complete with shepherdess’ crook, it’s ironically appropriate. Like many villains, though, she’s always in danger of becoming overconfident. No, I’m not going to ruin anything.
The Manchurian Candidate is a phenomenal film. I hesitate to say much because it’s too easy to give everything away. It’s really Frank Sinatra’s movie, as he’s in about sixty percent of the scenes, and his acting is outstanding. Laurence Harvey is equally excellent. I felt like when it came to who ran away with the movie, Frank, Laurence, and Angela were having a baton relay. The film is disturbing in a cereberal way, and the ending pays dividends with interest.
For more of the lovely Angela, please visit Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thanks for hosting this, Gill–I enjoyed this visit with Ms. Lansbury! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you back here tomorrow for the Buster Keaton Blogathon…
The Manchurian Candidate is available to own on DVD from Amazon.