As a tribute to the late Angela Lansbury, we present a 60th anniversary screening of the movie that she considered her greatest achievement, The Manchurian Candidate. When Lansbury joined us in person for a sold-out anniversary screening of Death on the Nile in 2018, she told the audience that The Manchurian Candidate was her favorite of all her film roles. She received her third and final Oscar nomination for her performance in this 1962 movie. The screening is Wednesday, November 16, 7 PM at the Royal Theater.
John Frankenheimer’s film was a hit in 1962 and remains one of the most highly acclaimed of all political thrillers. In 1994 it was selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, an honor reserved for films of “historical, cultural, or aesthetic significance.” This story of a diabolical plot to engineer a Russian takeover of the White House was provocative in 1962 and seems frighteningly prescient today. As Frankenheimer said in remarkably prophetic comments a few years before his death, “I think our society is brainwashed by television commercials, by advertising, by politicians, by a censored press… More and more I think that our society is becoming manipulated and controlled.”
The Manchurian Candidate was adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by screenwriter George Axelrod, who also wrote such films as The Seven-Year Itch and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It tells the chilling story of a soldier in the Korean War, played by Laurence Harvey, who is captured and brainwashed by Russian and Chinese Communists into becoming an assassin in the employ of the Soviet regime. Frank Sinatra plays a fellow soldier trying to halt the assassination plot. Lansbury won awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press and the National Board of Review for her portrayal of Harvey’s manipulative mother, who plays a crucial role in the conspiracy.
In addition to its achievements as a political thriller, the film was one of the first to satirize the anti-Communist hysteria that had gripped the country and divided the Hollywood community during the 1950s. James Gregory plays Lansbury’s husband, a dimwitted U.S. Senator modeled on Joseph McCarthy. This mockery of fanatical politicians enraged right wing pundits at the time of the film’s release, but it received the best reviews of any movie released in 1962. Variety wrote, “Every once in a rare while a film comes along that works in all departments… Such is The Manchurian Candidate.”
Over the years, rave reviews continued to pour in. Roger Ebert called it “a work as alive and smart as when it was first released.” Pauline Kael said, “The picture plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood.” Writing in Time magazine in 2007, Richard Corliss said, “Lansbury and Harvey are both sensational in a movie that remains pointed and current. It still touches you like a clammy hand in the dark.”
Lansbury’s portrayal of the malevolent Mrs. Iselin was ranked as one of the 25 greatest villains in film history by the American Film Institute. Unlike other female villains in film noir, who were motivated by sex or money, Lansbury’s character had much more grandiose ambitions; her aim was to become the most powerful person in the entire country, a concept that was way ahead of its time in 1962.
After the screening, Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan, co-authors of Cinema ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies (which includes a lengthy section on The Manchurian Candidate) will discuss the film with the audience. Other surprise guests may join the conversation.