I saw The Manchurian Candidate at the Ritz Theatre in Winter Haven, Fla., when it first came out in 1962. I was 8 years old. In the ensuing decades, I’d completely forgotten I’d ever seen it, though I’ve very clearly remembered the end of the movie all my life. So when I picked up the DVD release of the film, I was surprised not only to find that I’d seen the original, but more surprised by how much of it I remembered — and even more surprised by how precisely I knew the ending.
I cite this not to tout my own memory, but as a testament to the raw power of Frankenheimer’s work — that it should so burn itself into a mind that could only have barely understood what it was seeing, and certainly could not have processed it.
Seeing the film today, it’s a wonder that most audiences in 1962 could have processed it either. This remains not only one of the most politically charged movies of its era, but its almost casual inclusion of elements of surreal fantasy must have been disconcerting, to say the least. The scenes involving a demonstration in Manchuria by Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh, best known as Steve McGarrett’s arch-nemesis Wo Fat on TV’s Hawaii Five-O) of the effects of his brainwashing techniques on a group of American soldiers captured in Korea were like nothing ever seen in mainstream American film at the time. Even today, these scenes are startling and far more chilling than anything in the recent Jonathan Demme remake.
With its story of American right-wing political corruption with links to Red China and the Soviet Union, Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate was, and is, a volatile work, part thriller, part quasi-science fiction, part vicious satire.
And it’s just as timely 43 years later. The Manchurian Candidate demands to be seen.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Film critic Peter Loewer presents John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate as the first in his “Wag the Dog: Three Political Fables” series at Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium on Tuesday, Sept.13 at 6 p.m. (The other films will be shown Sept.14 and 15.)]