Film Score: David Amram Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury
Round Midnight, I talked about how films from the 80s seemed dated, but that’s nothing compared to films from the 60s. If I had to say why I would probably attribute it to the actual film stock itself. Films from the 60s have a crisper, live look, similar to what videotaped television had the past few decades, or digital film has now. Without the softening effect of the older kinds of film stock the sets and consumes look more artificial, cleaner, less real. And, like the 80s, the clothing and hairstyles from the 60s seem more of an aberration that even those from the 70s.
The Manchurian Candidate is no exception. It has that cheap, spare look that you get in black and white television from the period. A continuation of the Communist paranoia that appears in films like Stalag 17 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is based on the best-selling novel by Richard Condon and concerns a plot by Soviet and Chinese agents to brainwash American soldiers captured during the Korean War and turn them loose as killing machines back in the United States, with no memories or remorse. So far, so good, until the members of the unit who had been brainwashed begin remembering what had actually happened to them. The most interesting thing about the plot is that there is some evidence that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy may have been done the very same way.
I suppose you had to be alive at the time to see someone like Frank Sinatra as a serious actor instead of the caricature of himself that he became in his later years (can anyone forget Joe Piscopo singing “Ebony and Ivory” with Eddie Murphy?). The usual cast of sixties character actors (who would later become 70s sit-com character actors) is onboard, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Lloyd Corrigan, John McGiver and the like. Janet Leigh, fresh out of her success in Hitchcock’s Psycho, makes an improbable love interest for Sinatra, while Angela Lansbury has probably one of her best roles, as the scheming mother of Laurence Harvey, the primary soldier who was brainwashed. But the film really only starts to pick up with the appearance of Leslie Parrish who is absolutely stunning in her brief role as Harvey’s pre-war girlfriend.
While this is a film that many critics have on their list of bests, it’s difficult for me to agree. Even in terms of sixties films it’s certainly nowhere near the brilliance of other 60s films like The Hustler, or The Great Escape. Sinatra is just as bad here as he was in From Here to Eternity and from a distance of sixty years looking back the whole thing looks like any ordinary TV drama of the day. Particularly overdrawn and cliché are the Soviet agent and the Chinese doctor who, never mind the fact that they appear to be working together in complete harmony, really undermine the believability of their scheme by their overblown characterizations. Still, the ending is satisfying and, although the drama was diluted, it finishes strong and is worth watching