BFI Classics: The Manchurian Candidate

Author: Griel Marcus

The Manchurian Candidate was originally released in 1962 and due to its storyline was taken out of cinematic circulation a year later given after the Kennedy assassination. The film was then rarely seen until its re-issue on home video in 1988. Author Greil Marcus writes about attending a rare screening in the Castro district of San Francisco and details the crowd reaction. As the brain washing sequence commenced the crowd were laughing at the ladies flower group. By the end of the sequence when Raymond Shaw had killed two of his squad the mood had shifted somewhat.

Marcus contends that The Manchurian Candidate is simply the greatest political thriller of all time and that it has actually become part of the American political fabric. Marcus details how presidents chose to pass the time from Nixon to Regan drawing special attention to Clinton’s preference for solitaire. Marcus draws parallels between Hilary Clinton and the Angela Landsbury character in terms of the power behind the power. The concept that nothing has changed in American politics no matter what any individual does. The nightmare vision of Raymond killing both his senator stepdad and mother actually making no ultimate difference is a dark one indeed.

Marcus also talks at length about the possible so-called role Sinatra played in getting the film pulled in 1963 and later re-issued. Sinatra is known to have been very proud of the film and would later declare that his portrayal of Marco was the best work he ever did. Much has been written about the so-called pulling of the film in 1963 after the Kennedy assassination. Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film’s 1988 reissue, states that the film had simply played itself out by the time of the killing. Though it is of interest as regards Sinatra as he also tried to purchase the rights to Suddenly in which he plays an assassin looking to kill the president.

The reaction that first time viewers may have to Manchurian Candidate will undoubtedly be extreme at certain given points in the film. The screening that Marcus attended in San Francisco become even more intense once Raymond kills his beloved Jocelyn whilst being discovered killing her father. The Manchurian Candidate is a film that creates a great deal of fear without being exploitative. The current climate of fear we exists in is simply part and parcel of a political environment that doesn’t change according to Marcus. 

The Manchurian Candidate may be the bleakest film of all time even exceeding Dr Strangelove. The nuclear oblivion will never come in The Manchurian Candidate as power simply corrupts making all people vulnerable. The political sphere cleans itself in the film as Raymond is dispatched to execute the liberal newspaper editor and the senator who believes the rights of people. Greil Marcus’ book is a fascinating digest on the film all be it a little scatter-gun in approach. For everyone who loves this film or wants to explore its possible inner workings this is a fine place to start.

Aled Jones

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