The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – A Movie Review

I’ll start off by saying this is a terrible movie.  But maybe it’s so bad it’s good.

Frank Sinatra is an Army Major named Bennett Marco who is captured along with his platoon during the Korean War and sent into China to be brainwashed to be part of a political assassination plot that the Russians have arranged.  The platoon sergeant Raymond Shaw is the assassin and as it turns out his mother, played by Angela Lansbury, is the Russian agent who is his handler.  He is programmed to obey instructions that he gets after he’s been triggered by seeing the ace of diamonds during a solitaire game.  His mother is married to a United States Senator that she is going to get elected President by having her son assassinate the Republican presidential candidate.  If this isn’t crazy enough, his mother gets Shaw to assassinate his own newlywed wife and her United States Senator father in order to further the plan.

So, the plot is pretty crazy but it’s kind of fun in a way because of the way they present it.  We get these flash backs of the brainwashing camp.  The Russian doctor demonstrates the control he has over the prisoners by having Shaw kill two of the other prisoners on command.  And based on the false memories that are implanted in the prisoners Shaw gets the Congressional Medal of Honor for supposedly freeing them and killing some ridiculous number of North Korean troops.

Now this could have been a political thriller that works.  But the acting is unbelievably bad.  Some of the dialog is borderline ridiculous.  For instance, Janet Leigh plays a woman who meets Sinatra accidentally on a train and within a day she bails him out of jail for assaulting a Korean house boy and still decides to leave her fiancé to marry him.  And then there is this hilarious karate fight between Sinatra and a fake Korean guy.  It’s like something out of one of the Austin Powers movies.  One of his karate chops misses and ends up knocking an enormous chunk out of a wooden table.  But it looks as if it’s made of styrofoam.  I think that fight may have been the inspiration for Inspector Clouseau’s battles against his Oriental House Boy Kato in the Pink Panther movies.

I read that this is considered to be in several top 100 film lists.  I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

On a personal note, there is a scene in the movie that was filmed in a restaurant in Manhattan called Jilly’s.  Jilly Rizzo, the owner of the restaurant and the guy who is seen tending bar in the movie was one of Sinatra’s closest friends.  Jilly was convicted in 1990 of a loan fraud scheme on his restaurant that involved some very old acquaintances of mine.  And some of these acquaintances worked at Jilly’s and even knew Sinatra from his visits there.  I think the fraud scheme and this movie are in some ways kindred entities.  They both possess a spirit of inept dishonesty.  A bungled fraud.

So, this movie has a personal connection for me.  But that in no way changes my opinion of its quality.  If I remember correctly Sinatra did sometimes do some decent acting.  I’m going to watch “The Joker is Wild” again because I think he was pretty good in that.  I never noticed any acting going on in Ocean’s Eleven.  People say he was good in “From Here to Eternity.”  That part seemed a little melodramatic to me.  “The Man with the Golden Arm” never interested me.  Maybe he was good in it.  But without a doubt, The Manchurian Candidate was abysmally bad.

Recommended only as camp.