TCM FF: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

This film is so well known that it has been remade and there dozens of cultural references to it in the political world. In pop culture I just caught a reference to it in the new “Captain America: Civil War” film, as Tony Stark tries to talk to Steve Rogers, he asks Bucky, the Winter Soldier, to put down his weapon, and he refers to him as “Manchurian Candidate”. This obvious reference to brainwashing comes up in a dramatic moment with a humorous context, and that is the way the whole film feels. It is a drama of political intrigue with assassination at it’s heart, but it is filled with comic moments that make you shake your head at the audacity of the story telling and film making.

 

Amanda had never seen it before, despite the fact that it seems to be on our Retro Channel on a weekly basis (not TCM, I think it is a Fox feed). It was rediscovered in the mid 80s, and the story I heard was that Frank Sinatra asked one of his people why he never saw the movie on the late show, and they explained that he controlled the rights and had mostly pulled it from circulation after the JFK assassination. Frank decided it needed to be out and I remember going to a screening on the west side of L.A. when a baby shower was taking place at my friend Rick’s house. He and I went to see it and had very similar reactions. We both thought the movie was great but it has some strange stuff in it.

Among the oddest things in the film is the meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra’s characters on a train. The pick up lines she uses on him and the daffy way he responds to her are just so different, you wonder if they are in the same scene together, much less the same movie. Leigh’s character has no reason to exist in the film at all, so maybe the dialogue was tweaked to give  her character something memorable to do.

Just about everyone else who made the picture is dead, but 94 year old Angela Lansbury is still around and she graced this screening with her presence. She is an impressive figure who has a mind sharp enough to put guest interviewer Alec Baldwin to shame. She was quick to come up with names and moments that Mr. Baldwin seemed only to half remember. It’s not that he did a bad job, it’s just that he seemed so much less engaged than the woman 37 years his senior who still is as sharp as a tack.

The audience was very appreciative and they should be. This was Lansbury’s last Oscar nominated performance and except for a very few occasions, she slipped back into theater work and only returned to Hollywood for the TV series that she starred in for 12 years and 260 plus episodes. Which by the way has been off the air for twenty years if you want to feel a little old. She was terrific in the movie, but had the unfortunate luck to be up against a sixteen year old in the part of a lifetime in 1962. In an odd coincidence Patty Duke, the winner from that year, passed away only a few weeks ago.  One of the things that make film great for we fans however is that these performances will be around a long time after the stars have moved on. Although in Ms. Lansbury’s case, that may never happen.

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