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The Manchurian Candidate


John Frankheimer’s MKUltra masterpiece still packs a hefty punch, not only for the manner in which it puts it out there – reveals method, if you will – but also the entirely unembroidered, stark depictions of its central characters. Meanwhile, the nominal politics of East/West, Red Menace villainy make for something of a witty veneer – even if The Manchurian Candidate stops short of implying both sides are puppeteered from higher up the totem – something that’s fresher than ever when the tools of mass manipulation, indoctrination and, yes, brainwashing have never been more in focus.

Leaving aside such ramifications for a moment, the most striking aspect of The Manchurian Candidate is how meticulously crafted it is. It represents a peak moment for both screenwriter and director (and author, really; Richard Condon’s name is forever primarily associated with the work). George Axelrod had adapted Breakfast at Tiffany’s the previous year and would pen (and produce) the spry How to Murder Your Wife a few years later, while John Frankenheimer would settle into a habit of picking projects seemingly arbitrarily for the next 30 years; of two dozen movies, only the trio immediately succeeding it garner anything approaching consistent retrospective veneration. 

You can find things to complain about here, of course. The melancholy jazz noodle of the main score seems a trifle overdone. Frank Sinatra is fine in the lead but hardly revelatory, Laurence Harvey’s accent comes in for some grief (albeit, I’d argue the undisguised RP serves to distance Raymond Shaw further from the pack and emphasises his aloof priggishness), and Janet Leigh’s girlfriend seems entirely redundant once it’s clear she isn’t a handler (or is she? Glenn Erickson presented the theory that “Rose Chaney is Marco’s controller… Frankly, in a movie as carefully organized as The Manchurian Candidate, it makes no sense for Rosie to be ‘just the girl’ for Sinatra… And why return for that coda where Marco recites some facts about Medal of Honour winners before breaking down in remorse? The only explanation is that Rosie is still on the job, babysitting the only surviving brainwashing victim that can put the puzzle pieces together — or serve as the next phantom trigger man”). If the flashback to Raymond and Jocelyn’s blighted romance – by his mother Eleanor: “I want to talk to you about that communist tart” – may seem to go on a bit, you only have to look at how malnourished the remake is to recognise it as essential character work.

Any gripes barely dent its surface, however. The Manchurian Candidate works equally as thriller and satire. It’s also dazzling in its virtuoso visuals, replete with sequences and shots that etch themselves on the mind, from the brainwashing nightmare onwards (the garden fete tracking pan transforms the ladies in attendance into communist military). The unblinking, smiling executions of two members of the platoon by Shaw. His later shooting of Senator Joran (John McGiver) through the latter’s carton of milk and even more chilling murder of new wife Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), unfortuitously happening upon the scene. The solitaire games. The refrain “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”. 

The reveal that mother (Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor Iselin) is Shaw’s handler is perhaps a little “movie-ish” (or suspense novel-ish), but there’s good reason for such a conceit beyond shock value (which I’ll come to). Likewise, Jocelyn appearing, unmotivated, in a Queen of Diamonds fancy dress costume; it’s almost too much, and yet the uncanniness of the coincidence is entirely fitting with the pervasive paranoia. The finale still plays like gangbusters, even with countless similar assassination stories since.

Marco: I remember… I remember. I can see that Chinese cat standing there and smiling like Fu Manchu saying: The Queen of Diamonds is reminiscent in many ways of Raymond’s dearly loved and hated mother… and is the second key to clear the mechanism for any other assignment.

Bennett Marco (Sinatra) is consistently required to fail when it comes to responding in the most advantageous way, making him only occasionally exasperating (by the time he gives the newlyweds 48 hours before Shaw needs to come in, you’re resigned to him making duff calls). But then, only the Chinese exhibit any degree of consistency of purpose. Senator Iselin (James Gregory) is hilariously ignorant and oafish, a deplorable drunk dependent on his wife for his every political posture (especially ticklish is his request that she give him a fixed number of senators who are members of the communist party; there’s a helpful Heinz ketchup bottle at the breakfast table). None of Marco’s superiors will lend him credence until the facts are staring them in the face (the movie at least has its Korean War setting on its side in that regard; any suggestion of army intelligence ignorance of the possibilities of brainwashing in the year the movie was made would have been risible). 

Marco: He’s impossible to like!

Performances-wise, Harvey achieves the variations of privileged shit (“I am not loveable”), briefly buoyant husband (“I made a joke”) and broken, and heartbroken, vessel seeking revenge entirely compellingly. Ray Charles’ manager Joe Adams also makes a particular impression as the psychiatrist laying the methodology out for Marco, and one’s left wishing he’d made more movies. It’s Lansbury who really wows, though, as an unrepentant devil incarnate; being a complete psychopath, it’s very easy for Eleanor to rationalise her son being used because she has used her son so profoundly, even before his conditioning (the movie needs no more than the kiss on the lips to intimate their incestuous bond). 

Pauline Kael called it “A daring, funny, and far-out thriller” that “plays some wonderful, crazy games about the Right and the Left; although it’s a thriller, it may be the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood” while Time-Out’s Brian Case echoed the political astuteness: “Its greatest virtue lies in its brilliant balancing acts; political satire and nail-biting thriller, the twin lunacies of the Right and Left, and the outrageously funny dialogue during the parallel courtships set against the sadness of the unlovable Shaw’s predicament”. 

After all, Eleanor is a communist (well, she’s out for number one, but the party suits her purposes) accusing others of being communists to gain capital. Dr Yen Lo, meanwhile, is told the front being used is “one of the few soviet operations in America that actually showed a profit at the end of the last fiscal year”, to which he jokingly tut-tuts – “The virus of capitalism is highly infectious. Soon you’ll be lending money out at interest!” – before mentioning he plans to spend the afternoon at Macy’s (“Madame Yen has given me the most appalling list”). It’s all a game. In the Hegelian sense.

Dr Yen Lo: I am sure you’ve all heard the old wives’ tale that no hypnotised subject may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature, whatever that may be. Nonsense, of course!

If I have a beef with the plot logic, it’s that the degree of conditioning achieved with the platoon is supposedly instilled in a mere three days (curiously, even the remake sticks to such a limited span). Perhaps this is intended absurdity, as the movie is, after all, responsible for dumping the whole brainwashed assassin plot on the public at large. Erickson notes, anticipating ’70s despair, that “As with later paranoid conspiracy films the movie ends with the villains still at large and their conspiracy intact”, which is perhaps the most verisimilitudinous element here.

By which, I’m not referring to the veracity of MKUltra, but its popular association with such high-level activity as political assassinations. Can it be a coincidence that JFK was assassinated 13 months after The Manchurian Candidate was released, with its lone gunman taking out a – okay, not yet elected, and his wife goes down too – presidential nominee? Such an eventuality (see The Lone Gunmen pilot and the Twin Towers, or the final episode of the 2016 season X-Files revival and the plandemic) would now instantly be labelled predicative programming. 

That programming takes on a distinctive hue if we consider the assassinations of those it predicts – JFK, RFK – weren’t that at all, but faked as part of Deep State/Dark Forces machinations. This means, in those situations, the lone gunman – Lee Harvey Oswald’s patsy, Sirhan Sirhan’s bewildered hotel kitchen MK victim, perhaps Jack Ruby too – are certainly brainwashed, but to take the fall, rather than to kill. 

IMDB trivia cites United Artists President Arthur Krim having cold feet about the “irresponsible and too incendiary” project until Frank Sinatra called pal the President to persuade the studio head it was fine. Sinatra, of course, was known for his mob connections. Did Frank have a particular personal interest in seeing The Manchurian Candidate made? It’s been said the singer/actor was on good behaviour throughout the production, as he was so enthused by it, but also demanded to see all the footage he was in, assembled, after his up-front 15 days of shooting were finished. This included the yet-to-be-edited brainwashing sequence, per Axelrod, “in a voice where you felt kneecaps were going to be broken“; obviously, all concerned readily complied.

Obviously, at least, if you’re familiar with Frank’s rep. MKUltra sex slave Brice Taylor (Thanks for the Memories) related how JFK had ties “to Frank Sinatra and his group. I was shared around all these types of groups”.  Taylor affirmed the traditional (assassination) JFK story, albeit she quotes Kissinger as saying “You won’t be servicing him much longer. The higher ups have some alternate plans for him”, which could be interpreted with considerable latitude (she has his “hit” resulting from the changing relationship between the Council – “an overarching cabal of only a handful of individuals” and an “all-powerful group of men secretly orchestrating this whole drama” – and the Mob, who were becoming less relevant to their control structure: “People like Jack (JFK) didn’t play by the new rules so they got snuffed”).

Per Taylor, Sinatra was more than familiar with the movie’s subject. She considered him “the single worst heavy with me – except for Ted Kennedy, Francois Mitterrand, and my own father”. She reported to Sinatra directly in Vegas. He “liked to use whips and chains and those very scary leather straps with me”; she “was subjected to lots of violence” by him “to keep all the little secrets quiet“. Tayor recalls “I met with him upstairs and listened and followed his every direction. I went into a hypnotic trance and listened carefully, and then he would snap his fingers to switch me into another personality, and later on I would do everything as he commanded”. Consequently, “Often when I was sent in to target JFK, I would be loaded with messages from the different mobsters like Uncle Frank”. She “had seen Uncle Frankie in operation and he had friends, lots of them, who killed people for nothing much at all, and I was afraid that if JFK didn’t listen and do as they said that they would kill him, too”. 

It was Bob Hope, one of her high-level controllers (along with Henry Kissinger), who introduced her to the actor/singer and told her to call Sinatra “Uncle Frank” or “Uncle Frankie”. Sinatra “would show up as Bob’s representative, ‘the heavy,’ to get me ‘back in line’” And was “connected high up in the Mob – very high up… He arranged, easily and with no remorse, many peoples’ deaths…” Thus, “He had friends who killed people quickly and neatly. He showed me what his friends could do and I was forced to watch as they tortured and killed people”. She also suggested Sinatra and Dean Martin felt she “knew far too much, so they wanted me to ‘sleep with the fishes’. But Henry wouldn’t hear of losing his ‘personal computer’ and threatened serious retaliation if they harmed me”.

The degree to which Sinatra would have been aware of the ultimate plans for JFK is open to speculation, then (it’s feasible he knew the official account of the assassination in relation to his/Mob involvement, as much as the Council wanted him/the Mob to think, so the movie still slotted in as predictive programming in that regard). Certainly, it seems the notion he was responsible for taking the movie out of circulation following the assassination is unfounded. 

Taylor offers an article by Ron Patton, Project Monarch: Nazi Mind Control from Paranoia: The Conspiracy Reader (Fall 1996), in support of the background to such techniques. This takes in the Tavistock Institute, masonic secret societies (the Order of the Golden Dawn), Himmler’s Lebensborn project, Operation Paperclip and the birth of the CIA, from which “the first in a series of covert brainwashing programs was initiated by the Navy in the fall of 1947”, and on to Project BLUEBIRD (then ARTICHOKE); Project MKULTRA began in 1953 (MK for Mind Kontrolle). Subprojects ensued (149, per Patton, with Project MONARCH “officially begun by the U.S. Army in the early 1960’s (although unofficially implemented much earlier)” and “may have culminated from MKSEARCH subprojects, such as operation SPELLBINDER, which was set up to create “sleeper” assassins (i.e. “Manchurian Candidates)”. Monarch refers to the Monarch butterfly (transformation: see also the moths in The Silence of the Lambs. It’s director Jonathan Demme called the shots on The Manchurian Candidate remake).

Patton offers alternative accounts of the nature of the process, based on both an occult and scientific reading. Thus, this “trauma-structured dissociation and occultic integration in order to compartmentalize the mind into multiple personalities within a systematic framework” incorporates “a Satanic ritual… with the purpose of attaching a particular demon or group of demons to the corresponding alter(s)”. The converse interpretation is looking at the mind “as a complex computer program: A file (alter) is created through trauma, repetition and reinforcement. In order to activate (trigger) the file, a specific access code or password (cue or command) is required”. Whichever interpretation is favoured (or taking both on board), the subject is thence known as “a ‘slave’ by the programmer/handler, who in turn is perceived as ‘master’ or ‘god’”. Patton cites about 75 percent as female, with subjects “used mainly for covert operations, prostitution and pornography; involvement in the entertainment industry is notable”.

The development of such processes included, per Patton, Sidney Gottlieb and George Estabrooks. Jay Dyer also references these individuals in Esoteric Hollywood: Sidney Gottlieb was the “sorcerer”, a chemist and intel operative who helped develop LSD and was involved in MKUltra, while George Estabrooks was a Harvard – uh-huh – psychologist who hypnotised soldiers during WWII with secret messages that could be unlocked with “trigger” words. Brice references a U.S. News & World Report article from 1998, whereby the former was “trying to get on the side of the angels instead of the devils” after leaving the CIA by working with AIDS and cancer patients at a hospice (he might have better devoted himself to exposing the pharma farce of the treatments for such conditions, but then he doubtless would have been on a hitlist himself). Dyer’s general thesis is that MKUltra is more about its application on the populace than it is the Hollywood assassin. And he may be correct.

Programmed to Kill by Dave McGowan, on the subject of the same, suggests “The intelligence community, it seemed, was recruiting from prisons to make use of the natural talents of convicted killers to produce the fabled ‘Manchurian Candidates’—otherwise known as mind-controlled assassins”. He also offered the caution that “The only exposure that most people have had to the idea of mind control is through the often metaphorical, and frequently absurd, images that Hollywood has provided in a decades-long string of films—from The Manchurian Candidate and The Stepford Wives in the 1960s and 1970s, to such recent offerings as Conspiracy Theory and Zoolander (along with the remakes of both The Manchurian Candidate and The Stepford Wives)”. Of course, many of the serial-killer cases McGowan analysed in his book, with a view to exploring the mind-control assassin narrative, are likely themselves “often metaphorical, and frequently absurd”, in that they are psyops in much the manner of the JFK assassination.

Where’s the author in all this? Richard Condon said he got the idea for The Manchurian Candidate when he heard a commentator say Senator McCarthy couldn’t do a better job of undermining America if he were actually working for the Communists. Condon is referred to as the “master of conspiracy theories” and an author who had a “genuine disdain, outrage and even hatred for many of the mainstream political corruptions that he found so prevalent in American life”. Is it just luck and happenstance, then, that his brainwashing scenario should include an incestuous family setup that appears to be a defining factor of such programmes? Per Patton, “A majority of the victims/survivors come from multi-generational Satanic families (bloodlines) and are ostensibly programmed ‘to fulfil their destiny as the chosen ones or chosen generations’”.

Again, we are encouraged to concentrate on the paraphernalia of the political assassination, when the key factors are in plain sight: ritual abuse and satanic allegiance among (elite) bloodlines. Condon’s novel is more explicit than the movie in several regards, wherebyThe head of the project grants Raymond a ‘gift’; after his brainwashing, he becomes quite sexually active, in contrast to his reserved nature beforehand where he had not even kissed his love interest. Additionally, The movie adaptations also all but omit the novel’s portrayal of incest between Raymond and his mother… As a child, Mrs. Iselin was sexually abused by her father, but fell in love with him and idolized him after his early death. Towards the end of the book, as Raymond is hypnotized by the Queen of Diamonds, he reminds her of her father and they sleep together.

On the subject of such families, it’s worth noting Leigh’s presence; she was going through a divorce with Tony Curtis at the time. As a Hollywood elite couple – per lore – at least one of the children was required to be intergender, in their case hermaphrodite Oscar winner Jamie Lee (also deceased, some years before being presented with the statuette). 

As for The Manchurian Candidate’s reception, Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for its ’80s re-release, has it that the movie “had simply played out” by 1963; the original 10-year-deal with United Artists wasn’t a very good one so, when it came time to renew in 1972, Sinatra’s attorneys opted to pass and take the movie back (The Manchurian Candidate was part of a four-movie deal between the studio and Sinatra’s production company). Schlesinger cites the “fabulous reviews and tremendous business” that greeted it in February 1988. Obviously, the picture’s iconic in every way, and will remain so. Which means only an idiot would think there was any point in remaking it…

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