Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: The Manchurian Candidate

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.

We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

4. The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.

Movies are time capsules.

We view a Hollywood production from, say, the 1930s and we get a series of messages—visual and verbal—that are instant snapshots of the culture from which the narrative was birthed. There are, of course, the fashions, the hairstyles, even the make up, that let us us know that we are in a particular time and place. And of course, the narratives are witnesses to how society viewed itself. The attitudes and values of American culture are on full display, in all their myriad forms, in the movies.

Some movies date better than others. The screwball comedies of the 1930s still play beautifully for contemporary audiences because the battle of the sexes is timeless. Sadly, the women’s weepies of the 40s—take a look at Now Voyager (’42), an amazing Bette Davis film—fare less well because they are seen by today’s women as regressive and misogynistic. Busby Berkeley musicals are fun, admired for their abstraction of the human form, but they are relics, kitch for the priests of high culture.

And this is one of the reasons why The Manchurian Candidate is such an astonishing movie. It is deeply contemporary, post-modernism before the term was invented.


Consider the plot: During the Korean War, a squad of American soldiers is captured by the North Koreans, brainwashed, and then one of the unfortunate soldiers, Laurence Harvey, is sent back to the United States as a sleeper agent, programmed to kill on command. The narrative spins even deeper as we discover that Harvey’s mother—brilliantly played by Angela Lansbury, the most evil mother in the history of motherhood—the wife of a drunken, buffoonish Senator, is plotting a take-over of the United States by assassinating a presidential candidate, and then blaming the assassination on a vast right wing conspiracy. Thus, anti-communism becomes a cover for a communist coup.

Got that?

It is almost surrealistic. And, in truth, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod expertly switch from hyper-realism to fantasy, and manage to come up with a coherent narrative that contains mind-bending twists and turns.  The brainwashing scenes are brilliant and chilling as the American soldiers cheerfully imagine attending a ladies garden party when, in truth, they are on display for communist officials. The razor sharp cutting between the two realities is disorienting, and only begins to make sense as the byzantine plot unfolds.

The movie is based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon that is even more twisted than the movie. In the film, Angela Lansbury’s incestuous feelings for Laurence Harvey—he keeps insisting that he is unlovable—are revealed in a truly shocking moment when she kisses him full on the mouth. In the book, they end up in bed together.

The Manchurian Candidate is often described as a satire, but this is inaccurate. Dr. Strangelove (’64) is satire, featuring outrageous characters who border on the cartoonish.

Manchurian Candidate is tortured realism.

Frankenheimer got his start in live television—he worked as an assistant director to my friend and colleague Sidney Lumet—and when I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Frankenheimer in 1977, he told hilarious stories of the crucible of live television. In Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer uses the intense visual vocabulary of live TV: tilt shots, wide angles, deep focus, and overlapping dialogue, to heighten the sense of reality. Axelrod’s near perfect screenplay matches the visual intensity with exchanges of dialogue that have all the logic of a dream world.

When Frank Sinatra—in the best performance of his career—first meets Janet Leigh, his hands tremble so badly he can’t light a cigarette. She lights it for him.

Leigh: “Maryland’s a beautiful state.”

Sinatra: “This is Delaware.”

Leigh: “I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.”


And yet it works. The film overflows with such weird exchanges.

A rumor has circulated for years that after the assassination of JFK, Frank Sinatra pulled the film from distribution out of remorse, imagining that the movie was a blueprint for a presidential assassination.

Not true.

In fact, Sinatra ended up hating the Kennedy brothers after they ruthlessly cut him from their circle because of his close association with mobsters. This, after Sinatra donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Kennedy campaign, and rallied his Hollywood friends to publicly support JFK.

The real reason the film was out of release from 1964 to 1988 was because of a financial dispute over profit participation between Sinatra and United Artists.

Frankenheimer, a devoted liberal, told me he was most proud that The Manchurian Candidate ridiculed the character who is modeled on Senator Joe McCarthy. I was a young film journalist at the time, certainly too star struck by Frankenheimer’s presence to point out that the beauty of the film is that it blames no specific American political party—the extreme left are as poisonous as the extreme right—except the truly evil communist party.


David Paulin has published a fine article in American Thinker about Somewhere In Time (’80) starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, a movie the critics hated, but which has become a cult classic. Yours truly is quoted throughout the article.

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  1. DavidP
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I did a double take at first when seeing this post. “The Manchurian Candidate” — a 1960’s movie? I saw it as a kid years ago, on TV, and I always had the impression, in retrospect, that it was a 1950s film! I guess that was based on the tone, style (fact that it’s black and white) and on the McCarthy-type character. What was added to the film, do you think, by the fact that it was shot in black and white?

    We lump time into decades, and those periods come to represent manners, morals, and trends — yet they are certainly not neat categorizations. I have a sense the 1950s (as we think of that decade) actually merged into the early 1960s, with the 1950s ending with the widespread use of “The Pill,” and rise of the counter-culture in response to the Vietnam War, etc. Along similar lines: “Gun Crazy” (to me) has more of a 1950s feel than a 1940s feel. (Remember, rebellion and the era of the anti-hero were emerging in the 1950s.) All of which, I think, makes me put “The Manchurian Candidate (incorrectly) into the 1950s.

    I love some of John Frankenheimer’s films. You mention “The Gypsy Moths,” and it is an underrated film, and so was the novel by James Drought; and for a change this was a novel (and film) with strong and decent female characters.

    Times have changed since the 1950s, Cold War, etc. We have new types of “ticking time bombs,” and new varieties of extremism, both in America and abroad. That said, I will have to take another look at “The Manchurian Candidate” in light of these interesting comments, and see for myself how well this “time capsule” speaks to me today.

    Fun fact: Slim Pickens, the B-52 pilot in “Dr. Strangelove,” is said to have missed the fact that the movie was satire — and so he played his role as if the movie was a drama, more like a character in “Failsafe” — a great time capsule of a movie that, I sense, has lost some of its punch since the days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

    Sad fact: Sen. Joe McCarthy was right: there were more than a few communists and fellow-travelers in the government and elsewhere — yet his irresponsible behavior and unfounded accusations obscured this fact.

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    • Posted October 12, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      The repellent Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm was wrong about almost everything, but he was onto something when he came up with the idea of the “long 19th Century,” positing that the century essentially began with the French Revolution and ended with the First World War. You could say that there was a “long 1950s,” that began when the postwar prosperity actually kicked in in around 1947, and ended in either 1963 or as late as 1967, since outside of big cities and their liberal enclaves, the world essentially looked and felt like the ’50s and not the flower power ’60s. My early childhood in a Toronto suburb in the mid-60s looked and felt like the ’50s, for instance. The ’60s really didn’t have an impact on regular people until late in the decade, and in working class areas, it hit with a vengeance.

      I digress, but the idea of a “long ’50s” has always rung true to me. Also, as Robert has pointed out before, it was a far more interesting, anxious, and creative decade than the cliche of “repression and conformity, Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver” allows. The anxiety and unease seeping into almost everything produced during the time – even Doris Day films! – is hard to ignore.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted October 12, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Rick – I have come to view the Kennedy assassination is the line between the 50s and 60s – culturally at least. After Nov 22, 1963 things got weird –

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        • Barry
          Posted October 12, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

          My sentiment, exactly.

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        • kgbudge
          Posted October 16, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          Curiously, in his Coming Apart, Charles Murray dates the beginning of a white underclass to roughly 1960.

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      • Larry
        Posted October 14, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        I just don’t buy the idea that “Leave It To Beaver” has anything to do with repression. I’ve been watching the series on Netflix — not having seen it since I was a kid — and there’s nothing remotely suggestive of repression or conformity. It’s demonstrating the love, concern, and certainly foibles — if sometimes overwrought — of family life. While I think the first two seasons were better written than those subsequent, the series shows a worthwhile family perspective. (Haven’t seen “Father Knows Best” in too many decades to comment on that, but I don’t recall any special pandering going on there.)
        BTW, Connelly & Mosher, who created “Leave It To Beaver” and wrote most of the episodes, were also the creators of “The Munsters.” The latter started its run after Beaver finished its run.

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        • Posted October 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

          I agree with you Larry, but that’s not the standard narrative heard over and over since, well, the ’60s. A side note is that those shows were in syndication when I was a kid in the ’70s, basically playing in lunchtime and after-school time slots. I wonder if the memory of them – a real memory, as opposed to the “repression and conformity” one – is behind the eruption in nostalgia for the pre-counterculture ’60s?

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    • DavidP
      Posted October 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I should have thought a little harder before writing my earlier comment. This film was obviously more a part of the EARLY 1960s than of the 1950s (long or otherwise) or the “1960s”

      The EARLY 1960s was a distinct era, according to Bruce Bawer’s wonderful essay in “Wilson Quarterly (“The Other Sixties”) which I just reread. He wrote:

      “Americans (in the early 1960s) lived with the knowledge that at any moment a nuclear attack might eradicate the country as they knew it and compel them, if they were still alive, to retreat with their families to a basement hideaway. Officially, the nation was at peace and living well; at the same time, it was enduring a daily trauma of colossal proportions. The largely suppressed awareness that a strange and disturbing reality lay concealed beneath society’s genial and placid surface is at the thematic heart of such deeply weird movies of the era as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Lolita (1962), and The Birds (1963), and of the creepy TV comedies The Munsters and The Addams Family. That same awareness animates the period’s most distinctive TV series, The Twilight Zone.

      “Lasting for five seasons (1959–64), The Twilight Zone tapped into all those unvoiced fears and insecurities that are presumably hard-wired into the human psyche, which explains why, all these decades later, the series’ best episodes, in reruns, continue to disturb and haunt. The program spoke with particular urgency to the early 1960s Zeitgeist, especially the preoccupation with atomic war.”

      This may seem like a bit of a stretch — in respect to the remarks about “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Lolita” and “The Birds.” And, of course, “The Twilight Zone” started in 1959 but ran mostly in the early 1960s. But when reading “The Other Sixties,” I couldn’t help but recall a long essay I read years ago by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton about how the threat of nuclear war had created a certain psychological angst that haunted all of us in ways that we may not have been consciously aware of… but that affected us nonetheless. So maybe, not so much of a stretch, especially in respect to “The Birds.”

      If good movies are indeed “time capsules,” they would, accordingly, not only reflect manners and morals and the “period” but also the hidden angst of the era and so, yes, this movie — contrary to what I wrote — has more of a EARLY 1960s feel than a 1950s feel or a “1960s” feel.

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    • Larry
      Posted October 14, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Sometimes shooting in B&W is a financial decision. Occasionally it’s an artistic decision.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted October 14, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Then there was the classic Benny Hill skit where Benny, wearing a beret and playing the avant-garde French film director, is asked by the interviewer why in the middle of his movie he switched from color to B & W.
        The interviewer is suggesting all these artistic reasons to which Benny replied “We ran out of color film

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  2. David Foster
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Casting–here’ an interesting example of the effect that actors can have on a story. In Ayn Rand’s novel “We the Living” (set in post-revolutionary Russia), the character Leo–who is the great love of the protagonist, Kira–comes across as pretty much a jerk…indeed, had he and Kira been real people, the relationship would have been taken as a confirmation of the “chicks dig jerks” meme. But as played by Rossano Brazzi in the film that was made from the novel, Leo comes across as a much more likeable character. Yet I don’t think a single line of Leo’s dialog was changed between book and film.

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    • Bill Brandt
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Which probably goes to the theme of “It’s not what you say but how you say it“…good point David

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  3. David Foster
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Time travel can be an effective literary or cinema device when it is done well; I thought it worked quite well in “Devil’s Arithmetic” and pretty well in “Somewhere in Time.” A real master (mistress?) of this form is SF writer Connie Willis. I reviewed some of her work <a href=””>here</a>.

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    • Larry
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      The writer’s bane in time travel writing — more in movie plots I suspect — is there’s always some time paradox breaking it. I won’t mention what it is for those who haven’t seen the movie and want to.

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  4. Larry
    Posted October 10, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I was one of the 37 people who saw “Somewhere in Time” when it came out. (I’m a sucker for time travel stories.) I thought it was very well done.
    Jaded critics may have pooh-poohed the time travel method, but I thought back then that Richard Matheson’s script from his novel “Bid Time Return” borrowed the idea of hypnotizing yourself to travel back in time from Jack Finney’s time travel stories, most notably Finney’s novel “Time and Again”, which came out 10 years before “Somewhere in Time.” All the aspects of surrounding yourself with artifacts of your destination time came into play. Having read Finney’s novel when it came out I remember thinking about “the sincerest form of flattery” after seeing Matheson’s use of the device in “Somewhere in Time.”
    Thanks for the article pointer, Robert.

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    • Larry
      Posted October 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Hmm. Underlining of the novel titles in my posting didn’t take. Oh well.

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  5. Larry
    Posted October 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Frankenheimer’s peak was definitely in the 1960s. (I met him then because my dad was his business manager & accountant. He was very kind and generous to spend some time in my dad’s office back then talking with me about movie scripting. It was around the time he was making “Seven Days in May.” I met him again when he was making “Seconds.”) He did have some terrible movies after that peak period, but “Ronin” was very good — a kind of a comeback in my view. He didn’t “crash-and-burn” as Preston Sturges seemed to do.

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  6. Barry
    Posted October 10, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    A great choice, Robert. Take away Harvey and the picture is perfect.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      When I first saw the movie when I was 12 years old I was, at first, confused by the Laurence Harvey character. He was obviously British with an aristocratic bearing. But then the very English Angela Lansbury showed up as his mother and it made more sense.

      Sidney Lumet taught me that 90% of the final movie is determined in casting. i’ve watched MC at least a dozen times in the last ten years and Harvey’s performance grows in stature with each viewing. His cool, deeply repressed character contrasts perfectly with Sinatra’s jangly-nerves. I think dismissing Harvey’s excruciatingly disciplined performance is a disservice to the final film and to a fine actor.

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      • Barry
        Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Re Harvey
        Not just in this film. In anything. As I am certain you are aware, in the editing process, the more you see a performance very often, the more it grows on you. In other words, if repeated screenings are required, that is not so hot. Fun when you are in love or lust with a project, not much when that’s what it takes for appreciation.

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted October 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          As you feel about Laurence Harvey, I feel about Jane Wyman. Cannot endure any of her movies, and that includes Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright.” In fact, Hitch admitted that she was all wrong for the film. An understatement to be sure.

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          • Barry
            Posted October 10, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            I had that about Jane Wyman as well but then went back in time and had a look at the earlier pre-star pictures. Even an oddity like Night and Day. She was very appealing. Post Johnny Belinda, you can have. Ah, but you don’t want. Okay.

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted October 10, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    On time capsules as movies – I think Jimmy Stewart first suggested that? In any event, how true – not all movies are time capsules of course but the good ones.

    One of my favorite series of movies representing the 1930s is the Astaire-Rogers movies – shown to me by another professor. I would still be taking his classes except he moved to a remote area serviced only by float planes.

    Interesting about Frankenheimer – there’s very few (if any) movies he made that could be called duds. Like Wm Wyler. To me the era of live TV in the 50s was television’s golden age – live theater for a mass audience.
    Frankenheimer was a bonafide car nut – crazy about Mercedes in particular. One of his Mercedes is/was on display at the Petersen…
    One of my favorite Frankenheimer movies is Ronin – and note the car chases.

    With the release of Rush , (a great movie about the Friendship of Niki Lauda and James Hunt) – Frankenheimer’s movie Grand Prix has been mentioned, and also said that a movie like that could not be made today.

    I remember seeing the Manchurian Candidate years ago and lost in the plot – I’ll have to view it again with different eyes.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Jimmy Stewarts called movies “pieces of time” in an interview with the great director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich.

      Frankenheimer was a heck of a director. Sadly, he was an alcoholic who, for many years, worked at less than his maximum ability. He entered AA and was able to revitalize his career for a while. But the years of drink definitely took their toll. And he did make some terrible films such as  “99 and 44/100% Dead”, “Impossible Object” and the unwatchable “The Extraordinary Seaman.”

      OTOH, I happen to love “Seven Days in May”, “The Train”, “Grand Prix”, “Seconds”, “The Fixer” “The Gypsy Moths”, “I Walk the Line”, and “French Connection II.”

      He was an amazing man who was extraordinarily generous to me in the short time we spent together.

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      • Barry
        Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        From Here To Eternity…?

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted October 10, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          Have no idea how that got in there. Deleted. Thanks.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted October 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        Robert – I am ambivalent on Grand Prix. It drags on. Hence I guess I would have to put it in the “bad movie” category.
        Would you, as a successful screenwriter say if the movie has great scenery, great background but a plot that plods and puts people to sleep – it is by definition a bad movie? 🙂
        But they will never be able to have the access that Frankenheimer had – he and his movie crew followed the F1 “circus” from track to track – did some filming by themselves and some with the actual 1965 races. You see fantastic cameos of driving greats like Phil Hill, Jimmy Clark…
        Enzo Ferrari, known for being temperamental and hard to deal with, initially turned Frankenheimer down as to allowing filming at his factory. 
        Frankenheimer flew to Modena with some of the movie, showed him, and Enzo opened up his facilities to the movie crew.
        I’d be curious to hear your take on Ron Howard’s Rush . It is – like GP, based on F1 but F1 in this movie is the background – the real core is about the friendship and rivalry of 2 of the participants, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted October 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

          “Grand Prix” is not a great movie, maybe not even a good movie, but when I saw it I was a certain age, in a certain frame of mind, and what can I say? it worked for me. Have not seen the Ron Howard film yet.

          Lush scenery, great sets and elaborate costumes count for nothing if the story and characters are not compelling. Story is everything.

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          • Larry
            Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

            I agree. “Grand Prix” presented terrible breaks disguised as plot between the great racing scenes. It’s a watch-once for me.

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          • sennacherib
            Posted October 12, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

            My two cents, ” Story is everything.” Absolutely!
            2)Cast to tell the story
            You don’t necessarily have to be right on all to have a good movie, but you must hit them all to have a great movie.
            I agree with you on scenery,costumes, etc with the possible exception LOA.
            I am a sucker for dialogue.
            I have never seen a good racing movie, though I was a big fan (of the type that never turns right).

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