Few films evoke the spooky paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War more than John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). So many elements work together, from the quiet unfolding, black&white stark composition of scenes to the sweaty hothouse garden party dream sequences. But it could just be the presence of one of the all-time great villains hiding in plain sight that gives this film its lasting visceral gut punch.
Imagine this, at the height of the Cold War and not too long after the McCarthy era’s Red Scare and the Korean War, The Manchurian Candidate is released to the world, placing a silver-screen mirror up to American society.
The reflection ain’t pretty.
The villains in this Cold War fever dream are not out there, not in Russia, and not the Orientalized Other. No, the villain is in in your own government; it’s in your platoon; it might even be in your own family. The enemy is as American as apple pie.
Angela Lansbury, an accomplished artist with a career spanning decades and is included in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon, is given a co-star billing and second-string placement in the film’s opening ornate credit sequence, but don’t let this fool you; she is the star of The Manchurian Candidate. Any present-day incarnation of unlikeable women, from Erica Kane to Claire Underwood to Cersei Lannister, are cut from the cloth Lansbury wove when she portrayed Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin. Lansbury’s Shaw Iselin embodies all the traits that make unlikable women characters compelling: vision, drive and the fierce determination to do what is necessary.
We meet Lansbury’s Eleanor at the airport when her son, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) arrives to a military hero’s welcome after being awarded a Medal of Valor for his courageous service after being caught behind enemy lines. Raymond, dressed in his military best, looks dour and disoriented by the attention he’s receiving. He debarks to the tarmac and dutifully shakes hands with a five-star general. Relieved of this chore, Raymond breaks off and is about to make a quick getaway when a voice barks through the crowd, “Hold it, General.”
Eleanor, with her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin husband in tow, weave through the crowd to meet up with the general and Raymond. She directs the scene, quickly positioning the general alongside Raymond, herself and her husband with a banner that says ‘Johnny’s Boy.’ The photographer snaps the picture and, just as fast, the Old School version of a photo bomb has dissolved. Eleanor shepherds Raymond and Johnny onto a private airplane that serves as the Senator’s campaign headquarters. Then, the real family reunion begins.
Raymond is sullen and disagreeable. Eleanor, in all her bourgeois wealth, fair-haired updo that gleams with silky perfection against her smartly tailored but conservative clothing remains unfazed by her son’s reluctance to reflect her insistent optimism. She intones to Raymond’s cynicism about her motives for the whole parade with what is to pass for sincere dismay: “I’m your Mother. My entire life is devoted to helping you, you and Johnny, my two little boys.”
Two key scenes play out this sentiment.
Eleanor accompanies her husband to a televised congressional hearing. She is shown in the foreground looking at the television, where Johnny is speaking. He is being interviewed and Eleanor watches the exchange as it unfolds on the tiny TV screen. She is keenly aware of the new medium’s power and how optics are everything (recall the photo op with the General). She mouths the words to Johnny’s speech which furthers the idea that Johnny is nothing but a puppet in a game that she is playing to win. Her power over him and this realm is reinforced in the frame as she looms over the TV screen, while Johnny looks trapped on the small screen where he looks trapped in a small box that is controlled by the much more powerful Eleanor.
Late in the film, Eleanor reveals herself to be the handler of Raymond’s alter ego assassin. As shocking a revelation as this is – and it is shocking – she admits to Raymond that he was never intentionally setup to be the one who got brainwashed. In fact, Eleanor confesses that she is none too happy about it. In a quiet disclosure, Eleanor tells Raymond that she not only considers it an affront but a serious underestimation of her power that the Russians would pull such a disrespectful stunt on her. She will get her revenge on those who did this to her and to Raymond.
While Eleanor thirsts for power, and we have no doubt that she will get it, we discover the depths of her devotion to her son. He is an extension of her and the disrespect shown them both will not stand. As Raymond is her brainwashed assassin, he is also now her confidante. The extent of her commitment to the Russian cause is startling in both its longevity and in its vision, but now she’s going to burn them down with all the U.S. might she can grab. She tells Raymond that she is going to make them pay for “what they did to you and most contemptuously how they underestimated me.” And it’s not ideology, it’s biology. She is going to avenge her son. Her fierce devotion to her own goals and to her son produces conflicting emotions.
Long after the movie has ended, you’re left with the memory of this villainous, domineering mother. And that’s one of the many gifts of The Manchurian Candidate; offering a reflection on American society that exposes how the feminine is ambitious, clever and ruthless though typically hidden behind the veneers of motherhood and wifedom. Angela Lansbury owns this role and this movie, tackling Eleanor Shaw Iselin with fearless confidence, giving audience a memorable villain.