The Daily Stream: The Manchurian Candidate Shows How Brainwashing Can Destabilize A Democracy

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Manchurian Candidate"

Where You Can Stream It: The Roku Channel

The Pitch: "Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

The recent death of Angela Lansbury and the 60th anniversary of "The Manchurian Candidate" this week have put the film back on the radar just in time for the U.S. midterm elections in early November. When "The Manchurian Candidate" first hit theaters in 1962, it was not far removed from the Second Red Scare, and the Cold War was still in full swing. The movie spoke to mid-20th-century fears like the specter of McCarthyism yet it was also remarkably prescient about the future of politics.

In "The Manchurian Candidate," an American is brainwashed and used in service of a populist whose camp holds Russian ties, though he's out for its own power and personal gain more than anything else and will create facts out of whole cloth to achieve that. Speaking of said candidate, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) remarks, "I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he's doing now."

Where have we heard that kind of sentiment before? Lansbury received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the scheming Mrs. Iselin, and the American Film Institute later named her character one of the all-time greatest movie villains. Reality shows like "The Apprentice" weren't invented yet, of course, but it also hits close to home when Mrs. Iselin talks about "rallying a nation of television viewers into hysteria to sweep us up into the White House."

Why it's essential viewing

With superb cinematography by Lionel Lindon, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a stone-cold classic with too many accolades to enumerate, but it's especially interesting to rewatch considering all that's happened in the U.S. since 2016. With its story of American soldiers coming home from the Korean War brainwashed, the film offers a stark reminder of how easily everyday brainwashing occurs through the media people consume.

Is it any coincidence that Pavlovian pawn and programmable assassin Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) kills his way to the top of a newspaper, or that Mrs. Iselin, his mother, speaks of his stepfather stepping up to the microphones and cameras with blood all over him? As Senator Iselin seizes the spotlight with the words, "I have here a list of names," the movie keeps him framed in the background on the TV, and Mrs. Iselin inhabits the foreground.

Senator Jordan observes how Mrs. Iselin has a "tendency to refer to anyone who disagrees with her about anything as a communist." He describes the costume party where Senator Iselin eats caviar stars off the American flag, while dressed like Abe Lincoln, as "a fascist rally." Jordan knows this useful idiot represents a clear and present danger to democracy and is not to be underestimated. Yet it almost registers as quaint when he threatens to bring impeachment proceedings against him because we know from real life that those won't stop anyone anymore.

Though the phone voice directs Raymond to play solitaire, the Queen of Diamonds acts as a trump card for him, overriding his autonomy as a free-thinking individual. In games of tricks, a trump is one temporarily "elevated above its usual rank" and other suits. If that's not a euphemism for contemporary politics, I don't know what is.

'What have they built you to do?'

One of the most surreal, searing scenes in "The Manchurian Candidate" involves Raymond and his fellow soldiers sitting through an apparent ladies' garden club meeting. The camera pans around 360 degrees, and when it arrives back at the podium, we see that all is not as it first appeared. These men have been conditioned to see only what their captors want them to see. The women are apparently all white, but in his own dreams recalling the event, a Black soldier in Raymond's unit sees Black women instead.

Perception is reality, and in "The Manchurian Candidate," perception is capable of being reshaped to the extent that Raymond will politely and casually shoot and strangle his fellow Americans. His brainwasher, Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), recognizes the full magnitude of what he represents, asking his Russian co-conspirator:

"Do you realize, comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal? A normally conditioned American, who's been trained to kill, and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt."

This guilt-free bloodshed, Raymond's attack-dog training, goes beyond Senator Iselin's spurious accusations of communists in government. The senator, like Raymond, is more marionette than man, someone who does what he's told. His biggest victory is getting Mrs. Iselin to settle on the number of communists so that he's not always just tossing out a loose number.

The way the film cuts from a Heinz ketchup bottle to Senator Iselin leveling accusations against "exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist party" betrays with biting satire just how much they're making this up as they go along. Absurd as it is, though, Mrs. Iselin's insidious plot to overthrow democracy and install a puppet president almost works.

A clarion call worth hearing

With her pearls and fur coat and evil monologues, Lansbury really showed off her range in "The Manchurian Candidate." The film likens her and Raymond to Clytemnestra and Orestes, but there's also an Oedipal undercurrent to their relationship, which comes to the surface when she kisses him full on the lips.

Raymond himself is a tragic figure, hardened into a friendless, unsentimental person who never keeps letters and speaks of Christmas as "loathsome." Yet as he gets drunk and relates his history to Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), we see how Raymond once had a chance at happiness with Josie Jordan (Leslie Parrish). It's the saddest thing you'll ever hear when he says, "I am not lovable. Oh, but I was very lovable with Josie. Ben, you cannot believe how lovable I was."

While under mind control, Raymond lacks even the instinct for self-preservation. If a voice tells him to go jump in a lake, he will. Likewise, Marco's conditioning has him saying things he doesn't really mean, even though he knows somewhere in the back of his mind this is all wrong. So it goes with some voters and political pundits.

Written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, based on a Richard Condon novel, "The Manchurian Candidate" is sometimes questionable in its treatment of Asian characters. However, 60 years ago — before the rise of Fox News or Trumpism — this movie foresaw democracy's destabilization from within and potential demise through the machinations of American operators. It confronted the viewer with sights like Raymond, the "outwardly normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community," pointing a gun right at the camera. "Fifty-two red queens and me are telling you" now that it remains a clarion call worth hearing amid a sea of streaming distractions.