The Manchurian Candidate

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The Manchurian Candidate

A highly successful, popular novel written in the late 1950s and brought to the screen in the early 1960s shortly before the death of John F. Kennedy, The Manchurian Candidate outlines the assassination of the United States president. Its limited release in the wake of Kennedy's death and its somewhat prophetic storyline has helped the work gain cult status. Yet this status is not just a mark of good timing. As a novel and film it was one of the earliest direct attacks on the nature of McCarthyism, as well as one of the first successful indigenous spy novels in America. Its characterization of the lone insane gunman would take on iconic meaning, but its cynical representation of the American political machine and its increasing connection with the media was also something to which the public could relate.

The Manchurian Candidate, written by Richard Condon (1915-1996) and published in 1959, is an unusual work for its time, being what might be generically termed spy fiction. The spy genre, as Clive Bloom terms it in Spy Thrillers, is "the genre tied to international political and social tensions," responding "to a need to represent covert activity by state organizations," via works dealing with the questions of espionage at home and abroad. Hardly anything approaching spy fiction appeared in America until the 1940s and in any numbers until the 1960s, perhaps, as some suggest, because of the nature of American democracy or a foreign policy tending towards isolationism. In the 1960s and 1970s, following in the wake of Ian Fleming's James Bond, the writings of American intelligence "insiders" like Victor Marchetti and William F. Buckley, along with America's ever increasing involvement in world affairs, the spy thriller came into its own as an American phenomenon. The Manchurian Candidate is a relatively early, and surprisingly successful, attempt to deal with the issues of the spy novel.

The book's popularity (it was one of the 50 best-sellers of the decade) may lie with its drawing together many of the decade's traumas—it starts in the Korean War, has a Senator who, in tactics and aims, is the double of Joe McCarthy, and showcases a strong mother figure as a Russian agent, harking back to Ethel Rosenberg and reflecting male postwar fears concerning the power of women. Underlying the whole story is the fear that the Communists have mastered a technological superiority that could threaten apocalypse for the American nation (in this case not the bomb, but a sophisticated form of brainwashing). The book cleverly taps into a fear of Communism, the effects of rationalism and domestic prosperity on American individualism, and many other issues concerning the nature of sexuality and of male/female roles. Lastly, all these issues feed into the question of nationhood. For America, now of central importance in world affairs, carrying the self-proclaimed mantle of defenders of democracy, every foreign conflict becomes a site of potential American destruction.

The Manchurian Candidate, however, also looks into the future. It is suggestive of the more disorientating war narratives of Vietnam; suggestive of Nixon—the criminal politician who went all the way; of an enemy growing more amorphous than the melodramatic picture of the enemy that dominated in the 1950s; and, of course, it develops the idea of a presidential assassination. It is a prophetic novel if you like, but it is also one that shows many of the elements of post-assassination America in place, as they had to be for the assassination to be explicable at all. The world does not change the day Kennedy dies … those changes are already in process.

Though the novel faded once it fell off the best-seller's list, Condon's cynical political satire has survived through its cult film version. Directed by John Frankenheimer (1930—), the film is a tense, dark, and relatively faithful rendition of the novel, maintaining a documentary-like style with a number of striking and imaginative scenes. Laurence Harvey's stuffy assassin, Frank Sinatra's twitching hero, and Angela Lansbury's superb, Oscar-nominated mother figure, manage to put across many of the major themes of the novel, even some of the nuances of the incestuous relationship between mother and son (Lansbury was only three years Harvey's senior). The film received mixed reviews and mixed reactions—it was picketed in Orange County for being left wing and picketed in Paris for being right wing—but its original and gripping delineation of the lone gunman and his preparations for the murder of the president, so close to the actual death of Kennedy, propelled it into a kind of obscurity. Over the next 15 years it was difficult to see the film, increasing its aura and, as the amount of contradictory information mounted on the death of Kennedy, the work seemed prophetic not only in foreseeing a president murdered, but in foreseeing a political atmosphere that could make any conspiracy seem imaginable.

The Manchurian Candidate is generally considered Condon's best novel and Frankenheimer's best film. The story offers a twisted overview of the whole period—a reflection on the cynicism of the domestic politics of the time, on the anxiety at the fragility of individual will, and on the nature of paranoia. It also works, most interestingly, as an early American spy novel. Added to this is the force of Frankenheimer's film and its successful characterization of the novel's main strands. Its proximity to the death of John F. Kennedy gives its representation of the single mad unseen gunman—who was soon to have such an iconic presence in the post-assassination society—an extra potency.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Bloom, Clive, editor. Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to LeCarre. London, MacMillan, 1990.

Condon, Richard. The Manchurian Candidate. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1959.

McCormick, Donald, and Katy Fletcher. Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide. New York, Facts on File, 1990.

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The Manchurian Candidate

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