Old Movies Can Still Thrill
This movie might not have action in a contemporary sense, but neat ideas and slight of hand can cause immense thrill — proven by this classic.
American Film Institute Ranking: #67/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for best supporting actress (Angela Lansbury)
Old movies are better, so the argument goes, because they had to be creative: they didn’t have the get-out-of-jail-card of special effects like today, so they had to rely on the innovation that came from imagination alone, making magic out of thin air.
Evidence Exhibit A: The Manchurian Candidate.
This movie is a political thriller, but there is very little “action” within the frames. What grips you and keeps you interested isn’t the flash and sizzle of shoot-outs but the tension and puzzle of what is real and what isn’t.
[Plot/Spoilers] A U.S. Platoon gets captured in Korea and is taken to Manchuria in China. They manage to escape, including Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) and Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra). While a little hazy on the details, Raymond Shaw is credited for saving the soldier’s lives, and returns to the U.S. with the recognition of a wartime hero. His mother, Eleanor Iselin (played by Angela Lansbury), uses Shaw’s recognition to bolster the political career of her husband, Senator John Iselin.
Years later, Marco Bennett is promoted within the military as an intelligence officer, but the events of his capture and escape don’t sit well with him: he keeps having a recurring nightmare that they were brainwashed in China, and he just can’t let it go. Recruiting the help of another solider from the platoon who is having the same nightmares, he gets the green light from his superiors to investigate.
What happens next is a descent into one of the weirder, old movies I’ve seen — and that’s a good thing. The charm of the Manchurian Candidate is that it always keeps you on your toes, and with a few cool ideas keeps you beyond interested without having to fire a gun till the very end. Hands down, the best scene is the memory of the brainwash.
Here, we are treated to the platoon being surrounded by Communist leaders, conducting business as the the soldiers continue to be aloof of their surroundings and concerns. We get thrown into this, and it’s hard not to be disoriented and make sense of why they are not reacting. As the scene continues to fold, we are treated to the perspective of the soldiers:
They see their captors not as they are, but as being at a garden party with debonair ladies. They have been hypnotized! The scene continues to play out, flipping between both realities, giving you all the information you need while keeping you interested.
The rest of the movie is just like that garden party scene: we fight to understand what is real and fake, important and red herring. This is what gives Manchurian its charm — the creative ways the director and screenwriter use to present the stories. There enough tricks to keep us very interested, and along the way we are treated to twists and turns as we try and understand exactly what is going on. The crescendo that builds between the brainwashed Raymond, the inquisitive Bennet, and the politically corrupt Eleanor is delectable, with no resolution until the very end.
The Manchurian Candidate is exemplary of why I watch old film: without any of the perks today, these movies can still pull off magic and surprise you. Go be surprised.