Richard Condon’s political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, has twice been turned into a feature film. In truth, as much as it’s internet law to slam remakes, Jonathan Demme’s 2004 take on the material – starring Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington – is worth a look. But it’s the 1962 original film, directed by the late John Frankenheimer, that’s rightly regarded as one of the finest American thrillers in cinema history.
The movie stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh, and couldn’t have been released at a more testing time. Its release date of October 24th 1962 found an America in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that took the world to the brink of nuclear war. In that climate came the story of a Communist covert plot to kill the President of the United States. There aren’t too many other such pressing times in US history where a story of outside forces trying to influence whoever holds the office of the President of the United States would feel more relevant.
The Manchurian Candidate, however, would be off release just over a year later, and wouldn’t be seen again in American cinemas for over two decades. And a story began to circulate as to why that was.
It centers on the tragic day back on November 22nd 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. There were clearly more important ramifications of that day, but in the years that followed, it became noticed that The Manchurian Candidate – a film, after all, about an assassination attempt on the President – was no longer available in US theaters. This was an era where films didn’t just play for a couple of weeks as we’re used to today. Rather that successful films could play for more than a year, often longer. And they’d at least be available if people wanted to screen them.
Yet in the case of The Manchurian Candidate, a story began to circulate that Frank Sinatra had been responsible for the pulling of the film from circulation. Sinatra was an avid admirer of Kennedy, and had campaigned for him in 1960. Their relationship had cooled by the time of Kennedy’s death, but Sinatra was devastated by his death. He was in the midst of filming Robin And The Seven Hoods when he heard the news, and was said to have “virtually disappeared” in the days afterwards, consumed by grief.
The tale then goes that Sinatra sought to have prints of The Manchurian Candidate removed from distribution, and that the film wouldn’t be seen again on US cinema screens until 1987, some 24 years later.
As it turns out, there seem to be little scraps of truth to the story, but not that many. As Tina Sinatra, Frank’s youngest daughter, told Premiere back in summer 2004, the film was withdrawn from release, but that was down to distributor United Artists, who chose to do so out of respect to Kennedy.
UA had a seemingly-generous contract for the film for ten years, but Sinatra himself got the rights to The Manchurian Candidate in 1972. One of the reasons he did so was that the original deal his team made with UA for the film had been a poor one, and in the words of Michael Schlesigner – who would be responsible for a subsequent reissue of the movie – “Sinatra’s attorneys opted to take the movie back and bury their ‘mistake.’”
Just because Sinatra had the rights, it didn’t mean the film was (yet) heading back to cinemas. It’d be wrong to say it was out of circulation altogether, though. The Manchurian Candidate had already played once on US television in 1965, and would do so again in 1974. But the film wasn’t to be found on the big screen.
Yet it wasn’t Sinatra – contrary to the oft-repeated myth – who had withdrawn the film in the first place. It’s more that interest in it had begun to wane. Tina Sinatra admitted that her father was “so shaken” by the killing of JFK, but that also “I never heard him say ‘I never wanted anyone to see the film again.’” In fact, before he died, he would be one of those suggesting that the film was ripe for its eventual remake, one that his youngest daughter was pivotal in getting to the screen.
As for what happened in 1987 to bring the original version back to the screen? Well, something quite simple: the New York Film Festival took an interest in the movie, and organized a screening to celebrate its 25th birthday. That proved to be a big success, and off the back of that, MGM/UA noted the renewed interest, and got the rights back to redistribute the film (Schlesinger describes it as a “much fairer” deal). As such, a theatrical re-release followed in 1988, and the new distribution deal would smooth the path for the film’s eventual releases on video, laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. It has also remained available for theatrical screenings ever since.
If you haven’t seen it, The Manchurian Candidate really holds up. A tense, gripping piece of cinema, dripping in paranoia, it arguably boasts Sinatra’s best screen performance, as well as some truly wonderful work from Angela Lansbury (she was Oscar nominated for her role, and rightly so). What’s more, there’s a moment involving a rotating movie set that never loses a teeny bit of its incredible impact. If you’ve never had the pleasure, check it out. It’s widely available, no matter what any conspiracy theory tells you…