Film Analysis – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Wednesday 14 April 2010

This was my half of a paired university piece, a couple of year’s back, for a class called Mise-En-Scene. This scene analysis refers to the first dream sequence colloquially known as the Ladies Garden Club scene. It appears 10 minutes into the film, just after the credits; please see the first YouTube link below. The second Ladies Garden Club scene, mentioned at the end of the presentation, is 21.30 min into the film. Sorry, I don’t have that bit but I do urge you to track down this magnificent film and watch it whole. Instead, I’ve included the trailer (When Sinatra karate chops the table he missed the balsa bit and ended up breaking, or at least really really damaging, his hand. The injury caused him pain the rest of his life, even more than the Movin’ with Nancy TV special. Oh, and I remember reading that this is the first time, in a Hollywood film at least, that Karate was shown on the screen. Wikipedia believes otherwise but Wikipedia can go suck eggs for all I care.)

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen this film you really should as it is up there on the Greatest Films Ever list; both technically (the TV cameras scene alone was one of those amazing technical firsts) but for its intensely thrilling – if not completely implausible – story line.

And we got an HD.

Film Analysis – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

directed by John Frankenheimer
from a screenplay by George Axelrod
from a book by Richard Condon

The Manchurian Candidate is the complex story of a Korean War soldier who has been conditioned (or brainwashed) as part of the Communist Party’s bid to overtake The United States of America. The tagline for the film was “If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won’t know what it’s all about!” The first five minutes are of the soldiers being captured. The scene discussed below, known as the Ladies Garden Club scene, appears 10 minutes into the film.


At first glance the regime seems obvious – realism – it is a man experiencing a nightmare. But what of the nightmare itself? While what the soldiers can see is the Ladies Garden Club, what the audience sees is a patchwork of this and the Communist amphitheatre, overlapping and incorporating the other. With this perspective, the dream sequences can be argued to be surrealism – the soldiers are part of an otherworld place. The dreams are the subconscious of Marco, and later the soldier Al Melvin, trying to rationalise the events of Manchuria. It is also possible that what the audience sees (a hodge podge of the hotel lobby and the amphitheatre) is also what the soldiers see: in a later scene Marco, while fighting Chunjin, Shaw’s houseboy and Communist agent, demands “How did the old ladies turn into Russians?”


Production design was by Richard Sylbert, his second Hollywood film (Sylbert, 75).

The audience is aware that they are watching a dream, but there are earlier clues that something is not right. By Major Marco’s bedside is an overflowing ashtray, but strewn across the floor is a bizarre collection of books. Noticeable titles include Ulysses and For Whom The Bell Tolls, probable bedtime reading, but also Diseases of Horses, a history of Wall Street, and a complete collection of poetry. In a later scene we see Marco’s apartment completely full of books. Here the titles include Principles of Modern Banking, History of Piracy, Paintings of Orozco, Modern French Theater, The Jurisprudential Factor of Mafia Administration, and Ethnic Choices of the Arabs. Marco tries to explain that he’s just interested in these things, but it is more like he is trying to convince himself. He is a man in search of answers, or, more importantly, the questions.

Then there is the dream itself. There is something strangely familiar about the ladies; they look like every stereotypical old lady. There are way too many frills, outrageous hats and garish fabric prints. Remember, what the soldiers are experiencing is a dream of the ladies and, as such, have created in their heads an amalgamated stock image of all the old women they’ve ever known. The set of the New Jersey hotel lobby is also an imagination – overly twee with too much lattice, classical sculptures and hanging pots.

The reality, of course, is the amphitheatre.

Rushing and Frentz in their book Projecting the shadow: the cyborg hero in American film define The Manchurian Candidate as the Technological Hunter; how technology can turn a human into a weapon, such as Frankenstein and his monster (Rushing, 124). This connection to Frankenstein is most recognisable with the amphitheatre. The room is clinical, like an operating theatre, with the seating reminiscent of a glass-roofed surgery with a viewing room. The seating also harks to the laboratory in Frankenstein (1933) with its many layers of platforms and how the bystanders view from above the creation of Frankenstein’s monster down below in his laboratory. The wired frame backdrop from what the large banners hang also evokes the hanging chains and bars of Frankenstein.


In the beginning there are four layers of sound: The voice over, the incidental music, Major Marco’s restless sleep, and Mrs Henry Whittaker lecture on hydrangeas. The voice over acts here as narrator, getting the story moving along. Next, the incidental music is soft yet foreboding of the dread that is to come. It seems to stalk Marco as he sleeps, via a drumbeat and a single blast from a muted horn. Both these instruments also hark to the notion of the battlefield and emphasize Marco’s dreams as related to the pre credit scene of the platoon being captured. But as the audience succumbs to Marco’s dream (through the slow 16 second fade) the music alters slightly to that reminiscent of wind chimes. The chimes both echoes a soft breeze wandering through the hotel lobby, but also without having a recognisable rhythm, puts the audience even more off ease.

The voice of Mrs Henry Whittaker adds to this state of unrest. As Greil Marcus describes it: “Something in the way Mrs Whittaker is speaking is too harsh. She’s disdainful, mocking, as if the other Ladies Garden Club members, whom we haven’t yet seen but whom Mrs Whittaker is presumably addressing, are fools.” (Marcus, 19) Ladies usually don’t speak with such contempt for their audience, but, of course, it is not really a lady but Dr Yen Lo, the “long-winded” scientist.

Mrs Whittaker’s address is to give the camera enough time to completely rotate and the set to change. If listened to carefully, as soon as the camera leaves Mrs Whittaker her voice changes fractionally as it is no longer the actress speaking but a recording. This is to hide the sound of the set being changed (it was on castors) but also the actors moving to their new positions (Jacobson, 23-24). Similarly, the voice of Dr Lo begins to echo when we see the Communist audience for the first time, as this was also a different set (Frankenheimer DVD commentary).

More startling, though, is the complete lack of all sound when the camera finally returns to the soldiers, now sitting in the amphitheatre. There is complete silence as if the set is in shock. The audience is left holding their breath, confused, asking: What happened to Mrs Whittaker?


Important in a film about brainwashing are the triggers to begin the missions. Though there is the visual clue of the Queen of Diamonds (seen in later scenes), this itself cannot be put into operation without the spoken code: “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little Solitaire?” As such, throughout the film expressions are repeated, acting, at times, as character revelations (such as when Mrs Iselin uses the phrase and we realise that she is also a Communist spy).

With this in mind, the second Ladies Garden Club dream includes two examples of how brainwashed all the platoon has become: Marco’s speech and Melvin’s closing line: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”



The Manchurian Candidate (film) – Original motion picture released 1962
Executive producer, Howard W. Koch; Screenplay, George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon; Producers, George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer; Director, John Frankenheimer

DVD includes commentary by John Frankenheimer, plus 7 minute interview with Frank Sinatra, John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod (a David Fein, Eytan Kellar, c1988)


Axelrod, George. The Manchurian Candidate. ScreenPress Publishing, c2002.

Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures about extremes: the films of John Frankenheimer. McFarland & Co., 2007

Emery, Robert J. The directors take one: in their own words. TV Books, 2000

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. What have they built you to do?: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America. University of Minnesota Press, c2006. Electronic version:

Marcus, Greil. The Manchurian Candidate. BFI Publishing, 2002.

Pratley, Gerald. The films of Frankenheimer: forty years in film. Lehigh University Press, 1998.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Placing movies: the practice of film criticism. University of California Press, c1995.

Rushing, Janice Hocker. Projecting the shadow: the cyborg hero in American film. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Sylbert, Richard. Designing movies: portrait of a Hollywood artist. Praeger, 2006.

Volkman, Ernest. Spies: the secret agents who changed the course of history. J. Wiley, c1994.

Welsh, James M; Lev, Peter; eds. The literature/film reader: issues of adaptation. Scarecrow Press, 2007.