Whenever I am asked to name a film whose female actor’s performance lifted me out of the recliner I immediately think of Angela Lansbury’s chilling turn as Eleanor Iselin in the 1962 John Frankenheimer film The Manchurian Candidate. (Don’t bother with the soggy 2004 remake, which is awful in every way imaginable) The Manchurian Candidate is a palate cleansing suspense thriller worlds away from Lansbury’s sweet, meddling mystery writer J.B. Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. If you are only familiar with Lansbury’s lighter fare, then be prepared to be scandalized! Lansbury’s command of craft is so utterly stunning, you will not believe this is the same woman who solves murders and rides her bike through the streets of Cabot Cove—the murder capital of the United States. Of her ferocious performance, film critic Roger Ebert states:
Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin, nominated for an Academy Award, is one of the great villains of movie history. Fierce, focused, contemptuous of the husband she treats like a puppet, she has, we gather, plotted with the Russians and Chinese to use the Red Scare of “Iselinism” to get him into office, where she will run things from behind the scenes.
Manipulation of male characters is a frequently utilized trope in the suspense/thriller genre. Female youth and beauty is the currency used to acquire access, material possessions or elevated social status, with the mutual understanding that once a woman achieves her objective she is suddenly rendered docile, subservient and complicit in her own oppression. The Manchurian Candidate depicts an older woman whose ambitions are both insatiable and self destructive. Her agency is accompanied by sexual deviancy, substance dependency and an incestuous desire for her son Raymond, played by Laurence Harvey. Mrs. Iselin is a cautionary tale; an admonishment to women to eschew the desire for power or agency, or risk being felled by their ambitions—be they sexual or political. The Manchurian Candidate concerns itself with a brainwashing experiment gone awry, but exactly who is being brainwashed here? If examining the film from a feminist perspective the answer shouldn’t be surprising.