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Reviewed by:
  • What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America
  • David Seed (bio)
Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar Gonzalez, What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. xv + 234 pp. $19.95 (pbk).

The authors of this study apologise unnecessarily for their choice of subject, unnecessarily because The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer US 1962) is without doubt a central work of the Cold War and a key focus of the cultural anxieties of the time. The most impressive sections of this volume address John Frankenheimer's selective borrowing from other films to construct his narrative. Thus there is a debt to Panic in the Streets (Kazan US 1950), where the need to contain the activities of a plague carrier reinforces the special role of the expert. My Son John (McCarey US 1952) establishes the family as a microcosm of the [End Page 138] nation, 'invaded' when the son is revealed to be a Communist. Suddenly (Allen US 1954) anticipates the theme of assassination (the target is the President), presenting another invasion of the family, this time by gunmen. Lastly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel US 1956) takes the small town as nation and reinforces the imagery of robotisation, played so effectively by Laurence Harvey in Frankenheimer's film. The common motif running through all these works is that of invasion, a process working on multiple levels and also one inducing a sense of emergency, which feeds directly into The Manchurian Candidate.

Jacobson and Gonzalez argue throughout that the Cold War period encouraged a series of shifting identifications which constantly suggested that more was at stake than what could be seen. This paranoid perception of the mystery in the everyday and the suspicion that chance events had actually been orchestrated creates tension in scenes like that in The Manchurian Candidate where Marco (Frank Sinatra) meets Rosie (Janet Leigh) on a train, a scene which the authors suggest is a key to the film as a whole. The blurring together of sexual and political drama occurs in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (US 1959), when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the 20th Century Limited, a scene obviously standing behind Frankenheimer's. Thorn-hill is in 'disguise' wearing dark glasses, though Eve recognises him instantly. The encounter resembles a sexual pick-up though it is very quickly revealed that Eve is playing out a role prescribed by her Communist-backed handlers; a later twist reveals that she is actually a double agent working for the US. In The Manchurian Candidate, we are told that Rosie doubles for Raymond Shaw's mother and indeed her first dialogue with Marco resembles nothing so much as a low-key interrogation. This is certainly an important point in the film, not least for its demonstration of doubling, but also for Rosie's temporary role as sexual therapist. However, it scarcely compares with the famous episode of the ladies garden-club meeting where a slow 360° pan enables characters to mutate in mid-scene so that middle-class Americans become Communist brainwashers. In general, though, Jacobson and Gonzalez discuss the techniques of the film well. It is in their contextualising that opportunities have been missed.

Take first of all the implications of the title. The quotation from the film raises the issue of what Timothy Melley (Empire of Conspiracy (2000)) has shrewdly described as 'agency panic', namely the fear that your actions and thoughts have been designed by others. Philip K. Dick would have been a useful figure to introduce here since his fiction is packed with figures bearing constructed identities. We Can Build You (1972) even echoes the title quotation in its description of a company specialising in simulations. In his 1964 essay 'Drugs, Hallucinations, and the Quest for Reality' he states categorically: 'We have entered the [End Page 139] landscape depicted by Richard Condon in his terrific novel The Manchurian Candidate' and went on to list delusions, hallucinations and posthypnotic suggestion as disturbing signs of the times.

But here we should backtrack even further to the complex question of brainwashing, which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-3789
Print ISSN
1754-3770
Pages
pp. 138-142
Launched on MUSE
2009-07-01
Open Access
No
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