Through the Sniper’s Scope: Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate Becomes a Movie
by Courtney Joyner
Always an author of rebellious fiction, stories that punch out the walls of convention with angry diatribes and absurdities, novelist Richard Condon was, surprisingly, a Hollywood veteran before he ever wrote a novel. The man who took deadly aim at the politics of espionage in The Manchurian Candidate, and a sly view of gangster culture in the Prizzi books, worked for years as a writer of ad copy for United Artists, where he reported to Max Youngstein, one of the company’s partners.
Condon was frustrated writing about other people’s works, and expressed his feelings frequently to his boss. Youngstein then did something extraordinary: he docked Condon’s salary for a year, citing cut-backs, and later fired him, but not before handing him a checkbook with all the docked money in a Mexican bank, along with keys to a small, ocean-front house and the instructions, “go write your novel.”
Condon wrote two and the second, The Manchurian Candidate, is dedicated to his old boss. Condon’s tale of brain-washing and political corruption was a best-selling sensation that every studio in town turned down as a film. Screenwriter/producer George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) optioned the property with his partner, director John Frankenheimer. Despite their prestigious history, they couldn’t get the project moving until Axelrod brought it to Frank Sinatra. Frankenheimer later recalled, “When we got Frank, we had our movie deal.”
Sinatra had played an assassin in Suddenly! and didn’t want the role of the brainwashed sniper, but the officer who tries to save him. Laurence Harvey was cast as deadly Raymond, but more importantly, Angela Lansbury took on the role of his evil mother. Co-producer Sinatra had suggested Lucille Ball, an inspired choice, but her TV identification was too great and Frankenheimer cast Lansbury, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
Janet Leigh as the mysterious Rosie, Henry Silva, and James Gregory rounded out the superb cast. With the endorsement of Sinatra’s friend President John F. Kennedy, who loved the book, filming began with the actors laboring brilliantly in their roles, responding to Frankenheimer’s documentary-like stylization; a heightened, violent reality that’s sliced by dark, chilling satire, just as Condon had written it.
For Frankenheimer, that was always his and Axelrod’s goal: “Just to do Dick Condon’s book. People read a lot into the film’s subtext that was taken directly from the book. We were bringing Manchurian to the screen. We were translating, we didn’t create it.”
Although decently remade in 2004, it is the faithful 1962 masterpiece that people remember, and still drives readers to Condon’s novel. The great scenes scar the memory: the “garden party” brainwashing, the intense karate fight between Sinatra and Silva, or Harvey with the rifle, settling on a target, and the shock when he pulls the trigger.
Producer-star Frank Sinatra felt indebted to Richard Condon and considered the adaptation his finest film, “Everything worked. A performer only has one experience like that in a lifetime.”