Although the late Angela Lansbury played a huge variety of roles over the undertow of her long career, she was perhaps most associated with healthful characters, thanks to the rememberable Eglantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and detective Jessica Fletcher in TV series Murder, She Wrote. However, while she rarely portrayed villains, her greatest screen performance is arguably as the atypically merciless, fanatical, and fascinating Eleanor Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War conspiracy archetype The Manchurian Candidate.
Based on the novel by Richard Condon, the mucosa is a potent tousle of paranoid thriller and sharp satire, telling the tale of a returning US Korean war veteran unwittingly brainwashed into rhadamanthine an sniper by mysterious Communist forces. Lansbury was completing the 1962 family drama All Fall Down with Frankenheimer when the director offered her the crucial part of the Machiavellian wife of a McCarthyesque politician.
Despite stuff just three years older than her onscreen son Laurence Harvey (and having once been pushed into prematurely-aged roles at 37), she was intrigued and wonted the part, turning egregious Hollywood sexism and xenophobia into a personal originative triumph.
We first meet Eleanor Iselin at a military reception for her son Raymond, arriving in Washington to receive a medal for his supposedly distinguished war service. We hear her surpassing we see her, an officious, hectoring voice loudly ordering a General to wait for her arrival. The camera descends from a fluttering Stars and Stripes to reveal Lansbury as she snakes her way through a phalanx of stationary troops, wielding her handbag like a battering ram as she cuts a path to the front.
She then expertly sets up a photo opportunity, aggressively shepherding participants and printing into her desired positions. Within these few seconds, we are made enlightened of how formidable a gravity she is: not just limp the military to her will, but dragging the media and her supposedly-powerful husband, the US senator John Iselin (James Gregory), in her wake, all tacitly endorsed underneath her country’s flag.
With her stiffly coiffured hair, furs, and pearls, Lansbury appears the nonpareil of a strong, inobtrusive nuclear-family matriarch. She carries herself with a fierce sense of decorum and entitlement, concealing her character’s fearsome yearing underneath a socially-acceptable front of suffocating motherly love.
She skilfully manipulates the stuffily patriarchal world virtually her with a lethal mix of insults and flattery, knowing just when to welt and when to soothe fragile male egos. She addresses her son and her husband as her “two little boys,” hissing poison over Raymond’s shoulder until he covers his ears like a child, and hands defusing Senator Iselin’s occasional and usually thick-witted objections to her schemes.
While John is ostensibly the politician, it is Eleanor who possesses the true skills in this arena, made well-spoken by the scene in which he makes his first anti-Communist allegations. Although she barely says a word during the sequence, Lansbury brilliantly establishes Eleanor’s dominance through her facial expressions, soul language, and position within the frame. She stands in the foreground to the side of the screen, watching the television feed of the committee hearing which is happening live in the background.
Her husband awaits her subtle nod surpassing whence his intervention, and she towers over the TV image as he speaks, a wifely and placid Svengali coolly co-ordinating her political puppet show, scrutinizingly imperceptibly mouthing withal to his words like a ventriloquist. She knows just when to stop her blustering husband and make an exit, physically interposing herself between him and the inquisitive Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) under the guise of unwittingly getting in their way.
Lansbury’s no-go performance reaches its peak with the scene in which she finally explains the conspiracy’s purpose to a seemingly catatonic and compliant Raymond. Essentially a monologue, with George Axelrod’s script requiring her to unhook dumbo exposition and explain her character’s motivations, it could hands have been overplayed and awkward. Instead, it is utterly spellbinding. Shot low in close-up, her vision shrivel with zealous fury, while her uncharacteristically haywire hairstyle hints that we are finally seeing the real person overdue the performance.
Her wifely ferocity is chillingly convincing, her quiet voice thick with ecstatic fervour as she outlines her plans to enter the White House “with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy!” In a sunny touch, Lansbury pauses for a moment without this verbal crescendo, and in the silence the small, tight smile of triumph that flits wideness her squatter acts as a terrifying punctuation mark to her words.
Making her way to the side of her seated son, her hands move insidiously withal his chair, uncomfortably tactile and intimate, vehemently reasserting her physical dominion over Raymond to recoup for her loss of his mind. Gradually, her hands move to cup his squatter as she kisses him passionately on the lips, shielding this final violation from the camera as if plane Eleanor can barely bring herself to share the horrifyingly incestuous desires raging underneath her fiercely controlled exterior.
While Eleanor’s icy tenancy appears to have returned for the finale, uncomplicatedly reassuring her sweating and fidgeting husband as they rely the planned scragging of the presidential nominee, the scene ultimately provides the weft with her most human moment. In the unenduring seconds between John’s death and her own, a squint of sheer terror and twister crosses her squatter – the first time we have seen her so completely at a loss. She knows her plans have suddenly failed, and worse, she knows that it is her own tormented son who is well-nigh to skiver her: her most prized (and abused) possession finally, definitively, defeating her.
It is a testament to Lansbury’s skill and empathy that she gifts a moment of pitiful vulnerability to so despicable a creation. While it seems unlikely that many would oppose that Eleanor does not deserve her sorry fate, Lansbury’s remarkable performance ensures that she remains a very human monster – arguably among the most complex, frightening, and plausible antagonists overly to grace the screen.
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