Genre: Political Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.
Release Date: October 24th, 1962 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Frankenheimer Actors: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish
erve-wracking and unpredictable, John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic “The Manchurian Candidate” has rightly stayed an important entry in the upper echelons of influential cinema. Its political relevancy has fluctuated during the years as specific aspects gain or lose their potency with current events and climates, but the genuinely moving acting and unyielding, efficacious storytelling never falter. And the film doesn’t lose its poignancy in the supporting themes of love and revenge, still shocking today with its visionary portrayals of violence, brainwashing, puppeteering, sacrifice, incest, and the tangible tensions of enduring military rivalries.
A group of American soldiers are captured near Manchuria during the Korean War and brought to a Pavlovian-style institute to be brainwashed for use as double agents in the United States. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can’t remember exactly what happened to him during his rescue and reintegration in the States, but something is clearly amiss. Plagued by dreams of brutal conditioning and hypnosis sessions, he’s determined to discover who was behind the torture, and who in the U.S. may be the communist contact for “activating” celebrated hero Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) as a weapon against governmental (McCarthy-esque) leaders.
“One day of Christmas is loathsome enough.” Harvey’s performance is phenomenal as a doomed man who has never been able to free himself from his frighteningly domineering mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury in an Academy Award-nominated performance), who harbors secrets of her own. He initially appears cold, heartless, and uncaring, and although his mental state is revealed fairly quickly, the audience can immediately sense his stark foreshadowing of general unease. Later, during a flashback that reveals his matriarch’s interference with his childhood sweetheart, Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), he is humanized in a way that arouses greater anguish, knowing his terrifying condition may prove irreversible.
Based on Richard Condon’s thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate” is one of the most successful adaptations from a novel to the big screen, capably translating the paranoia and suspense Condon imparted to his literary readership, and being rewarded with critical acclaim and eventual preservation selection in the National Film Registry. The perception of guilt and fear in the dry-cleaned mind of Shaw is the focal point of every other character’s interaction, save for Eugenie Rose (Janet Leigh), who exhibits the same hilariously blunt and aggressive love banter that Hitchcock perfected in “North by Northwest.” Marco and Rose’s conversation when they first meet is the epitome of Hollywood fantasy and love-at-first-sight chemistry. She’s the strikingly forward girl who knows what she wants and makes the first move toward Marco, in a romantic subplot that quickly vanishes amidst the sleuthing and action.
It’s the shocking conclusion that is most unforgettable, culminating in a perfect blend of anticipation and spontaneity. The camera cuts from one sweaty face to another as tensions grow and the effectiveness of uncovering and countering the hypnotism plot remains cryptic until the very end. The chaos of the presidential rally setting parallels the cool and calm demeanor of Harvey’s assassin, whom Marco futilely hunts amongst the endless bleachers of Madison Square Garden. The cinematography here is particularly gripping, emphasizing Shaw’s loneliness and tragic separation from humanity, while imposing a dreaded realism to the possibilities of conspiracy theories, weaponized manipulation of the human psyche, Cold War and communism security threats, and espionage.
– Mike Massie