Ask Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra, The Man with the Golden Arm) to describe his capture during the Korean war, and he can give you the details with precise clarity. Marco and the other members of his platoon were captured by the Soviets and whisked away to Manchuria. Eventually, all but two members of the platoon were rescued by Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, The Alamo), who was subsequently given the Medal of Honor. When asked to describe Shaw, Marco replies that he is, “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.”
However, Marco's dreams have a curious tendency to conflict with his memories. Every night, he has the same recurring nightmare: images of the entire platoon being brainwashed and made to believe that a group of Chinese and Russian officials are actually members of a ladies garden club. In the dream, a hypnotized Shaw is ordered to strangle one of his fellow platoon members to death. He does so without hesitation. The whole thing seems absurd, but Marco can't shake the nightmare. He eventually becomes convinced that his dreams are showing him what really happened in Manchuria, but how can he prove that?
The Manchurian Candidate is one of the most striking paranoia thrillers of the '60s; a film that enthusiastically plays on the wildest fears that large segments of the American public were experiencing at the time. The whole thing is completely preposterous, yes, but considering that the film's initial release was sandwiched directly between the rabid paranoia of McCarthyism and the wild conspiracies floating around the Kennedy assassination (it was released just over a year before that terrible event), it feels like a vivid snapshot of the American psyche: fearful, bewildered and despairing.
Part of what makes The Manchurian Candidate such an effective paranoia thriller is that it methodically chips away at the viewer's sense of understanding. Marco's dream (which very cleverly flicks back and forth between the garden club hallucination Marco was experiencing at the time and his subconscious memories of the secret government meeting that was actually taking place) gives us a fairly clear portrait of precisely what was done to Marco, Shaw and the rest of the platoon, so we settle in and wait for Marco to figure it out. However, the film is merely lulling the audience into a false sense of security: as the film proceeds, he chips away at the solidity of the “reality” we're watching, incorporating strange, unexpected bits of dialogue (there's one conversation between Sinatra and Janet Leigh that takes a number of surreal left turns) and imagery that makes you feel that you, too, may under the influence of some sinister figure.
That figure would be director John Frankenheimer, who explored different forms of cultural unease with other thrillers like Seven Days in May and Seconds. The '60s was a tremendous decade for the director, as he demonstrated a real talent for fusing wildly ambitious storytelling with precise, controlled filmmaking techniques. The Manchurian Candidate's deep-focus cinematography, dynamic camera angles, incorporation of dream imagery and tendency to vacillate between matter-of-fact realism and dramatically heightened reality make it feel like the anxious offspring of Citizen Kane, and Frankenheimer sells completely ludicrous moments by filtering them through a lens of white-knuckle conviction.
Sinatra's performance as Marco – defined by flop sweat and a slightly sheepish sense of uncomfortable self-awareness – is good, but what's really clever is the way Frankenheimer makes use of Sinatra's image. Here's one of the coolest men in the world, reduced to trembling uncertainty in a world where everyone seems to be working on secret plans for global domination. Laurence Harvey's work as Shaw is equally rich, and I dig the way the film peels back his layers one by one: first depicting him as an enigmatic victim, then as an arrogant twit, then as a sympathetic human being hiding an abundance of emotional wounds.
The source of most of those wounds? That would be Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury, Beauty and the Beast), Raymond's mother and the wife of conservative Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory, Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Lansbury was only four years older than Harvey at the time she was cast, but she's so good in the role that you forget about that fact almost immediately. Lansbury's work is cold, calculating and commanding; a sneering portrait of maternal jealousy and toxic ambition. She has quite a few political goals for her husband, but has to overcome that fact that Senator Iselin is A) despised by a sizable portion of the public and B) an idiot. Gregory's performance is the film's most wickedly funny element; a savage McCarthy caricature that depicts the real-life senator's Communist witch hunt as the preposterous act of an angry, clueless buffoon.
Still, one of the most effectively unsettling things about The Manchurian Candidate is that it doesn't really seem to have any particular political perspective. It takes an abundance of ideological viewpoints and political motives and tosses them into a sea of psychotic delusions. Looking back at much of the preposterous speculation that surrounded the Kennedy assassination, one can see traces of this film's fearful madness. This is fundamentally an entertainment – again, it's pretty much impossible to take any of the film's wild brainwashing stuff seriously – but there's also something fairly sad at the film's core. In a way, it almost seems to yearn for a world of Communist brainwashing and secret villainous plots being hatched amongst the rich and powerful. That world would still be chaotic and dangerous, but at least it would make some kind of sense.
The Manchurian Candidate
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 1962