The Manchurian Candidate (1962) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and mild sexuality
Running Time: 126 min.

Cast: Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, Leslie Parrish
John Frankenheimer
Screenplay: George Axelrod (based on the novel by Richard Condon)
Review published July 27, 2004

During the Korean War of the 1950s, a platoon of American soldiers are snared and taken away for three days, where they are apparently brainwashed with ideas and instructions they have but the vaguest recollection of.  Flash forward to the United States ten years later, where these men have bad dreams about the experience, some of which included the deaths of two of the men at the hands of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Harvey), acting on orders while under hypnosis.  Shaw, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic deeds his men were conditioned to think happen, is also the stepson of a prominent Senator (Gregory) who just might be the next Vice-Presidential candidate, and while the surviving men know something happened in Korea that led to Shaw's murders, they can't seem to get him to remember.  It seems the Communists still have Shaw under their power, with big plans for something to get their foot in the door of power in the United States, and it's up to Major Marco (Sinatra, The First Deadly Sin) to find out what nefarious plot is about to happen, and how he can stop it before it's too late.

Mesmerizing and suspenseful, The Manchurian Candidate is a highly sophisticated, and quite controversial film that remains one of the best political thrillers even to this day.  Based on the novel by Richard Condon (Prizzi's Honor), director John Frankenheimer (Ronin, Reindeer Games) weaves a web of deception so colorful, you won't know whether to laugh or cringe as the plot unfolds.  Perfectly encapsulating the fear in the country at the time, Candidate is also effective for the premonition of one of the most harrowing incidents to face the country in the following year, the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It is quite possible that many of the conspiracy theories regarding Oswald's connections have much to do with this film still fresh in the psyche of many Americans at the time.  The resemblances caused the film to be shelved for nearly 25 years afterward.

As serious as the subject matter is, it's really the black humor that makes The Manchurian Candidate such an admirable thriller.  Although it plays as deadly serious, the odd characters and awkward conversations are often amusing underneath the surface, and the satirical subtexts indicting both Communism and McCarthyism is done with equal finesse and success.  Although decades old, the film nevertheless has a very modern feel to it, far more vibrant and richly textured than many other films to come out around the same time.  Although the political climate has vastly changed since, the subject matter still has a relevancy today, further evidenced by the 2004 remake.

A beautifully designed thriller, The Manchurian Candidate has rich thematic imagery, subversive direction, and brilliant performances from everyone in the cast.  Intelligent and lasting, it's the kind of film that only gets better with each repeated viewing.

-- Remade in 2004.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo