Cold War Paranoia, Part I
Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Ask any of Raymond Shaw's former platoonmates from the Korean War what they think of him, and they'll quickly tell you that Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being they've ever known in their lives. But is he? Shaw, the stepson of a right-wing, McCarthyesque senator, is an arrogant, snobbish misanthrope, and most people can't stand him—including his platoonmates. Shaw's old commander Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can't stop thinking about it, and lately he's been having this strange dream where he and his platoon are guests at a meeting of a ladies' garden club—or is it actually a discussion of hypnosis techniques by Soviet and Chinese intelligence officers? Therein lies a mystery, one that Marco is determined to get to the bottom of—a mystery that involves brainwashing, assassination, and a Communist plot to overthrow the government.
The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer's 1962 Cold War thriller, is at once a gripping suspense flick and a sly black comedy, a straight-faced frightener and a wicked satire, a product of its time that can nevertheless still raise goose bumps in the unsuspecting viewer. Brainwashing—psychologically conditioning an enemy to do one's bidding or share one's beliefs—was a relatively new concept at the time The Manchurian Candidate was released, and despite the fact that there's no evidence it's even remotely possible in the way it was presented in the film, the idea that enemies of the United States could capture and brainwash an American and place him in a powerful position where he would be forced to do their bidding, helpless to resist, touched something powerful in the national psyche. The basic concept has been repeated or spoofed many times over the past 40 years, most recently in last year's comedy Zoolander, in which idiotic male model Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is conditioned to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia upon hearing a certain song. More seriously, in the 2000 presidential election, right-wing opponents of Senator John McCain spread rumors that he was a Manchurian candidate himself, that he was brainwashed during the five years he spent as a POW at the notorious Hanoi Hilton and that his Communist masters would assume control of him when he won the Presidency. The fact that some people did not immediately laugh this rumor off as hogwash—and, indeed, it may have helped George W. Bush attain a crucial victory in the shockingly brutal South Carolina primary—serves as a vivid demonstration of the primal fear evinced by such a scenario.
Don't let thoughts of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack period prejudice you against his performance. Sinatra, who does not sing in this film, fully embodies the psychologically damaged Major Bennett Marco, depressed and sleep-deprived owing to forces he can't understand, and afraid that he can't trust anybody. Angela Lansbury, who was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, is chilling as Harvey's cold, controlling mother, and their relationship has to be seen to be believed. You'll likely gasp when her true motivations are revealed late in the film.
Some points to ponder:
- The Manchurian Candidate owes part of its mystique to the fact that the film was out of circulation and unavailable from shortly after its release until 1988, when it was finally made available on videocassette. While the reasons for this are disputed even today, one of the more common rumors is that it was yanked after John Kennedy was murdered, its depiction of a political assassination plot having suddenly taken on an unfortunate new relevance.
- Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh have an extraordinarily strange conversation on the train when they meet. What do you make of it?
- Try not to get too distracted by the fact that Henry Silva, who plays the Korean houseboy Chunjin, doesn't look or sound the least bit Asian. Silva's performance here was one of the last in Hollywood's regrettable trend of casting non-Asian actors to play Asians, usually with speech patterns resembling Tonto's. Silva would go on to play Japanese detective Mr. Moto, a role originated by German actor Peter Lorre, in the poorly-regarded 1965 film The Return of Mr. Moto.