If ever there were a movie to tickle a conspiracy theorist's paranoid, half-baked brain, The Manchurian Candidate is it. Based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, dubbed "controversial" in its day, Candidate opened in the fall of 1962, then was dramatically yanked from circulation a year later by its coproducer and star Frank Sinatra.
The reason? Complicated. Start with the fact that the movie's Cold War scenario—an intricate Communist scheme to assassinate the president and take over the United States—was, eerily, half-fulfilled on November 22, 1963. Speculation heated up. Rumors said the film had inspired John F. Kennedy's killing.
There's more. The eponymous "candidate," a Red-baiting senator (James Gregory) manipulated by a ruthless wife (Angela Lansbury), is a scathing study in McCarthyism. Now remember that Kennedy, as a senator, supported McCarthy. The plot continues to thicken. When the film was still in production at United Artists, Arthur Krim, then-president of U.A. and finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tried to kill his studio's picture, worried that it would embarrass Kennedy. Sinatra, a White House intimate, intervened and got JFK's personal go-ahead.
Krim got his wish, belatedly. Shortly after the president's death, Candidate was pulled—though not, apparently, because of the assassination. Sinatra and U.A. were bickering about—what else?—money. By director John Frankenheimer's account, the only justifiable suspicion afloat at the time was that U.A. was gypping its partners. So Sinatra sat on his rights to the picture for 26 years, allowing only 16-mm rentals and the occasional airing on TV.
Not until this spring was Candidate put back on public view, first in theaters, then in July on videocassette (appended to include interviews with Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and screenwriter George Axelrod). In '62, the movie met with mixed reviews and a tepid box office. It was too artily arch and disturbingly weird for the heartland. In revival, its grosses easily cracked the seven-figure mark. And critics have raved.
Rightly so. Paranoid fantasies aside, The Manchurian Candidate is a remarkable movie: thrilling, coolly intelligent, and often very funny. It's one of those rare, felicitous marriages of author and director, book and movie. Axelrod's screenplay expertly transposes Condon's black, mordant satire onto Frankenheimer's stark, high-concept visuals and impeccable timing (backed by David Amram's crashingly potent score). Lionel Linden's black-and-white photography—full of dulled images of the old red-white-and-blue—is an evocative period reminder: the McCarthy era seen through the primitive looking glass of pre-color TV.
Television, as the political propagandist, is the key to Condon's Communist plot to wrest democracy from the West and sweep in "powers that will make martial law look like anarchy."
It is 1952, during the Korean War, when a young army officer named Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), his commanding officer Bennett Marco (Sinatra), and a handful of men are led into a trap by their Korean guide, then subjected to elaborate brainwashing. Two years later, Raymond gets a hero's welcome stateside. His platoon swears he saved their lives, and he is awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor—an event his hated mother exploits to her husband Senator Johnny Iselin's maximum political advantage.
But Raymond's heroism is a sham, a fiction manufactured behind the Bamboo Curtain by one Yen Lo, a fiendishly bemused Oriental (Khigh Dhiegh) hailing from something called the "Pavlov Institute." He has not only washed but "dry cleaned," he says, the minds of Raymond and the captured men.
Once home, Marco and a black member of the platoon are racked by nightmares. In Marco's—"a real swinger of a nightmare"—he and his men are sitting bored and yawning behind a droning speaker at a ladies' garden club. After a 360-degree pan around the room, the camera reveals Madam Speaker to be the portly, malevolent Yen Lo. The audience, likewise, is in fact no garden club but an international brigade of the Red menace: Russians, Chinese, bag men for Third World despots. They have gathered for a demonstration of their ultimate weapon: Raymond Shaw, the programmable assassin.
On Lo's request, a zombified Raymond casually executes two of his fellow Americans, spattering blood over a huge poster of Stalin. The same bloody vision torments the black soldier, except the "ladies" are all black. It's a brilliantly constructed scenario, revisited through feverish flashbacks and foreshadowing all the film's essential political ingredients: the banal violence, outsized iconography (echoed later at a political convention), and ideology's bald will to power.
The rest of the story works itself out in ways too cunning and manifold to detail. A liberal senator (John McGyver), whose daughter Raymond once loved, threatens to impede the Iselin juggernaut and is ruthlessly silenced. Marco discovers Raymond's trigger mechanism when, after it is accidentally set off, Raymond literally follows a command to "Go jump in the lake." Raymond—played with Harvey's deliciously British detachment—is a pawn, first hateful then pathetic. All it takes is a playing card, the queen of diamonds, to reduce him to a state of slavish hypnotic suggestion.
The principal ice queen is Lansbury as Raymond's Machiavellian mom, a demonic cross between Lady Macbeth and Nancy Reagan, pulling the strings to her dim-witted husband. "There are 57 Communists in the Defense Department!" he shouts across the Senate floor, a number she picked for him after glancing at the brand name on a bottle of ketchup.
The movie's political manipulations are equally devious. Marco—a bravura performance of Sinatra cool—is a drunk and an indiscriminate reader, morally sound and mysteriously intellectual. (His apartment is stacked with books, "the novels of Joyce Carey, ethnic choices of the Arabs, and things like that.") He acts off-kilter enough to make Janet Leigh, an extraneous love interest, fall for him; but he becomes Raymond's only conduit to sanity. About the political squalls raging around him, he says nothing.
Jordan, the liberal senator whom Raymond's mother calls a Communist, deplores the mass hysteria that sweeps "Iselinism" to the vice-presidential nomination.
Iselin surrounds himself with images of Lincoln; Jordan, with the American eagle. Iselin brays about Reds, Jordan backs the ACLU. Jordan is obviously not a Communist, but there clearly is a Red threat—very real and imminent. And what are we to make of the fact that the two "traitors," Raymond and his mother, are both played by Brits? Condon packs his liberalism with the conservative punch of an old-line Kennedy Democrat, a hawk abroad and a dove at home. Maybe, like the movie, it's a political line due for a comeback.
Richard Marin is the television critic for the Washington Times.