The Manchurian Candidate has always been in a class by itself among cold war political thrillers. Maybe it was just the mystique that came with being unavailable for so many years, but maybe it was the simply fact that this is a damn good movie. Smart and laced with liberal doses of McCarthy-era satire, The Manchurian Candidate still stands as the pinnacle of John Frankenheimer‘s directing career.
The movie revolves around a pair of Korean War veterans, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) and Maj. Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra), who were both members of an ill-fated patrol that was betrayed, ambushed and captured. They return after the war with Shaw receiving a Medal of Honor for his heroics in saving the patrol. When asked about Shaw, Marco automatically replies that he was “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The problem is that Marco remembers Shaw as cold, standoff-ish and arrogant. He hated the man, as did most of their platoon. Then there’s the issues of the nightmares Marco has been having since he got back, which suggest that something happened on that patrol other than what the official story says.
Shaw, for his part, is miserable. His politically ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury) is wasting no time in exploiting his Medal of Honor to further the political career of his boozy, unambitious step-father, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). Shaw can’t stand his mother and can’t wait to get away from her, even going to far as to take a job with a newspaper publisher who despises Iselin and romancing Josie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of Iselin’s bitter political rival, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).
Unfortunately for Raymond Shaw, somebody as other plans for him. A casual suggestion to play a game of solitaire puts him into a trance and the sight of the Queen of Diamonds turns him into an automaton who obediently follows any order given to him, even the order to kill.
Meanwhile, Marco has made enough sense of his nightmares to realize that he and Shaw might have been the subject of a Communist brainwashing plot, with Shaw as its primary focus. After convincing his skeptical superiors at the Pentagon that something was fishy, he reaches out and befriends Shaw in order to determine exactly what the other side wants with him.
While farfetched, the plot of The Manchurian Candidate chugs along relentlessly, pausing only for Maj. Marco to romance Janet Leigh in a sub-plot that does nothing to advance the rest of the story. The film also manages to pointedly satirize the Red-baiting tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy, whom John Iselin is obviously supposed to represent. Similar to the real senator, the number of suspected communists that Iselin claims are in the government changes by the minute. The manner in which he finally settles on a number makes for a subtle but hilarious sight gag.
The performances here are all standout, with special mention going to Angela Lansbury and Lawrence Harvey, who convincingly play mother and son despite being only three years apart in age. Lansbury creates one of the more fearsome characters in movie history, and that’s even before the movie drops the other shoe. Frank Sinatra is solid if less flashy, even when his “Rat Pack” lingo creeps in from time to time.
By the time The Manchurian Candidate reaches its shocking ending, Lawrence Harvey has made the audience develop a real sympathy for Raymond Shaw, despite his unlikeable traits. That empathy helps make the film’s final act the nail-biter that it is.