Films which are based on topical political subject matter run a considerable risk of becoming dated. Politics in itself is never out-of-date–it’s too much a part of the human condition in all times and places. Look at films like the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or the more recent Bulworth. The former deals with an idealistic young politician up against establishment corruption; the latter examines the consequences of a politician speaking truthfully, without the now customary "spin." Those are universal issues and always timely.
But when a film puts the emphasis on current events and concerns, those may overwhelm themes of more abiding interest. The Manchurian Candidate has been widely hailed as one of the "great" films since its original release in 1962. Based on the popular novel by Richard Condon, it is a story immersed in the paranoia of the Cold War and the American witch-hunting political response called McCarthyism. For those who experienced that era, it continues to have resonance today–McCarthyism and the Cold War were both seminal experiences for the generations that lived during the period from the Soviet push for territory and power after World War II to the Soviet meltdown of the late 1980’s. But for the generations that followed, that’s all the stuff of history textbooks and the film may no longer carry the visceral impact it did for their elders.
In a skillfully wrought script by George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) the exposition of the story is linear and straightforward. A squad of soldiers in Korea is captured by the Russians and Chinese. Held for three days, they are brainwashed to a level of mind control that effectively allows their captors to order the men to do whatever they are told, including murdering fellow soldiers. A brilliantly imaginative scene has the squad in a meeting room. To them, hypnotized, it is the meeting of a ladies’ gardening club; in reality it is a Communist lecture hall where they are being displayed as a powerful weapon. Director John Frankenheimer seamlessly switches back and forth between the varying conceptions, making the point in an entirely visual way.
One member of the squad, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is the son of a megalomaniacal mother (Angela Lansbury) who, in turn, is married to a United States Senator, a man completely under his wife’s thumb. She leads the Senator into his virulent anti-Communist campaign, a la McCarthy, ruthlessly planning to leverage him into nomination for the Vice Presidency.
The commanding officer of the squad, Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), now has recurring nightmares about the time in Korea, nightmares which raise his suspicions about what really happened. It all leads up to an adrenaline filled climax and an unusually dark ending for a Hollywood movie. At the same time the film has many moments of humor, humor generated by sharp satirical jabs.
Cast with unusual depth, it’s not only the leads who help to make this a convincing romp in paranoia. Consider pros like James Gregory as the Senator, John McGiver as his liberal opponent, Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s squeeze, and Henry Silva as a Communist agent.
The Manchurian Candidate was controversial in its time for its subject matter, all the more so for the skill of its storytelling and its underlying theme of insatiable needs for control over others, for power and domination. The film seems to anticipate the ever-growing influence of the media and its manipulation by the power brokers. Still well worth a look, its reliance on the events of its time has undeniably diluted its power. A remake seems a logical step.