It's always incredible when a prescient work of fiction foreshadows the political climate of an entire decade. That's exactly what The Manchurian Candidate managed to do way back in 1962.
The film tells the story of a platoon of G.I.'s who are captured during the Korean War, brainwashed by Communist Chinese and Soviet forces and then shipped back to the United States as "sleeper soldiers" to wage a covert war of espionage, terror and assassination. The film posits that these techniques are so advanced that the test subjects develop distinct personalities which can be brought to the surface by an appropriate trigger. When this happens they become hypnotized, robotic and predisposed to do the bidding of their handler without question or hesitation.
Even better: when the subject wakes up they have absolutely no memory of what they did while under the influence. So, if detained and questioned by the authorities, the suspect literally has nothing to confess. After a series of political assassinations rocked the United States in the Sixties and Seventies, some came to believe that notorious figures such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, and Mark David Chapman all exhibited signs of this devious programming. Regardless of what you believe, it's eerily coincidental that The Manchurian Candidate presaged all of this.
When the captives are returned to the United States strange things begin to happen almost immediately. The platoon testifies that their supposed savior Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they've ever known", despite the fact that they all hated his guts. They begin to share bizarre collective dreams rife with pacification, betrayal, and murder. They begin to experience gaps in time and memory.
After witnessing a breakdown in Shaw's programming during which he literally jumps in a lake, commanding officer Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) become convinced that there's a conspiracy afoot and initiates an investigation. He attempts to deprogram Shaw but the effectiveness of this is kept in doubt right up until the very end. As such, the film's final reel is almost unbearably tense.
Although the story itself if pretty far-out the exemplary cast and crew really strive for realism. Director John Frankenheimer stages many of his scenes cinema-verite style, which was highly unusual at the time. Quite often I found myself totally immersed by the reality inherent in this technique, which is indispensable given the script's wild premise. Witness the brilliantly-documented news conference which sees James Gregory as Senator Iselin do his best Joseph McCarthy impersonation. The staging of the actors, the placement of monitors and the inclusion of hand-held footage really sells the shot.
Contrast this with the sense of disorientation generated by the film's earlier scenes. In an amazing 360-degree panorama shot, Frankenheimer shows us the passively captive G.I.'s, the innocuous "garden club" meeting that they think they're attending and the nightmarish surgical-theater torture setting that they're really immersed in. As the scene plays out it becomes increasingly nuanced, unnerving and weird. If you're one of those people that insists that everything be explained to you, watching The Manchurian Candidate may very well be your worst possible nightmare.
The cast is wholly believable. Whatever you want to say about Frank Sinatra as a screen talent, he's absolutely convincing here. Every line reading, expression and nuance of body language is genuine, made all the more remarkable when you find out that Sinatra refused to do more then one take. Laurence Harvey has the thankless role of playing the film's prissy, humorless, Mama's boy Sargent Raymond Shaw. At first his performance seems a tad labored but this just serves to illustrate just how disconnected, uncharismatic and, subsequently, how suitable the character is for mind control.
But it's Angela Lansbury who's the real marvel. Not to disparage Patty Duke for her work in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Angela Lansbury really deserved major props for her portrayal of Eleanor Iselin. Although only a few years older than her on-screen son at the time, Lansbury's aristocratic, American matriarch is totally genuine. Willing to do anything to achieve her secret and nefarious goals, a case can be made that Eleanor Iselin is the most reviled mom in cinema history. The cringe-inducing intimacy she shares with her put-upon son is enough to earn her that dubious distinction alone.
At the end of the film it's comforting to think that the threat has passed but I couldn't help but hearken back to an earlier scene that occurs between Sinatra's character and Janet Leigh's Eugenie. Marco's request for an investigation has been rejected by the military and he's on a train headed back to New York to see Shaw. At this stage in the game he's in pretty rough shape: twitchy, sweating profusely, paranoid, and completely vulnerable. Leigh's character picks up on this, confronts him and the two have one of the oddest, most disjointed conversations in cinema history. In light of the film's explosive revelations, the camera's impassive, dead-eyed capture of this strange scene is incredibly disconcerting.
This is an amazing and important film with implications that will linger with you long after the final credits have rolled.