The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

USA, 126 minutes, black and white

Release: United Artists
Producers: John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod
Executive Producer: Howard Koch
Director: John Frankenheimer
Screenwriter: George Axelrod
Original novel: Richard Condon
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Editor: Ferris Webster
Musical score: David Amram
Production designer: Richard Sylbert

Major Bennet Marco: Frank Sinatra
Staff Sgt Raymond Shaw: Laurence Harvey
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Janet Leigh
Mrs Iselin: Angela Lansbury
Chunjin: Henry Silva
Senator Iselin: James Gregory
Jocelyn Jordan: Leslie Parrish
Senator Thomas Jordan: John McGiver
Dr Yen Lo: Khigh Dhiegh
Holborn Gaines: Lloyd Corrigan
Corporal Alan Melvin: James Edwards
Comrade Zilkov: Albert Paulson
Psychiatrist: Joe Adams

Spoiler warning! Skip this review if you don't want to know key aspects of the plot of this fiendishly brilliant political thriller.

The Manchurian Candidate is a gripping film with tremendous narrative drive featuring a fine cast led by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, a witty script by George Axelrod and an astringent musical score by James Amram.

The director is John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), a New Yorker of German Jewish/Irish parentage who was a leading light in American TV drama in the late 1950s before entering the movie industry. The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), a film about a prison inmate who makes something worthwhile out of his time behind bars, established him as an important figure.

Frankenheimer was a leading Hollywood liberal (he was on good terms with President Kennedy) and often used his films to warn of dastardly plots by far-right American politicians. The Manchurian Candidate looks at how a terrorist act against the United States is used to disguise an attempted takeover by extremist politicians.

The film was made in 1962 but is set in the 1950s during the Cold War between the American-led Western world and Soviet Russia.

This era was marked by a nuclear stand-off between the superpowers accompanied by varying degrees of paranoia about what the other side was up to.

In the US, this paranoia was reflected in the un-American activities hearings of the right-wing Senator Joseph McCarthy, who tried to root out subversives in the military, government and media. Many people now see his inquiries as akin to witch-hunts.

This film, based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, features the McCarthy-like US Senator Johnny Iselin who is carrying out a witch-hunt of his own against alleged Communists in the US Defense Department.

Iselin (James Gregory) is so far to the right politically that he is almost a big a threat to America as the Communists.

However, the movie's main storyline is about a Communist plot to undermine the US by means of an assassin brainwashed to do the bidding of Red secret agents.

The action starts with a US platoon led by Captain Bennet Marco (Sinatra) kidnapped during the Korean War but returned to their own side after being brainwashed.

They remember nothing of their experiences behind enemy lines and have been led to believe that they were involved in combat in which Staff Sgt Raymond Shaw (Harvey) became a big hero, saving the lives of his platoon.

Shaw receives the Congressional Medal of Honor on his return to the US and goes to work as an assistant to a liberal newspaper columnist.

The plot is complicated by the fact that Senator Iselin is Shaw's stepfather. His mother Mrs Iselin (Lansbury) is, to put it mildly, extremely domineering and politically ambitious. Despite being the head of 15 different patriotic organisations, she is definitely not to be trusted.

Despite the brainwashing, Captain, now Major, Marco and a black corporal start recalling their experiences behind enemy lines in nightmares.

The dream sequences have a touch of surrealism worthy of the films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. We see Shaw, Marco and the platoon at a meeting of a Ladies' garden club in New Jersey, America.

The truth is that they have been brainwashed to think they are there. In fact they are in Communist Manchuria (an especially chilly and uninviting Chinese province) being used as guinea pigs by Russian, Chinese and North Korean intelligence officers.

Frankenheimer shows us both the reality - the Communist heavies - and the fantasy - the lady gardeners. The ladies are white in the dreams of Major Marco and black in the dreams of the corporal, an African American.

The first dream sequence is a tour de force by Frankenheimer who uses a 360 degree camera movement to show us the brainwashed platoon, the ladies and the Commies, the walls adorned with portraits of Stalin and Chairman Mao plus assorted garden club artefacts.

The chief villain, Dr Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) is civilised and amusing but deadly. In a memorable line, he says of Shaw: 'His brain has not only been washed. It's been dry cleaned.'

Yen Lo instructs Shaw to kill two of his buddies, which he does like an automaton.

The action then returns to America where Marco has begun to twig what is going on. 'For the last six months I have been out of my mind with the same recurring dream. I tell you there is something phoney going on,' he tells his superiors.

Every time he is asked about Shaw, he says: 'He is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life.' The trouble is that when he reflects for a moment, he recalls Shaw as a cold fish who wasn't liked by his men.

Marco's dreams are put down to combat fatigue and he is transferred to Washington DC, where he encounters Senator Iselin making Commie-baiting speeches.

Iselin claims that a large number of card-carrying Communists are working in the US Defense Department but keeps changing the figure, a clear indication that he is making it all up.

In the end, he settles on 57, inspired by a can of Heinz 57 varieties tomato ketchup. (A fascination with ketchup, incidentally, also symobolises the mental instability of a character in Hitchcock's Spellbound).

Mrs Iselin is also manipulating everyone like crazy and hopes to get her husband into the White House. 'We will make martial law look like anarchy,' she says ominously of her plans to curtail democracy.

Meanwhile, Shaw has been programmed by the Reds to commit a series of murders, remembering nothing of what he has done. The poor man goes through all the tribulations of a Shakespearian tragic hero, killing at least eight people during the film and literally going out of his mind.

The movie reaches a suspenseful climax as Shaw prepares a political assassination with the rugged individualist Marco close on his trail, still trying to figure out what is going on.

The ending is sombre. The last words uttered in the film by Marco are 'hell, hell' followed accompanied by two short, grim musical chords and a fade to black.

For anyone watching this film for the first time, it is hard to figure out who is trying to take over America - the Reds, the neo-Fascists or the New Jersey lady gardeners.

There is also considerable doubt over the role of Eugenie (Janet Leigh) who takes up with Marco halfway through the movie. Their bizarre dialogue in which she describes herself as a Chinese railway worker poses the question: is she his true love or another Communist agent?

What is also fascinating in this multi-layered movie is the cue that turns Shaw from an everyday guy into a cold-blooded killer - the queen of diamonds in a pack of cards.

His controllers simply ask him to play a game of solitaire. The sight of the red queen means he obeys their orders without question.

However, this card turns up at the most unexpected moments throughout the movie, once in a New York bar where Shaw obeys the barman's request to 'go jump in the lake'. (He finds one in Central Park).

Later, in a startling moment, his fiancée Jocy (Marilyn Monroe lookalike Leslie Parrish) turns up at a ball dressed in a Queen of Diamonds outfit. This is described in the film's script as a 'cosmic coincidence.'

All this reflects how visual symbols can trigger a response in people, not just those who have been hypnotised, but in everyone.

The film poses the question: how much are we all conditioned to act in certain ways by our families, school, society etc? Frankenheimer believed that the American people had been brainwashed by TV commercials and the advertising industry.

Despite its age, The Manchurian Candidate stands up well today although it has a tendency often found in old American (and British) films to regard anyone with an Oriental appearance as sinister. Dr Yen Lo, for example, looks for all the world like a villain in a Bond movie.

The liberal Senator Jordan (John McGiver) is too warm-hearted and noble to be true while the ferocious Mrs Iselin has absolutely no redeeming qualities at all.

The film also works as a black comedy and some film critics have finished their reviews by joking that they are off to play a game of solitaire.

The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it a 'daring, funny and far-out thriller about political extremists', noting that it plays 'wonderful, crazy games about the right and the left.'

The movie became highly political itself when President Kennedy, who had intervened on behalf of Frankenheimer to get it made in the first place, was assassinated shortly after its release. Many feared at first that his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was an assassin brainwashed by the Soviets.

The film was banned from cinemas and remained totally out of circulation until 1988 when Frank Sinatra, who owned the rights, finally allowed it to be re-released with his seal of approval.

The Manchurian Candidate was re-made in 2004 by director Jonathan Demme with Denzel Washington, Liev Shreiber, Meryl Streep and Jon Voight, the Korean War setting being replaced by the First Gulf War.