As ensconced as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is in Cold War politics and Communist paranoia, this absorbing, captivating thriller is still as timely and relevant as ever. Through the actions of the politicians that the film revolves around and the fear of losing control of one’s own mind and their own free will, Frankenheimer has made a film that stands as timeless as ever.
The film is anchored by two heavyweight performances in Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, plus a deeply disturbed supporting role by Angela Lansbury. Frank Sinatra plays Marco, a Korean War vet troubled by dreams of fellow soldier Raymond Shaw, played by Harvey, murdering his own soldiers under Communist duress. As we soon find, Shaw has been brainwashed to commit a terrible act of sabotage against the United States. A bubbling sense of conspiracy and dread builds as Shaw and Marco struggle with what it all means. Lansbury plays Shaw’s manipulative mother, the wife of a US Senator vying for the vice-Presidency.
Much of the film revolves around an assassination plot, eerie as in just a few short years, the decade would be marred by several notable assassinations that would rock this nation to its very core. The film builds on this country’s fears and insecurities. This was a time when enemies are on all sides and many would say that still is true today but in very different ways. Harvey encapsulates all of that growing edge and paranoia of America within that everyday Americana look and war hero visage. As Shaw slowly loses himself over the course of the film and ownership of his own mind and actions, Harvey demonstrates an incredible range in a very deft performance. Lansbury meets him head on as his shrew of a mother who knows more than she lets on. A conniving puppeteer behind the scenes of both her husband’s and her son’s career, Lansbury is terrifying with her motherly sense of comfort that hides a sinister tone just percolating under the surface.
The film can be intense and has a truly gut punch ending. While the 2004 remake has its strengths, the original is truly unmatched in its haunting power and thrilling final act. As much as the film’s themes revolve around the dangers of Communism, it can be lifted right out of that time period and can stand just as true for any number of the great scare tactics of the modern age. Beautifully shot in black and white, Frankenheimer has composed one of the great timeless thrillers that encapsulates all the fears and paranoia of America but also the quiet strength as well. Stark and tragic, there is a slightly hopeful undercurrent to the film as a whole but at its heart, it remains deeply cynical.