The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Directed By: John Frankenheimer
Written By: Richard Condon, George Axlerod
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury
Reviewed By Adam Griffith
Viewing Method: DVD (Special Edition)
What if I told you that Frank Sinatra starred in one of the most amazing, surrealist, biting, political satires of all-time? Now imagine if the film rights were purchased by Sinatra and that the film was only aired on network TV about four times in fifty years prior to being rereleased in 1988. Why did Sinatra keep this film hidden away from view for years? Is popular legend correct in that it had to do with the assassination of his friend President Kennedy or was it his anger at the distribution deal with the studio? We may never know with certainty what Sinatra’s motivation was. However, one thing we can be certain of is that this film will hit you like a judo chop from the chairman of the board.
A group of soldiers is betrayed and captured during the Korean War. Sgt. Shaw (Harvey) and Major Bennet (Sinatra) are among the captured. This group is hustled of to Manchuria where are subjected to mind altering torture by their captors. When the troops return to the American lines they have no memory of their capture and mind manipulation. In fact all the troops state the same thing Sgt. Shaw is a hero and saved the whole platoon. Due to his heroic actions Sgt. Shaw earns the congressional medal of honor. When any of the platoon survivors is asked about Sgt. Shaw they respond that he is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, and most wonderful human being, I have ever known in my life.”
Upon returning to the United States Sgt. Shaw is treated to a returning heroes welcome. In part this warm welcome has been orchestrated by his overbearing mother Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury) who hopes to increase the political fortunes of her husband Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory). Sen. Iselin portrays himself is as a rabid anti-communist to his colleges and the media. However, behind the scenes its Eleanor Iselin pulling the strings. It is soon apparent that she is involved with the plot the communists have hatched that centers on her son.
However, a wrench is thrown into the communists plan for world domination, as the other members of the platoon start to have horrible nightmares. In these nightmares Major Marco and others remember bits and pieces of their mind manipulation sessions. In fact Marco informs his new-found and strangely accessible lady friend Eugenie (Janet Leigh) that he actually remembers that Sgt. Shaw was in point of fact a unlikeable prick when they served together, despite his and others statements to the contrary. Marco decides to talk with Shaw to get to the bottom of things as his nightmares are compelling him to seek out the truth.
Wow that sounds like the most convoluted plot set up in eternity. Thankfully, under the masterful direction of Frankenheimer and with the combined acting prowess of the assembled cast, the film works amazingly well. This is a fine political thriller/satire with a lot to say about the red scare and the era of right-wing McCarthyism in the United States. In addition this may be the finest film work that Sinatra ever did. This film almost makes you think he could have made a go of it as a full-time actor if had chosen to do so.
I tried hard to avoid describing all the twists and turns that the film takes. This is assuredly one of those films where the less you know going in the better. Sit down and take the ride for yourself, you won’t regret it. It’s worth mentioning that the special edition contains a great directors commentary track where Frankenheimer goes into great detail describing how they shot and edited the famous garden party scene in the film. In addition there is an interview with Sinatra and Frankenheimer that sheds light on the filming and is filled with interesting vignettes. During this interview Sinatra describes how he ended up breaking his pinky finger chopping a table in half and shows his still malformed digit. I feel you pain Frank.
This is an extremely well acted and directed film that was rescued from the dust bin of obscurity by Sinatra’s decision to re-release the film in 1988. No idea why he decided to re-release the film at that time. But we should all be thankful that he did, so we can get a chance to view this stunning cold-war thriller. While this was filmed fifty years ago, the idea that a terrorist event could propel a group of people into power, and cause the nation to subjugate their rights in a fit of hysteria is still relevant today. I am giving The Manchurian 3 judo chops.