‘His brain has not only been washed, as they say… It has been dry cleaned.’
Frank Sinatra gives his most vulnerable and realistic performance in this superb political thriller from John Frankenheimer (Ronin, 52 Pick Up).
The film opens during the Korean War where Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) interrupts the revelry of his unit at a local brothel. He sternly tells them to get back to base. The next scene is on the battlefield, where Korean scout, Chujin (Henry Silva) tells the men that the way forward is too swampy and suggests an alternate path. Unwisely heeding his advice, the men are ambushed, knocked unconscious with rifles and whisked away on helicopters.
After the credits, we fast forward to Raymond Shaw being greeted on the tarmac of an airport, cheered by hundreds. Shaw is now a Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions during the war. However, Shaw hates the attention and especially the exploits of his conniving mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury). Eleanor wants to use his Medal of Honor status to boost his stepfather’s chances in his upcoming re-election. Raymond despises his easily manipulated stepfather, Senator John Iselin (a thinly disguised caricature of real life Senator Joseph McCarthy). Iselin is a rabid anti-communist who hysterically accuses members of the US Defense Department of being communists.
Meanwhile, Raymond Shaw’s superior officer, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having bizarre and disconcerting dreams. In them, Marco and his fellow men, including Raymond Shaw, are sitting in the lobby of a Ladies’ Garden Club in New Jersey, waiting out a storm. Marco is lackadaisically listening to an elderly woman drone on about the types of flowers, in front of an audience full of older women.
The reality of the dream is disturbingly different. The soldiers have been captured, drugged and brainwashed by Chinese and Russian communists. The soldiers are on stage, but the spectators are communist officials. A Chinese psychologist, Yen Lo is explaining his mind control technique. As a demonstration, Lo tells Raymond to first strangle one of his own men with a shawl and then shoot a fellow soldier to death. Shaw, fully programmed, carries out the tasks without hesitation.
Eventually, Bennett Marco sees through his mental fog and tells the authorities about Raymond Shaw’s murderous actions while brainwashed. In addition, other members of his unit report having similar dreams. As a result, the FBI and CIA form a joint task force to target Raymond Shaw. Marco is assigned to contact Shaw, find his controller and uncover the true purpose behind his conditioning.
The Manchurian Candidate is easily one of the best political thrillers ever made. There are so many great moments in the film. Far and above, is the surreal brainwashing tutorial scene, the way it switches from reality to dream world is very original and eye catching. In addition, the black and white photography, perfectly fits the moodiness and tension inherent in the story.
The performances are uniformly first rate. Sinatra, in particular, subdues any trace of his usual conceited attitude and showcases some of his most natural acting. Angela Lansbury is also masterful as the calculating and duplicitous Eleanor Shaw.
For a film made over 50 years ago, it is as gripping and compelling as it was when it first debuted.