Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty-Two

#42 — The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
Absolutely saturated with Cold War anxiety, The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliantly feverish thriller that captures a very particular time in American history, when a wholly characteristic national skepticism was turbine-spun into something far darker and more dangerous. In the film, Frank Sinatra plays Bennett Marco, a decorated veteran of the Korean War. After the war, he helps to spearhead the awarding of the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), crediting him with saving the lives of men in their shared platoon. Though he puts forth this story with conviction, Marco is also haunted by a suspicion that there’s something not quite right about his own memories, that there is a far more nefarious plot afoot. A major part of the film’s impact comes from the shrewdness of the central casting, having Sinatra, one of the most preternaturally self-confident performers ever, playing a man wracked by doubt. Even before the complicated secrets at the heart of the film begin to be revealed, the image of Sinatra reeling with uncertain invests the film with almost unbearable tension.

As it turns out, Shaw has been brainwashed to be a stealth, unwitting agent of Communist forces, doing their deadly bidding when triggered by the sight of the Queen of Diamonds. To get at this truth, Marco must excavate his own memories, buried deep through similar techniques, in sequences of deliriously bent reality. Director John Frankenheimer presses in on the bizarreness as the captured soldiers are forced through the process that will leave them as agents, dupes or both, and every bit of these sequences is grandly unpredictable. He’s less interested in the procedural aspects and more in finding methods to visually assert the desperate discombobulation the men experience. The whole film is taut and surprising, but these moments crackle with an especially unique energy, one built from the casual reworking of what narrative can do and how it can do it.

The film was based–fairly faithfully, it seems–on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, but it has a particular piquancy by coming out just a couple of years later. It arises from the election in the intervening years of John F. Kennedy to the office of the presidency, a turn of events that inspired frothing indignation from an array of right-wing crackpots who were certain that he stole the election and that he was in fact lying in wait to inflict a radical agenda on a sleeping populace. It’s mirrored beautifully in The Manchurian Candidate by the political backstage jockeying by other Communist shadow agents to get a man under their control into the White House. The beady paranoia of the Joseph McCarthy Commie hunts of the prior decade are reshaped into a genuine threat, and the film glistens with a sweaty irony. Frankenheimer manages to keep the film devilishly entertaining without compromising its inherent bleakness, especially in the scathing portrait of the unquenchable thirst for power, exemplified in the performance by Angela Lansbury as Shaw’s mother (an accurate but highly lacking description of her character, I will admit). As should be expected, by tapping into the prevailing worries of the time, Frankenheimer managed to make a film that feels lucidly, brilliantly timeless.

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