A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
The title of "The Manchurian Candidate" has entered everyday speech as shorthand for a brainwashed sleeper, a subject who has been hypnotized and instructed to act when his controllers pull the psychological trigger. In the movie, an American patrol is captured by Chinese communists during the Korean War, and one soldier is programmed to become an assassin; two years later, he's ordered to kill a presidential candidate. That such programming is impossible has not prevented it from being absorbed as fact; this movie, released in 1962, has influenced American history by forever coloring speculation about Lee Harvey Oswald. Would the speculation about Oswald's background and motives have been as fevered without the film as a template?
The film has become so linked with the Kennedy assassination that a legend has grown up around it. Frank Sinatra, the film's star, purchased the rights and kept it out of release from 1964 until 1988, and the story goes that he was inspired by remorse after Kennedy's death. In fact, the director John Frankenheimer told me, Sinatra had a dispute with United Artists about the profits, and decided it would earn no money for the studio or anyone else. The DVD includes a conversation by Sinatra, Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod, taped when the movie was finally re-released. Sinatra says it was the high point of his acting career; nobody mentions why it was unseen for 24 years.
Seen today, "The Manchurian Candidate" feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist act, "rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy." The plot cheerfully divides blame between right and left; it provides a right-wing demagogue named Sen. John Iselin, who is clearly modeled on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and makes him the puppet of his draconian wife, who is in league with foreign communists. The plan: Use anti-communist hysteria as a cover for a communist takeover.
The movie is based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, who must have been astonished that it became a film with big stars like Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey -- and still more astonished that Frankenheimer and Axelrod did not soften its wicked satire. Frankenheimer says on the commentary track that he is proudest that the film hammered McCarthyism; there's a scene where the hard-drinking Sen. Iselin can't decide how many communists he thinks are in the State Department, and settles on 57 after studying a ketchup bottle.