Here is a movie that was made more than 25 years ago, and it feels as if it were made yesterday. Not a moment of “The Manchurian Candidate” lacks edge and tension and a cynical spin. And what’s even more surprising is how the film now plays as a political comedy, as well as a thriller. After being suppressed for a quarter of a century after its first run, after becoming a legend that never turned up on home video, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 masterpiece now re-emerges as one of the best and brightest of modern American films.
The story is a matter of many levels, some of them frightening, some pointed with satirical barbs. In a riveting opening sequence, a group of American combat infantrymen are shown being brainwashed by a confident Chinese Communist hypnotist, who has them so surely under his control that one man is ordered to strangle his buddy and cheerfully complies.
Two members of the group get our special attention: the characters played by Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. Harvey seems to be the main target of the Chinese scheme, which is to return him to American society as a war hero, and then allow him to lead a normal life until he is triggered by a buried hypnotic suggestion and turned into an assassin completely brainwashed to take orders from his enemy controller. Harvey does indeed re-enter society, where he is the son of a Republican dowager (Angela Lansbury) and the stepson of her husband (James Gregory). Gregory becomes a leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, and more than that I choose not to reveal.
Meanwhile, Sinatra also returns to civilian life, but he is haunted by nightmares in which he dimly recalls the details of the brainwashing. He contacts Harvey (who is not, we must remember, a conscious assassin, but a brainwashed victim). Sinatra also becomes central to a Pentagon investigation of a possible plot that affected all the members of his platoon, which disappeared on patrol and returned telling the same fabricated story.