A league of Communists, bent on dominating the uppermost echelons of American politics, brainwash Army sergeant Raymond Shaw, the son of a prominent rightwing senator, into doing its nefarious bidding. As the sergeant’s Svengali-like mother, Mrs. Iselin–the puppet-master behind her husband’s political agenda–manipulates her son into sabotaging the nation’s political machinery, an Army officer, Bennett Marco (Sinatra) suspects that all is not what it seems, and determines to unravel the muderous, Oedipally-charged conspiracy. Axelrod’s crystal-clear script balances satire and thriller elements; Frankenheimer’s steady, assured direction never loses its way, pacing Candidate like a character drama, knowing just when and how to infuse a sense of bizarre humor into the thriller elements. With spry editing and camerawork, he fuses together a documentary-like realism and more expressive stylizations to create a hybrid thriller-satire. The acting is dazzling, perfectly modulated to the movie’s blend of the bizarre and the serious, with Sinatra and Lansbury both doing standout work. Harvey, as the docile son, comports himself first as snobbish and uptight, then loosens up once he finds love with a rival politician’s daughter, before settling into a grim sense of purpose as he comes to realize his complicity in his mother’s machinations. The Manchurian Candidate is a prototypical modern thriller and one of the best of that genre. The political paranoia may, at first glance, seem far-fetched, but when you figure that reality is just as bizarre, if not more so, you realize the story’s strange and sobering prescience.
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Written by: George Axelrod
Cast: Lawrence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury