There is an old saying that is generally attributed to Karl Marx. This little pearl tells us that history repeats itself. First as farce. Then as tragedy. If you were to take a look at John Frankenheimer’s taut thriller from 1962, The Manchurian Candidate, you’d certainly be hard-pressed to disagree.
So topical were its themes that Frank Sinatra bought the film rights shortly after it came out and promptly pulled it from the theaters, fearing an overzealous reaction.
Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Condon, this film concerns itself with what happens when a ‘war hero’ becomes the subject of a brainwashing regimen and finds himself in the midst of carrying out a plot to assassinate a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States. In this case, the war hero is captured and held prisoner during the Korean War. It is during this stint that he is ‘programmed’ to become an assassin and ultimately sent back to the United Staes to carry out his mission.
It is a chilling narrative, and one that rings especially true today. The story offers remarkable and uncanny echoes to our own political landscape. The villains plan to exploit a terrorist attack, “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 divies up the blame nicely between right and left wing factions. There’s Senator John Iselin, portrayed by James Gregory, who is clearly modeled after the obsessive, witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy. There’s Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who served in Korea with Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey). In fact, Marco is the one who begins to suspect that his recurrent nightmares have been brought about by brainwashing and that Raymond may have been programmed as an assassin.
We even see the promise of personal revenge vented through reversals revealed as the plot unfolds. Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin, nominated for an Academy Award, is one of the great villains of movie history. Fierce, focused, contemptuous of the husband she treats like a puppet, she has, we gather, plotted with the Russians and Chinese to use the Red Scare of “Iselinism” to get him into office, where she will run things from behind the scenes. But it comes as a shocking surprise that her own son has been programmed as the assassin. That so enrages her that, in another turn of the corkscrew plot, she tells him: “When I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.”
The film moves freely between realism and surrealism, particularly as Sinatra’s character holds up a deck full of queens while trying to deprogram Raymond. The shot is soft and fuzzy, reinforcing the notion that what we see may not, in fact, be real. The Manchurian Candidate is inventive, frisky and it takes enormous chances with the audience. It plays not like a ‘classic’, but as a work as alive and smart as the day it was released. It is, in a sense, a morality play about the foibles of power and what happens when the circuits become overloaded. Someone’s bound to get burned!