The year is 1952. Several American soldiers fighting in Korea are abducted, taken to Manchuria, and, over a period of three days, are brainwashed, one of them, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), programmed to be an assassin. Returning to the U.S., Shaw is a hero who, it is believed, performed courageously on the battlefield by saving the lives of some of his men. Major Marco (Sinatra), who supports the sterling accounts of Shaw’s performance, nonetheless has doubts about their accuracy, his skepticism resulting from the nightmares he’s been having in which he and Shaw and several of their fellow soldiers are present at a meeting of a ladies club. It’s an innocuous dream except for two things: every once in awhile those ladies look like Koreans, and Shaw strangles another soldier. Marco isn’t the only man in Shaw’s company being tormented by nightmares and, soon enough, the origin of the dream is discovered.
Shaw is a tragic figure, a man manipulated by his evil mother (Angela Lansbury), a Communist agent who is also manipulating the political career of her husband, an obnoxious "right winger" bearing a resemblance to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Their hold on Shaw is enforceable when they mention the game of solitaire, at which point he is hypnotized. Once he comes across the queen of diamonds, he can be ordered to kill, which he does with an eerie proficiency. His ultimate assignment will be to assassinate the Republican nominee for president to provide his stepfather, the vice presidential nominee, with a shortcut to the White House.
Whether or not one believes that an individual’s free will can be so thoroughly usurped, during The Manchurian Candidate’s 126 minutes you will likely believe anything, except, of course, Sinatra’s screams. Though Angela Lansbury won a best supporting actress nomination for her evil bitch of a mother, there are equally fine characterizations from James Gregory and John McGiver. Top honors must go to Laurence Harvey, however, who superbly enacts the role of a man who seems spellbound by some inner demon even when not deprived of his free will.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.
FOOTNOTE:The Manchurian Candidate is fiction, of course, and so is the still circulating story that the film was "suppressed" following the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The story claims that Frank Sinatra, a co-producer of the film, had it withdrawn from circulation upon learning that alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald may have seen and been influenced by the film.
The Manchurian Candidate made its American television debut as the premiere attraction on The CBS Thursday Night Movies in September 1965 and was repeated on that network in 1966 before being leased by its distributor, the still flourishing United Artists, to NBC in a package of films that had already played on competing networks.
Among the titles joining The Manchurian Candidate for third and fourth go-rounds on the peacock network were The Great Escape, Elmer Gantry, One, Two, Three, I Want to Live, A Shot in the Dark, Love Is A Ball, and The Defiant Ones. NBC took its time scheduling these titles but most appeared throughout 1971-1975. The Manchurian Candidate aired on NBC in spring 1974 (at which time it merited a "Close-Up" in TV Guide), and again in summer 1975. Shortly afterward, the rights reverted from UA to Sinatra, and the film fell through the cracks, no longer available due to the crooner's neglect in keeping the film in distribution.
It was during the '80s that the legend concerning its disappearance began to take hold. It may have been the legend that inspired Sinatra to strike a deal with the original distributor, by then overtaken by MGM and known as MGM-UA, and re-release the film to theaters where it made a tidy profit in 1988 before being marketed on home video.