All white-knuckle paranoia and crisply-photographed Cold War flop sweat, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate jangles nerves by diving into the heart of mid-century America’s deepest fears. Chinese operatives capture an American patrol that’s been lured off the beaten track during the Korean War. The soldiers are brainwashed, provided with a set of false memories, and set free, remembering nothing of their capture. One of them, Lt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is tinkered with further; he’s programmed as a sleeper assassin. Once back in the States, he’s celebrated as a war hero and is the toast of Washington — even his estranged father, red-baiting congressman Johnny Isaakson (James Gregory) wants to be photographed with him. No one suspects he’s now a Communist killbot, ready to assassinate whomever his masters choose. All they have to do is pick up the phone.
Luckily for our side, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) was also on the patrol that fateful night, and while he can’t put his finger on it, he knows something is definitely wrong. He keeps having nightmares that he’s in an auditorium, where Communist psychiatrists are demonstrating an amazing new technique in mind control. Even weirder, whenever anyone asks him about Lt. Shaw, his praise seems, well, automatic: “Raymond Shaw,” he tells people. “is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Except, as Marco readily admits, he never even liked the guy.
Marco must race against time to put the clues together, knowing that Shaw is the pawn in a very dangerous game — one that could bring America to ruin. This is a fast-paced thriller that stands up very well today, thanks to a tautly-written script by George Axelrod, from the novel by Richard Condon. — Michael Popham
The Manchurian Candidate screens Monday and Tuesday, February 2 and 3, at 7:00 and 9:30 at the Trylon. You can purchase advance tickets here.