A president of the United States maneuvered into office by the Russians? A brash, uncouth bully poised to assume the highest office in the land thanks to a gigantic communist conspiracy to take over our government? You can’t make this stuff up.
Actually, you can. Someone did — 55 years ago.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel, was brilliant, shocking and eerily ominous. Today, all these decades later, it remains one of the best and most suspenseful American movies of all time. On its face, it’s a political satire that unmasks the cynical toxicity of the McCarthy Era. But a year after the movie’s release, JFK was murdered in Dallas by a lone sniper who had once sought Russian citizenship. “The Manchurian Candidate” concludes with the assassination of an aspiring presidential candidate by a lone gunman — a sleeper brainwashed by scientists from “the Pavlov Institute” — and suddenly the movie seems prescient.
By itself, all politics and premonitions aside, it’s a great movie with an outstanding cast. It starts in 1952 when a U.S. Army patrol led by Maj. Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) is overpowered by a Soviet airborne unit and flown to Manchuria. Drugged, hypnotized and generally bewitched by a team of Chinese and Russian intelligence agents, Marco and his men are covertly returned to Korea. They have quite a (post-hypnotic) story to tell: the company’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), had fought valiantly, killed several of the enemy and, despite being wounded, led the men to safety.
Back in the USA, Raymond is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and Marco gets a job in military intelligence. Then the nightmares start: ugly visions of Raymond killing two meek and unresisting members of Marco’s squad.
Meanwhile, Raymond’s red-baiting mother (Angela Lansbury) uses her son to advance the career of her idiot husband, U.S. Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory). The senator is on the ticket as VP, but Moscow and Beijing have set their sights higher than that.
Marco comes to learn that others in his squad are having nightmares much like his. Gradually, tension mounting, he realizes something happened to them in Korea and Raymond is the key.
It pops up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, and you can see a good deal of it online. We rediscovered it on Amazon. If you get the chance, give it a try. If you saw it way back when, you don’t need a sales pitch. It’s as good as ever.