(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: George Axelrod/from the book by Richard Condon; cinematographer: Lionel Lindon; editor: Ferris Webster; music: David Amram; cast: Frank Sinatra (Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Rosie), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Iselin), Henry Silva (Chunjin), James Gregory (Sen. John Iselin), Leslie Parrish (Jocie Jordon), John McGiver (Sen. Thomas Jordan), Khigh Dhiegh (Yen Lo), James Edwards (Corporal Melvin), Albert Paulsen (Zilkov), Lloyd Corrigan (Holborn Gaines); Runtime: 126; United Artists; 1962)
“A fascinating political conspiracy theory satire about the Cold War.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A fascinating political conspiracy theory satire about the Cold War. It’s a film that JFK encouraged to be made. The film is based on the Richard Condon novel and scripted by George Axelrod, and despite its flaws it delivers an intelligent response to the witch hunt tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Frankenheimer’s direction is a mixed bag of marvelously bizarre situations and of supporting characters who say the most ridiculous things. Nevertheless, it stands the test of time as an absorbing political thriller. The film was put out of circulation for 25 years because of a money dispute between Frank Sinatra and United Artists.

The film opens during the Korean War in 1952 and an American army platoon is captured and brought behind the Manchuria border to be brainwashed for three days by Soviet and Chinese Communists at the Pavlov Institute. The men in the platoon include those in charge, Captain Bennett Marco (Sinatra) and the detested Sergeant Ray Shaw (Laurence Harvey), and the traitorous interpreter Chunjin (Silva). During the intensive brainwashing by the Korean spy Yen Lo (Dhiegh), the men are given details of an imaginary action that makes Shaw the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the rest of the soldiers are forced to refer to him as “the bravest, finest, most lovable man I ever met.” They respect him because they think he saved their lives during this fictitious interpretation of their mission. During the brainwashing Shaw is ordered to strangle one soldier and another he shoots in the head, which he does in a calm and assured manner. He’s also been chosen to be an assassin, as he will await word of that assignment from his American operatives.

When Shaw returns home to a hero’s welcome he is greeted by his domineering, bitterly acerbic, widowed mother, Mrs. Iselin (Lansbury), and his loudmouth idiotic, bumbling stepfather, Senator Iselin (Gregory), who is a thinly veiled imitation of the politically ambitious Red-baiting Senator McCarthy. Shaw despises both and takes a newspaper job far away from them in NYC under a respected political columnist his parent’s hate, Holborn Gaines.

After two years, Shaw is now ready to be used as an assassin. He kills Gaines as a test, following the orders he receives when he plays solitaire and the Queen of Diamonds card appears in his hand. He will later be asked to kill the wife he loves, Jocie (Parrish), and her father Senator Thomas Jordan (McGiver), a political rival of Iselin’s.

Meanwhile Marco has been promoted to a major in an intelligence unit, but is having trouble sleeping because of nightmares bringing back memories of his brainwashing. Placed on sick leave, he meets Rosie (Leigh) and falls in love. She helps him regain his mental health, as he remains in NYC and meets with Shaw trying to piece together what these bad dreams mean.

Breaking the brainwashing code, Marco hopes he got to Shaw in time to save him from carrying out his next act. It’s Marco’s magic against the Commies’, as Shaw is asked to go to the political convention in Madison Square Garden and assassinate the presidential candidate. If successful, this will allow for the vice presidential candidate Iselin to run for president.

This politically groundbreaking, edgy and well-acted film, is especially noted for the totally manipulative and evil portrayal as the power-hungry matriarch by Lansbury and the emotional one by Sinatra.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)