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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) starstarstar

Reviewed 2001-07-04
: It wasn't that this film was hard to find, especially since its 1988 re-release; it was just so intimidating to watch and review a film that almost everyone hails as a classic. The setup for The Manchurian Candidate is Second Look Reviewlike an episode of the "Twilight Zone": a group of soldiers on patrol during the Korean War (1952) is kidnapped and brainwashed. Their captors invent a story to explain their three-day absence and the soldiers return to the US as war heroes, especially their commander, SSgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, d. 1973), who gets the Congressional Medal. His fellow soldier, Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra, d. 1998), now working for military intelligence, is haunted by nightmares of their captivity and decides to follow Shaw. Meanwhile, Shaw's mother (Angela Lansbury) exercises her political ambitions through her second husband, the McCarthyesque Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory).

John Frankenheimer, who also directed this year's Path to War, adds some brilliant satirical touches to this film, based on the Richard Condon novel: TV itself is satirized for distortion when you can see the live figure pointing one way but on the TV monitor he's pointing the other way, for example. The suspense is well played and the actors come across believably. That's the good news.

The bad news is the film's credibility. The story involves programming an American citizen to kill a presidential candidate. If this were possible, it would have been done. On the other hand, there seems to be no shortage of non-US citizens willing to take a life, without being brainwashed -- unless you consider fundamentalist religion the same as brainwashing -- and our society so open, that it strains believability to think that our enemies would go to the trouble.

Furthermore, Joe McCarthy and his ilk to the contrary, I'm not convinced, knowing what I know about the American character, that a communist takeover of the US was ever possible. First of all, our democratic tradition predates communism, so it would be an alien occupation to say the least; second, while tiny elements of socialism have crept into the American economic system, to reign in the excesses of capitalism, Americans are by nature mistrustful of big government -- which is what communism is all about. So I think no "candidate" re-educated in Manchuria would get as much as a toehold in these United States. Americans are too independent, too individualistic.

Now, does The Manchurian Candidate merit the term "classic"? It was a popular failure when released in 1962. But the buzz surrounding a film few dare to challenge must be compelling. If the herd -- the critical community -- says it is, then it is. It isn't perfect, but you must watch it.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.