A conspiracy thriller about a "sleeper" attempting a political assassination for Communists, the film earned an eerie immediacy a year after its debut when President John F. Kennedy was killed. While the details of The Manchurian Candidate don't share many specific similarities with Oswald, rumors suggested that the very idea of such a plot--coupled with Sinatra's personal relationship with JFK--led to the film's being pulled from circulation (Old Blue Eyes also served as producer). Whether that's the story or not, the film remained nearly impossible to find for years, adding to its mystique, before finally being re-released in 1987. Decades later, it no longer seems a blueprint for Dallas but still holds up as an ingenious thriller and the granddaddy of all modern conspiracy films, from The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man to Enemy of the State and television's 24.
It opens with the capture of a U.S. platoon behind Korean War enemy lines, then fast forwards to find a couple of those soldiers, including Sinatra's Marco, haunted by a surreal dream. It's no simple nightmare but a vestige of an elaborate brainwashing by the Russians and Chinese, turning the humorless Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) into a robotic killing machine. Shaw was not chosen at random. His stepfather (James Gregory) is a blustery, McCarthy-like senator, giving Raymond access to the highest levels of government. The real villain is not the senator or the Commies, but Raymond's own mother, perfectly played by Angela Lansbury (yes, that Angela Lansbury), who with cold, demented calculation and incestuous undertones is Raymond's control agent. Will the plot be fully uncovered? Why don't you pass the time by playing a game of solitaire? The only real weakness is a wholly improbable love story between Sinatra and Janet Leigh, but that's not too distracting.
The best of the DVD's features is a commentary track by the late Frankenheimer, revealing details like Lucille Ball being Sinatra's choice for the Lansbury role ("Riiiiicky, shoot the man!!!") and that the masterful brainwashing was quickly edited early in the filming and never changed.
Frankenheimer, who died in 2002, made a couple of films in Manchurian's wake that may be even better: a clever thriller about identity with a sci-fi twist called Seconds (1966) and Seven Days in May (1964), about a military coup within our own government. Seven Days in May holds more relevance to today's political atmosphere and perhaps more connections to JFK conspiracy theories, but it's The Manchurian Candidate that's remembered. The dream sequence, in which Communist officials giving diabolical instructions are intercut with austere ladies at a New Jersey gardening seminar, is Frankenheimer's real tour de force moment and sets this film apart.