Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He served valiantly as a captain in the Korean war and his Sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), even won the Medal of Honor. Marco has a major problem however: he has a recurring nightmare, one where two members of his squad are killed by Shaw. He's put on indefinite sick leave and visits Shaw in New York. Shaw for his part has established himself well, despite the misgivings of his domineering mother, Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury). She is a red-baiter, accusing anyone who disagrees with her right-wing reactionary views of being a Communist. Raymond hates her, not only for how she's treated him but equally because of his step-father, the ineffectual U.S. Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), who is intent on seeking higher office. When Marco learns that others in his Korean War unit have nightmares similar to his own, he realizes that something happened to all of them in Korea and that ... Written by
All by itself it raises my opinion of everyone involved.
Wow! I was expecting right wing propaganda, or possibly even (a distant outside chance) left wing propaganda: I certainly wasn't expecting THIS. It isn't propaganda at all. Deriving any kind of message at all from the film is difficult - one might be tempted to conclude that we ought to never trust people who cry cheap political insults like "communist!" or "fascist!" or "racist!" at the first opportunity, but that's just a thought. At any rate, in order to get a message we have to think about the story for ourselves, very carefully, which makes it the very opposite of propaganda.
Here's another bit of advice: don't make the mistake, as I did, of thinking now and then that Frankenheimer is drifting from the point. He knows exactly what he's doing at all times. Whenever it seems he's offering some interesting diversion from the main story he's really telling the main story by other means. How good the story is I cannot convey without saying too much. Probably the central conceit everyone knows already, which was why Frankenheimer was right to spill most of the beans as soon as possible - but he does has one or two in reserve. One great thing about the story is that it doesn't rely at all on us thinking it likely.
Everyone, from composer to cameraman, did a fine job, and the cast does an even finer one. Angela Lansbury gives the performance of her life. Frank Sinatra I had never seen in a movie before, and I was surprised to discover that he can act - very well, too. It permeates down to the minor roles. Leslie Parrish as the charming innocent is certainly charming, but also subtle. "The Manchurian Candidate" would easily be the best of its kind even if it weren't the only of its kind.
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