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It Came From the Cultosphere: The Granddaddy of Dark, Paranoid Political Thrillers ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

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‘The Manchurian Candidate’ was released way back in 1962, when JFK was still in the White House and the average citizen, for the most part, still trusted the government.

But somehow, despite all that, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ manages to be darker, crazier and even more paranoid than the 1970s classics that followed — films like ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor,’ movies made in a world where Watergate and Vietnam bled every last bit of trust out of the American voter.

Based on a novel by Richard Condon, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ focuses on Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a former Korean War POW who saves his platoon after an ambush and returns home a hero — and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Thing is, thanks to some bizarre dreams and a nagging sense of something’s horribly wrong, Shaw’s commanding officer Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra in arguably his best performance) suspects Shaw is actually a secret agent, working for International Communist Conspiracy.

That’s not really a spoiler. One of the great things about ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ — and there are many, many great things about this movie — is that the conspiracy at its heart is so much more insanely complicated than that. It involves, among other things, Shaw’s senator stepfather, the Queen of Hearts, experimental brainwashing techniques, the game of solitaire and, most importantly, Raymond’s brilliant, ambitious mother.

Angela Lansbury plays her, and in a movie filled with career-great performances, hers stands above the rest. Whether she’s meddling in Raymond’s love life, explaining her role in the grand conspiracy or giving us Raymond one last shocking look in her final scene, she’s never less than mesmerizing.

As is the rest of the film. Director John Frankenheimer got his start in live TV in the ’50s, and he brings a restless energy to ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ One unforgettable scene takes place at both a North Korean brainwashing demonstration and a meeting of the New Jersey Ladies Auxiliary. The camera pans the crowd, effortlessly switching between old ladies and Communist generals, mixing talk of hydrangeas and brutal murders so smoothly you lose track of where you are — which is just what Frankenheimer wants.

‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is full of scenes like that, strange excursions into the dark corners of the mind that manage to be funny and scary at the same time. There’s a fight scene between Marco and a Korean agent (Henry Silva) that’s surprisingly brutal for the age. There’s a double murder late in the movie that’s all the more horrifying for its swiftness and ease.

And, winding its way through the entire film is a romance between Marco and a young woman (Janet Leigh) that begins on a train with (no kidding) the strangest conversation in the history of film and ends with a speech by Marco that’s genuinely moving.

Not bad for a 50-year-old political thriller.

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