The only thing better than passing the time with a little Solitaire is indulging in a little Cold War paranoia. So many of the great movies, television shows and books owe a debt of gratitude to the bitter, decades-long rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that began after World War II. Without it, Neil Armstrong may never have walked on the moon, and there would have been no Cuban Missile Crisis to inspire “X-Men: First Class.”
Perhaps the two most widespread worries of the era were the imminent threat of nuclear war and the fear of a Communist invasion of America. Mid-20th century shows like Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and Leslie Stevens’ “The Outer Limits” explored these themes through an anthology format, usually placing some kind of moral about the true nature of man at the end of each episode. Moreover, the cheesy B-movies of the 1950s used aliens (klaatu barada nikto!) and giant insects as metaphors for the dangers of the Atomic Age and Communist spies that could have been lurking in the peaceful Rockwellian backyards of every American citizen. One of the greatest cinematic commentaries on the Second Red Scare has to be John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Released during the height of the aforementioned missile crisis in October of 1962 and based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, the nail-biting political thriller satirizes the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era of the ‘50s. During this time, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gained demagogic power by accusing people of subversive behavior in places like the State Department and Hollywood with little to no basis for his claims. This led to investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee and FBI which ultimately ruined lives through measures like blacklists. In the movie, Sen. Iselin (James Gregory), a thick-headed caricature of McCarthy who isn’t far off from his real life counterpart, hilariously declares that there are 57 communists in the Department of Defense based on a Heinz ketchup bottle.
Sporting some of the classiest performers of the time in its all-star cast, “The Manchurian Candidate” centers on a group of American soldiers who are kidnapped by Russians during the Korean War. After they are transported to Communist China, they are all brainwashed in one of the coolest and most trippy scenes in movie history. It will mess with the very fabric of your mind, causing you to question reality. The creative scene, which took an entire week to film, predates “Inception” by almost fifty years, mind you. After a thorough conditioning, the platoon returns to the States with no knowledge of their short excursion to Manchuria.
The movie mainly focuses on the characters of Maj. Bennett Marco and Sgt. Raymond Shaw, portrayed by Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, respectively. While the Rat Pack member doesn’t do any singing, Sinatra gives a tender performance as a man who can’t shake the feeling that his mental wellbeing isn’t as sound as it should be. He discovers that the stone-faced Shaw is a sleeper agent involved in an international conspiracy of which the true purpose is revealed in the final act’s shocking twist that practically predicted the John F. Kennedy assassination a full year before it occurred.
Janet Leigh plays Marco’s love interest while Angela Lansbury portrays Shaw’s petulant mother with an implied Oedipus complex in reverse. She’s so annoying that you’ll feel the urge to wring her neck whenever she appears onscreen or even opens her mouth. Interestingly, Sinatra wanted the comic Lucille Ball to play her before Frankenheimer talked him out of it. Also, it would be wise to make like a brainwashed soldier and forget the unnecessary 2004 remake with Denzel Washington that replaces the Korean War with the Gulf War.
Despite being a farce, the original’s overall tone is pretty dark, full of tense moments that include hand-to-hand combat, romance, cold-blooded murder and smart dialogue from screenwriter George Axelrod. In a way, the film’s plot is that of a Shakespearean tragedy where betrayal abounds and almost every important character kicks the bucket by the time the end credits start rolling. In addition, the movie was considered so politically sensitive that it was banned or censored in countries under the Iron Curtain like Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. The original version wasn’t viewed in those places until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s.
Most importantly, the movie’s timeless themes of man’s baseless fears and Cold War turbulence set the stage for other features like the 1963 “The Outer Limits” episode “The Hundred Days of The Dragon” and Stanley Kubrick’s riotously funny yet unnerving “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964. In summation, “The Manchurian Candidate” is a portrait of a bygone era where the threat of the military-industrial complex was still fresh and the “duck and cover” method was viewed as practical protection against the force of a nuclear blast. However, it is also a warning against the serious harm that a paranoid herd mentality can create. So before you go out and start your own group of anti-communist, Wolverine guerilla fighters “Red Dawn”-style, take a look at Frankenheimer’s stylish and relevant masterpiece. I assure you, it’s more irresistible than a Queen of Diamonds.