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The Manchurian Candidate

(John Frankenheimer, USA, 1962): Opening in the teeth of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate offered a cubist vision of the American nightmare: a country infiltrated by subliminally programmed Communist assassins activated by long-distance suggestion, where the latent anxieties of the whole postwar march to prosperity surged and spilled into an expressionist funhouse mirror where Orson Welles smashed up with The Twilight Zone. Decorated war heroes were actually dead-eyed zombie mama’s-boy psychopaths; the ‘vast wasteland’ of TV as sinister an ideological Trojan horse as sinister anything the Reds had cooked up, and the world’s most unflappably cool saloon singer — producer-star Frank Sinatra, never more convincing or at home on camera than here — reduced to flop sweat night terrors in which garden society ladies sipped tea as the brains of zoned-out GI’s splattered like Jackson Pollock ejaculations across posters of Mao and Uncle Joe Stalin. Even more unnerving, the whole thing played out in a queasy limbo somewhere between noirish horror and Mad parody, like a Jerry Lewis movie about PTSD blowback.

No one was calling it PTSD in 1962 — eighteen years before the condition was added to the DSM — but movies had been trading in damaged war vets for decades. This, however, was different. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the prissy rich kid primed for delayed activation, is selected presumably for a latent loathing of all things good and American — he hates his mother (Angela Lansbury), a right-wing political angler married to the movie’s bulldozing Joe McCarthy presidential hopeful (James Gregory), is contemptuous of all his fellow recruits save Sinatra’s judiciously tolerant Sergeant Bennett Marco, and even speaks with a suspiciously private school English accent — so he’s not as much weakened by war as pre-programmed for dissent by sheer dint of sour privilege. As is corroborated by his mother’s ruthless backroom campaign to install the loathsome Senator John Iselin by any means possible — principally the stoking of anti-communist panic through thundering prime time character assassination — Raymond’s convenient condition of self-loathing is seen as not only nationally endemic but entirely reasonable, as the country configured in Frankenheimer’s movie, scripted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s hysterically deadpan best-seller, is already as post-traumatically batshit as any place wired for both showbiz and secrecy can be. In The Manchurian Candidate‘s sour configuration, America is already lost when the Commies plot to take it, with the ultimate irony being that not even they can out-maneuver the very same craziness that they plot to exploit.

Coming from a career-making stint in live TV, Frankenheimer brings a momentum, immediacy and cartoonish angularity to the movie that still feels daring and fresh these many decades on, and his movie seems radar-sensitized not only to the subliminal currents of its anxious historical moment but the prevailing stylistic insurgencies of the day: there are traces of fly-on-the-wall verité in DOP Lionel Linden’s newsreel-vivid black-and-white cinematography, nouvelle vague cheek in its combative artifice, and a dedicated cinephile’s determination to re-write the Hollywood playbook by making America seem as alien (and alienating) a landscape as if Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian had landed in Times Square with a Bolex. Hell, even the very avatar of ring-a-ding sharkskin cool — Sinatra in his recumbent, mid-career glory — is ultimately offered as the movie’s most damaged, deluded and ultimately helpless character, not only a hero with a delayed capacity for decisive action, but a guy who can’t even light his own cigarette and whose indelibly weird stage-setting nocturnal flashbacks — to the garden party assassination showcase — ultimately reveal Marco as much further gone and aftershocked than Raymond himself. He may be decency personified, but he’s also a cross-wired mess of conflicting perceptions and unstable impulse. There’s that scene on the train with Janet Leigh where Marco makes his only meaningful emotional contact with a woman who not only lights his Lucky but seems singularly (and, as has been pointed out, perhaps even hallucinogenically) tuned to his frazzled wavelength, and for all the chilling evidence of Raymond’s post-Psycho potential as a dangerously suggestive and over-mothered murderer, who even bears an unmistakable resemblance to Anthony Perkins’ fidgety fusspot Norman Bates, nothing in the movie trumps Marco’s post-credit, curtain-opener dream, a vision of America turned upside down, inside out and lost down its own rabbit-hole vortex of shattered looking-glass reflections. There’s a crystal ball at work here, but the future it sees is already as cracked as Kane’s snow globe. (MGM, Criterion)