JOHN FRANKENHEIMER's "The Manchurian Candidate" was a bold venture in 1962, with its flashy technique and political themes. Now re-released after a 15-year absence, its mobile camera and fluid editing still dazzle. And its story of Cold War intrigue, murky East-West dealings, assassination, brainwashing -- and the idea of a glorified cue-card reader playing president -- resonates today like never before.
In the Korean Conflict, a party of GIs is captured and brainwashed by a coalition of Koreans, Chinese and Soviets. The next thing the Americans know, they've apparently been rescued from enemy lines by Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who promptly receives the Congressional Medal of Honor upon everyone's return to the United States.
The soldiers, including Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra at his tough-talking best), recall fitful images of that mysterious three-day session in their dreams. Marco investigates further, a mission that involves probing his own mind as well as others'. To tell more would spoil an engaging cloak-and-dagger scenario, but he discovers a political conspiracy involving the Queen of Diamonds card, American double agents and the Korean spylord Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), among others.
The cast is superb. Adding further potency to Sinatra's and Harvey's performances is Angela Lansbury -- wonderfully malignant as Sgt. Shaw's mother. A hard-driving political wife, she pushes her brainless husband, Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory), ever closer to the White House with media-conscious Commie-hunting; meanwhile she torments her son with icy manipulation. Janet Leigh's Rosie is a beguiling siren who befriends Marco on a train. Their conversation is rife with hidden and not-so-hidden meanings, as they discuss Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, the Columbus football team, railway lines, and her two names -- Eugenie (for her fragile side) and her nickname Rosie. After asking Marco if he speaks Arabic, she says, "Let me put it another way. Are you married?"
Which brings up George Axelrod's screenplay. Based on Richard Condon's novel, it has all the dark wackiness of Hollywood's best film noirs and comedies (some of which Axelrod wrote himself, including "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Seven Year Itch" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"). And it builds to an exhilarating climax on a political convention floor.
Major credit, however, must go to Frankenheimer -- at the time a wunderkind from the live-television "Playhouse 90" crowd, who would later make "Birdman of Alcatraz," "Seven Days in May" and "Seconds" before fading exponentially. "Manchurian," with its fatalistic, dreamlike quality, comprises two of his finest hours.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (PG-13) -- In black and white. At the Key.