“The Manchurian Candidate” still has such urgency and relevance, it’s a bit hard to believe it’s approaching its 60th anniversary,
Produced by star Frank Sinatra, director John Frankenheimer’s long-praised 1962 thriller — which Turner Classic Movies offers Friday, Feb. 26 — incorporates themes from the Richard Condon novel that still hit close to home, and one of them surely did soon after the film’s release. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with whom Sinatra was friendly, caused interest in the picture to wane (though a popular rumor had it that the entertainer had the picture pulled from distribution because of the true-life tragedy).
Sinatra’s character, military veteran Ben Falco, tries to prevent the targeting of such a political figure: the chief rival of a senator (James Gregory) who happens to be the stepfather of one of Falco’s Korean War battle-mates, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, being saluted by TCM with showings of several of his movies that night). Upon their return from overseas service, Falco starts to suspect that something is amiss with Shaw.
And is he ever right: Before his release by enemy soldiers, Shaw was programmed to be a sleeper agent, able to be activated to commit killings without remembering later that he’d done it. Eventually, he’s sent after his stepdad’s rival (John McGiver) by someone chillingly close to him: Shaw’s mother, played with elegant yet cold ferocity by Angela Lansbury in one of her most memorable roles, one that justifiably earned her an Oscar nomination (and one that Lucille Ball reportedly had been considered for).
A great piece of “Manchurian Candidate” lore is that Lansbury actually was only three years older than Harvey, yet she convincingly makes one of the meanest moms in movie history. Part of what has kept the performance so striking is that the actress typically is among the most benevolent presences among all performers — particularly during and beyond her “Murder, She Wrote” era — but here, she freezes a viewer’s blood as a master manipulator.
Overall, “The Manchurian Candidate” presents a marvelous cast, also including Janet Leigh, Leslie Parrish, Khigh Dhiegh (who later would became the villainous Wo Fat on the original “Hawaii Five-O”) and Henry Silva, a Sinatra crony who had appeared with him a couple of years earlier in “Ocean’s Eleven.”
“The Manchurian Candidate” got a 2004 remake with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber in the Sinatra, Lansbury and Harvey roles. Impressive though that casting was, another version really wasn’t necessary: Even filmed in black-and-white (and maybe more so because of that), the story remains as fresh and engrossing as ever in its original form .. and it’s really saying something that it remains as timely nearly six decades later.