During the Korean War, a patrol of Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) was ambushed and taken hostage for three days. Now they are back home in America, they begin to suffer terrifying nightmares and near-nervous breakdowns. One of their number, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is the stepson of prospective Vice-Presidential candidate Senator Iselin (James Gregory), but it's Raymond's scheming mother (Angela Lansbury) who is pulling the strings. So what really went on in those missing days? Could it be something that will lead to murder - and worse?
Based on Richard Condon's novel, this bizarre conspiracy thriller was adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (a future director himself). It's central plotline of political assassination would prove sadly prescient as the sixties wore on, and showing various characters wearing Abraham Lincoln beards is just one example of the dark humour running through the film, as is the point about the Soviet-run alcoholics treatment centre running at a profit.
There is a curiously unreal atmosphere to The Manchurian Candidate, whether it's down to the obvious sets or the frequent lapses into surreal scenes or outright absurdity. When a panicky Sinatra meets Janet Leigh on a train, their conversation is stilted and artificial; Leigh's Rosie could just have been a generic girlfriend role, a shoulder to cry on, but here her manner and motives are difficult to pin down. And the fight scene between Sinatra and Henry Silva is a theatrical mixture of kung fu, eye-gouging and furniture destruction.
The patrol members all say that Raymond is the "kindest, bravest, warmest, most wondeful human being I've ever known" when he's quite patently nothing of the sort. Harvey was never better than in this role, making Raymond, who despite his privileges is one of life's losers, an unlikeable guy you nevertheless feel sorry for. As a human weapon, triggered by the Queen of Diamonds, he fights to be free of the influence of his manipulators and his villainous mother, but you know instinctively he's doomed from the start.
Lansbury almost steals the whole film as the ruthlessly ambitious Mrs Iselin, embodying the strongly satirical theme of the political far right being virtually the same as the political far left. Both sides want complete control, and will go to any lengths to secure it, as shown by the devastating effect they have on their victims. As intelligent and gripping as it is weird and melancholy, The Manchurian Candidate is a bona fide cult classic. Watch for: the brainwashing sequences where little old ladies alternate with military leaders; and the great scene where Sinatra has to stop and salute the national anthem instead of tracking down the assassin. Music by David Amram.