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On Oct. 24, 1962, political thriller The Manchurian Candidate hit theaters, eventually earning two Oscar noms at the 35th Academy Awards, hosted by the film’s star Frank Sinatra. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
A suspense melodrama with political background, exploring and exploiting some dramatic projections of communist brainwashing, The Manchurian Candidate is tautly made, with strong box office potential. The premise is somewhat far-fetched, and its development strains belief in the final sequences, but accepting it on its own terms it sustains interest. George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer produced, with Frankenheimer directing Axelrod’s screenplay. The M.C. production is being released by United Artists.
Based on a book by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate is taken from reports of brainwashing by Chinese communists of U.S. troops captured in the Korean war. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are two such servicemen, members of a squad forced to undergo the involuntary psychological indoctrination. When Harvey is returned to the U.S. with other squad members, he has become, under certain conditions, an automaton responding slavishly to orders from Soviet agents. His final rebellion provides the climax to the story.
So far, so good. The story gets into murky areas in its development. The Soviet spy apparatus, no doubt, as any espionage machinery, would be amazing to most simple citizens, so a broad scope of speculation is legitimate. Axelrod’s screenplay, however, uses more than is really necessary. In the final stretch, when Harvey’s mother — wife of a U.S. senator — is disclosed as a top Soviet agent, when killing is piled on killing — four murders and one suicide — it will be for many stretching credulity to the breaking point. It is too bad, too, because not all this detail is essential to the story. But in the tradition of E. Phillips Oppenheim and Somerset Maugham (the Ashenden Stories), it is perhaps defensible.
The direction and acting are good, so interest is maintained. Frankeheimer’s handling of the early sequences, in which he attempts and succeeds in creating on film the corruption of the mind, is imaginative filmmaking. In the more realistic portions, there is terse character exposition and propulsion.
Sinatra gives a reasoned and in many ways more mature performance than he has ever done before. Harvey is competent but never seems completely convincing as an American GI. Janet Leigh gives evidence of considerable enlargement of her screen personality, with more depth and legitimate sex than she has hitherto shown. Angela Lansbury gives another strong performance as Harvey’s mother. Henry Silva has a good character portrayal. James Gregory and John McGiver are consistently interesting, both playing against their usual typing. Others of special interest include Khigh Dhiegh, James Edwards, Douglas Henderson, Albert Paulsen, Madame Spivy, Barry Kelly, Joe Adams, Lloyd Corrigan, Whit Bissell and Robert Riordan.
Lionel Lindon’s black-and-white photography uses lighting adroitly, mixing styles without diffusing cohesion. Richard Sylbert’s production design gives backing and some insight to the narrative. George R. Nelson’s set decoration is meticulous. David Amram’s music is creative in supplementary vein to the visual. Joe Edmondson’s sound is good. Ferris Webster’s editing helps the story’s many moods and its unusual tempo. — James Powers, originally published on Oct. 12, 1962.
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