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Review: 'The Manchurian Candidate'
Mother, please! Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in one of the many freaky Oedipal scenes from John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."

According to Hollywood legend, Frank Sinatra was so shattered by the assassination of President Kennedy, he had his film The Manchurian Candidate – which deals with political murder at the hands of sinister Communist operatives – yanked from distribution and shelved for 25 years.

It’s a great story, and it nestles nicely inside the web of Cold War mystery and intrigue that The Manchurian Candidate itself spins, but it’s not true.

Released in 1962, the movie was out of theaters by the time of Kennedy’s assassination the following year. It aired several times on television in the mid ‘60s, then dropped from view because of legal wrangling over its ownership rights.

What can’t be contested is the fact that The Manchurian Candidate, showing July 16 on the big screen at the Trustees Theater, is a corker of a thriller.

It’s part of the SCAD Cinema Circle summer series.

Based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, the film superbly captures the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that consumed the nation during the Cold War years, when Kennedy and Khrushchev were staring each other down, with kids across America cowering under their desks waiting for The Big One to fall.

The prologue takes place in 1952, as a platoon of American soldiers attempts to ambush a North Korean machine gun nest. They are themselves surprised, by a band of Russians, knocked unconscious and loaded into helicopters.

Soon we’re introduced to the main characters, several years later. There’s Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the captain of the American group. It seems he’d saved his unit on that fateful day, got them out of trouble and delivered them safely back to base with only two casualties. As we meet Raymond, he’s being awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor.

Raymond is one unhappy guy. His conniving mother (played indelibly by Angela Lansbury) is married to an idiot senator (James Gregory), and she’s motivated by a bottomless lust for power. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants. The senator, a McCarthy–esque Commie–basher, is simply her mouthpiece.

Raymond despises them both. But mother, so she keeps telling him, knows best.

Sinatra has the lead role, as Col. Ben Marco of Shaw’s unit. Unlike Shaw, he’s still in the Army, but lately he’s been having the most vivid and horrifying dreams.

In Marco’s recurring nightmare, the platoon members are seated on a stage, somewhere in New Jersey, in the middle of a ladies’ garden club meeting. A woman in a flowered hat is lecturing on the care and feeding of hydrangeas.

This is where Condon’s story, and director John Franknheimer’s film, turn towards the creepy and bizarre.

As the camera pans around the room, the garden club ladies become large men with creased faces and dark, shifty eyes. Now the soldiers are the subject of a demonstration by the leader of Moscow’s Pavlov Institute, who’s showing his comrades  – evil and sadistic–looking types from China, and Korea, and other Communist countries – how he has brainwashed the Americans.

Yes, it’s all a plot, and Frankenheimer’s genius is the way he titillates us with one clue at a time, leaving us breathless and squirming to know what’s coming next.

At the time of its release, The Manchurian Candidate fed the paranoia of Americans feeling the intense chill of the Cold War.

Sure, the bad guys look exactly the way everybody thought cold–hearted, calculating Communists would look, and the idea that the Evil Empire could concoct such a nefarious scheme didn’t seem all that far–fetched.

The real scare, however, is that there might be forces here at home, right under our noses, working out a way to undermine our way of life.

We see that scenario these days in plenty of movies and TV shows, but in 1962 it scared the beejeezus out of everybody.

The film is brilliant. As for the performances, Sinatra makes a perfectly paranoid Marco, Janet Leigh is serviceable as his love interest, and Harvey, although he doesn’t have a lot of range, imbues Raymond with a sort of tragic stoicism (actually, it makes a lot of sense that the inferior 2004 remake cast Liv Schreiber, another wooden actor, as Raymond).

In the end, though, it’s Lansbury’s film. If this is your first time seeing The Manchurian Candidate, leave your memories of her later–years work on TV at home.

Evil, she wrote.

The Manchurian Candidate

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16

Tickets: $6–$8