If it weren’t for some tepid and not very believable action scenes with Frank Sinatra, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) might just be the best political thriller ever made. Even with those reservations, this story about communist brainwashing of Korean War soldiers going hand-in-hand with homegrown U.S. perfidy is heady stuff. It must have been even more so in 1962. I can only wonder what audiences made of the film’s startling early sequence where the American prisoners envision their captors as a gathering of a ladies’ garden club. (I saw it back then, but I was too young to have understood much, other than the fact that my parents didn’t like it.) For that matter, did audiences realize that the ineffectual, drunken Sen. Iselin (James Gregory) was a thinly-veiled caricature of witch-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy? It seems impossible to miss. The really big question, though, was what contemporary audiences made of the charge that people like Iselin—and by extension, McCarthy—were really puppets of the very people they were pledged to destroy? Or that—thriller or not—the film is as much a satire as anything? See it now and see for yourself that this was probably the damndest movie of its time to come out of Hollywood.
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