Right, the conspiracy starts here… Those nice people over at the Irish Film Institute have launched a season of Classic American conspiracy thrillers, under the banner: High Anxiety. The season is designed ostensibly to mark the occasion of the re-release of the classic Cutter’s Way, which opens on June 10th. Kicking it off is this classic Cold War-set political thriller from heavyweight director, John Frankenheimer.
The Manchurian Candidate centres around Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) who, after returning from service in Korea, is troubled by a recurring nightmare in which he sees his commanding officer, Congressional Medal of Honour hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), kill other members of their platoon, who are being held as POW’s by Russian Communists somewhere over the Manchurian border. Convinced there’s more to the dream than just the Cold War equivalent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Marco tries to unravel the meaning behind the nightmare. In doing so, he lays bare a plan which aims to undermine the American political system at its highest level.
Shaw comes from a powerful political family, whose matriarch (played by a fantastic Angela Lansbury) will stop at nothing to get her 2nd husband, the numbskull Johnny Iselin, elected to the senate. Shaw becomes a pawn in his mother’s game with terrible consequences for him and anyone connected to him.
Frankenheimer’s ice cool conspiracy movie works both as political satire and good old-fashioned thriller. It boasts outstanding performances from all the leads; Sinatra is absolutely terrific as the shaky, emotionally edgy Major Marco; Laurence Harvey has just the right blankness as Shaw, but Angela Lansbury is a revelation, if you only know her as the interfering old biddy from TV’s “Murder She Wrote”, then wait till you see her here. Her devious, conniving, deadly mother-from-hell is an amazing performance in a movie full of high-voltage star performances. There are some fantastic scenes also with Sinatra and love interest Rosie (Janet Leigh), which feature sometimes quite surreal, but very funny dialogue. One scene in particular, which takes place on a train, never fails to strike me as wonderfully, beautifully strange no matter how many times I see the film.
The film still looks, and works, great-even today. It’s featured as the opening film in this season for the obvious indebtedness later 70’s “conspiracy” films owe it; for its cool, urgent style and prescient subject matter. Sinatra was a major star at this time and had made the transition from singer to actor very convincingly, with some heavy hitting roles already behind him. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson said “Sinatra is a noir sound, like saxophones, foghorns, gunfire, and the quiet weeping of women in the background”. That’s about right for his performance in this film too.
The High Anxiety Season continues at the IFI until June 26th.