Frank Sinatra was never shy about expressing his political beliefs. As far back as 1945, he made The House I Live, an eleven minute short film with a plea for tolerance. By 1960, Frank was back on top of the entertainment world. He was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. Still a political liberal, Sinatra wanted to produce and direct a serious film. He chose William Bradford Huie’s non-fiction book, The Execution of Private Slovik (1954), the story of the only American soldier executed since the Civil War. Sinatra hired Albert Maltz, who coincidently happened to have written the The House I Live In script to do the adaptation. Maltz was one of the original Hollywood Ten blacklisted in Hollywood. By 1960, HUAC and the witch hunts were over, though remnants of the stink it created remained. Many writers still could not get a job, at least under their own name.
After it was announced that Maltz would adapt the controversial novel, a political storm began with the winds blowing from both the left and right, all heading straight at producer Frank Sinatra. John F. Kennedy was running for President and the Kennedy family feared a backlash would hurt JFK’s chances. On the right, Eisenhower was in his last year as leader of the free world with his lap dog Nixon anxiously waiting to take the throne. While researching the story of Eddie Slovik, author William Bradford Huie discovered that Eisenhower had given approval for the execution to proceed after turning down a direct plea from Slovik for clemency. The Republicans did not want to stir up old wounds fearing it would hurt Nixon’s chances of reaching the White House. The pressure kept mounting on Sinatra and he eventually dropped the project.
Author Richard Condon wrote more than twenty-five novels during his career, but today is most remembered for three, Prizzi’s Honor, Winter Kills and most importantly, The Manchurian Candidate. The book was published in 1959. Playwright/Screenwriter George Axelrod was an admirer. He recommended it as a potential project to John Frankenheimer. Previous attempts to get the book made into a film failed until Axelrod recommended to Frankenheimer that they talk to Frank Sinatra about playing the role of Marco. Sinatra, it turned out, also liked the book and was excited to be in the film version. With Sinatra on board, United Artists agreed to finance what was sure to be a controversial film.
It turned out that now President John F. Kennedy also liked the book. This turned out to be a good thing when Hollywood honcho, United Artists president Arthur Krim, after agreeing to make the film became nervous about its potential political ramifications. Sinatra, still pals with JFK, called the President and asked him to contact Krim and calm his nerves about any political repercussions.
In 1962, the fear of communists was still running rampant in America. The Manchurian Candidate was timely. It was also a mischievously deadly satire that is as sharp, contemporary and relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago. The film’s history has become a staple in the legends that have grown around the JFK assassination. From Lee Harvey Oswald having watched the film before the assassination (he couldn’t have since there is no evidence it was shown on TV at that time) to Sinatra, who seven years after the film was made thanks to a sweet deal with U.A. owned the rights to re-release the film. With the transfer of rights, the film was pulled out of circulation. According to the actor/singer, he didn’t realize he owned the rights to the film until the mid to late 1980’s. Against United Artists’ wishes, Sinatra wanted the film rereleased in theaters. As a result, its financial bottom line as well as its reputation have grown. Still, it’s rare for such a sophisticated film to come out of the Hollywood studio system. True, U.A. was more adventurous than others in the system but they were still Hollywood.
It’s 1952 during the Korean War. A squad of American soldiers are captured by the North Korean/Chinese enemy and brainwashed. Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is programmed as a sleeper cell to be triggered by the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds when playing solitaire. How powerful is the brainwashing? At one point while still a prisoner, his captors order him to strangle one of his own men and shoot another. He does so without a bit of emotion. Back home, Raymond is awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his remaining squad members which includes Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). Raymond is greeted at the airport by his overbearing, obnoxious mother (Angela Lansbury) and her husband, the weak puppet of a husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory). Raymond despises both his mother and Iselin. Most of all he hates himself. However, Raymond and his mother have had a strange relationship. There’s one scene where his mother plants a full mouth to mouth kiss on her son that hints at hidden incestuous feelings, at least on the mother’s part.
All of the returning squad members suffer from nightmarish dreams including Marco. However, it’s Marco who first suspects some sort of brainwashing went on during their confinement. Everyone in the squad hated Raymond yet, now back home, whenever they are asked about him they answer what a wonderful, swell guy Raymond is. Marco gets the Army staff to begin an investigation with him in the lead before Raymond kills someone. The big question is who’s the target?
Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin is the driving force. She has made a pact with the devil, in this case, the Chinese and Russians, to utilize the Red scare that was running rampant in the early 1950’s to push her puppet Senator/husband to the Presidency with her and the communists behind the scenes pulling the strings. The senator is running as the V.P. candidate and at every opportunity is screaming in front of TV cameras about the “list of names” he holds in his hands of commie infiltrators into our political system. There’s a running joke where the number of so called commie infiltrators on his list keeps changing. Finally, as he is pouring Heinz ketchup on his food one day, he tells his wife why can’t they settle on one number? It’s getting confusing. Mrs. Iselin stares at the ketchup bottle. Frankenheimer quickly cuts to Iselin at another political meeting screaming about a list of fifty-seven commie infiltrators!
It all boils down to the Presidential convention being held at Madison Square Garden where Raymond’s mother triggers Marco to assassinate the Presidential candidate during his acceptance speech. Her puppet husband will embrace the dead man and deliver a stirring speech that will elevate him along with her and the commies to the most powerful office in the world.
The Manchurian Candidate is a provocative, sophisticated, far out thriller about political extremism that may not seem as extreme as it once was in this strange 2016 political season, all told within the framework of a thriller. It was violent for its time. Raymond’s shooting and strangulation of two fellow squad members when they are still held prisoners in North Korea as well as the shooting of Raymond’s girlfriend (Leslie Parish) and her despised, by the Iselin’s, politician father (John McGiver). Finally, the shootings of both Senator Iselin and Raymond’s mother as well as Raymond’s own suicide are graphic. Maybe not by today’s standards but they remain shocking.
Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury all deliver well thought out performances, arguably for Sinatra and Lansbury, if not their best, one of their best works. Lansbury at thirty-seven was already beginning to make a career of playing mothers to actors who were only a few years younger than her. She previously worked with Frankenheimer in All Fall Down playing the domineering mean, incestuous mother to Warren Beatty’s Berry-Berry. The director wanted her for the role of Mrs. Iselin. After Sinatra came on board, he wanted Lucille Ball! Sinatra had the power to get who he wanted. The director asked Sinatra to take a look at his movie All Fall Down. After seeing Lansbury’s performance, he agreed that she was Mrs. Iselin. Lansbury is both magnificently funny and frightening in the role and received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work. Sinatra’s role may be more subtle, yet he comes away with some of the most powerful scenes in his career. Both the train sequence with Janet Leigh and his work opposite Laurence Harvey when he attempts to deprogram him with a deck of cards filled with nothing but Queen of Diamonds show an artist in complete control of his art. The cast also includes the aforementioned Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Whit Bissell, James Edwards, Albert Paulsen and Lloyd Corrigan.
John Frankenheimer was always a master at using the camera to help tell the story beginning way back to his days in live television. His use here of composition, deep focus, off beat camera angles and editing are superbly inventive. The flashback brainwashing sequence is exceptionally complex, intercutting the “garden party ladies” and communists’ audiences as Marco, Raymond and their squad are on display. There is also the brilliant use of deep focus. A prime example is during a press conference; a well thought out sequence shows Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin, in the foreground, her weak, minion, husband and Senator in the background while the Secretary holding the press conference is seen reacting angrily to Iselin’s accusations of communist infiltrators on a TV screen. Then there is the pivotal assassination sequence with scenes shot both in Madison Square Garden and at a much smaller venue in California (for the crowd scenes) that are matched perfectly never letting the audience forget for a moment they watching it all unfold in the vastness of Madison Square Garden, and finally Raymond’s assassinations of Iselin and his mother before turning the gun on himself. All while wearing the Medal of Honor.
The Manchurian Candidate remains one of the most powerful and memorable political thrillers. Frankenheimer and Axelrod managed to take a far out assumption and turn it into a convincingly frighteningly realistic and darkly comic work of art.
 The Execution of Private Slovik eventually was made as an NBC TV film in 1974 with Martin Sheen in the role of Slovik. Lamont Johnson directed.
 George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer met when both were involved in making Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Frankenheimer was dropped from the project as director and replaced by Blake Edwards.
 The same year this film was released Bob Dylan wrote his infamous Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues (aka Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues). In 1963, Dylan was scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. The song was at first approved, but then fears of a lawsuit by the John Birch Society caused CBS to inform Dylan he could not do the song. Dylan refused to change songs and walked out. He became the only major rock star of the era never to appear on Sullivan’s Sunday night show. The song was originally scheduled to be on Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, however the controversy spilled over to Dylan’s record label (Columbia) and the song was cut. It was not officially released until 2010 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 9.
 The legend that the film was pulled out of circulation after the Kennedy assassination is just one of the tales that have grown around the film. I for one saw this film on TV for the first time a few years after its release.
 If the film has a fault, it’s the use of Italian/Spanish actor Henry Silva as a North Korean operative who ends up in New York working for Raymond Shaw as his house boy. That said, the early 1960’s was still a time when the use of Caucasian actors in minority roles was common and considered acceptable. In other words, a product of its times.