Picks and Pans Review: The Manchurian Candidate

updated 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

A genuine movie classic—in fact, the most poundingly suspenseful political thriller ever made—has finally returned to theaters after more than a quarter century of oblivion. Thereby hangs a tale. When Frank Sinatra decided he wanted to star in the 1962 film version of Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate, Ol' Blue Eyes hit a stone wall. The plot, dealing with a presidential candidate's assassination by a brainwashed killer, was deemed too politically explosive. Nobody wanted to film the novel. Then Arthur Krim, at the time head of United Artists and national finance chairman of the Democratic Party, learned that John Kennedy was a fan of the book. A moderate success in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate achieved notoriety the next year when Kennedy was assassinated, and Sinatra (who controlled rights to the film) forbade its rerelease. Only now, in light of the film's growing cult reputation, has Sinatra relented. Good move. Sinatra has never been better than he is here as an Army major who returns from Korea with disturbing nightmares. While the world sees him and his platoon as war heroes—Sinatra's sergeant pal (Laurence Harvey) has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—the major finds the truth beginning to filter into his dreams: He and his buddies have been brainwashed. Worse, Harvey—now a journalist—has been set up by the Reds to kill without memory of his actions. Since the movie's machinations will come as a whopping shock to a whole new generation, further revelations would be dirty pool. But kudos are due Harvey, who died in 1973, for making his weakling character into something memorable and moving. Janet Leigh is wonderfully sexy as the woman who helps Sinatra put the pieces together. Henry Silva and Khigh Dhiegh hit a high in low-down villainy that hasn't been matched since. And words are puny to describe Angela Lansbury's acting as Harvey's domineering mother. Trying to push her Joe McCarthyish husband (James Gregory) from the Senate to the White House, Lansbury creates a modern-age Lady Macbeth with the skill of a sorceress. It's an astonishing, engulfing performance. (Fans of Lansbury's sedate TV series, Murder, She Wrote, are advised to bring smelling salts.) Screenwriter George Axelrod adapted Condon's novel without losing an ounce of its covert wit and daring. Director John Frankenheimer, who has more recently done such films as The French Connection II and 52 Pick-Up, manages simultaneously to tweak extremists on both the Left and Right while tightening the knot he's tied on the audience's nerves. Whether this is a first viewing or a return visit, The Manchurian Candidate will leave you breathless. There's not a new movie of its kind that can touch it. (Not rated)

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