By the time The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962, Frank Sinatra had been on American screens and in American hearts for nearly two decades. His bobby-soxers had been displaced by Elvis fans, who had been displaced by Beatles die-hards; Sinatra was twice deposed, and his bearing suggested that he knew it. In the film, he looks wan and tired, middle-aged now, no longer in possession of the boyish, apple-cheeked visage he had in Anchors Aweigh or On the Town, those postwar musicals for MGM. He was forty-seven, and it had been nearly a decade since his Oscar-winning turn as the doomed, lovable Maggio in From Here to Eternity, which had established him as an actor of serious dramatic weight, not just a moonlighting musical star, during a time when major success in both fields was rare for one performer.
For the first drastic sign that something is severely out of place in the mind of Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, ex-GI Bennett Marco, look no further than the opening fifteen minutes of the film: his sweat-drenched evenings, full of recurring nightmares, reveal his torment. It’s 1952, and the official story is that Marco and his unit in Korea were saved by the heroic efforts of their commander, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Shaw, on Marco’s recommendation, was chosen for a Congressional Medal of Honor as a result. But the actual ordeal is something else entirely; Sinatra scratches and mutters in his sleep, reliving the truth of the incident, haunted in his waking hours by the feeling that something isn’t right.
In his nightmare, the camera does a wild circular pan around what initially seems to be a dull garden party full of middle-aged ladies, attending a lecture on proper planting skills. The soldiers sit slouched and smoking, eyes glazed over with boredom. But as Frankenheimer’s camera spins, the environment transforms into a politburo-style room where a brainwashing conspiracy is taking place, surrounded by Chinese and Soviet officials with not a fussy matron in sight. Suddenly those glazed eyes aren’t incidental, and the POWs are shown to be a part of a sinister scheme. To demonstrate the efficacy of a brilliant new method of mind control, Raymond is made to murder two of his men at will in front of everyone present. He completes the job, emotionless and wiped of all memory, and is thus selected to become a domestic assassin for a malign cabal of Communist forces.
Ultimately, it falls to Captain Marco to bear witness to the brunt of the horror that The Manchurian Candidate contains. Raymond, robbed of free will and made to commit state-sanctioned murder, is programmed in a way that precludes him from reacting naturally to his circumstances; we watch his story unfold through the eyes of Marco, who shares our trepidation as he unearths layers of political subterfuge and violent antidemocratic action. It’s not an enviable task for an actor to be in such a reactive role, but Sinatra manages to bring something compellingly vulnerable to it. He had a taste for playing troubled, uncertain men, even in his lighthearted fare; whatever cynicism he had was soft rather than rough around its edges.
In real life, Sinatra’s sensitivity was well-documented, and not always in a flattering way. But on-screen, under the direction of artists like Frankenheimer and Otto Preminger (who directed him in The Man with the Golden Arm), petty tantrums, depressive episodes, and bouts of bullying were corralled into cocksure insolence or wounded neuroses, something that Sinatra could always imbue with depth.
As Marco, who is drawn increasingly into the web of conspiracy around him, Sinatra embodies the human wreckage that emerges from paranoia. Of course, paranoia was a condition building up through the American midcentury like fizz in a shaken bottle, finally bursting to the surface. The nation was convulsed by McCarthyist witch hunts and right-wing power plays and terror of Soviet armageddon raining from the sky. Sinatra evokes the mood of the era with his stammers and stares, trembling so violently that he drops his cigarette in his drink. At times, it’s excruciating to watch. And further dimensions come from another place; in a film that could not be any more the antithesis of a musical, Sinatra is still himself. He often played musicians in films, and when he played military men they often had finer, more thoughtful dimensions. It couldn’t be otherwise: all those velvety torch songs and their miasma of despair hang around him like a dubious mantle, giving those skinny shoulders a slight droop even when he’s in the role of an upright military man.
Sinatra said himself that he felt all his time spent singing had lent itself to acting, and that for a long while he’d been acting without realizing it. If that’s true, the reverse is too: even when he doesn’t sing a note, those lonely songs undergird his identity with raw vulnerability, a sort of ineffable romance. And then there’s the matter of his line delivery, also musical in its nature; he could change whole moments with a slight exhalation or, as From Here to Eternity producer Buddy Adler put it, drop in a word or two that “makes the line actually bounce.” In The Manchurian Candidate, it happens more than once. There’s that old Hoboken intonation, sliding out when Captain Marco is angry and poking a finger at the TV, the word “broads” coming out of his mouth with a spongy extra vowel in it, like “broawds.”
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