Conspiracy Thrillers

A Conspiracy Thriller Before Its Time

Why The Manchurian Candidate disappeared for 25 years—and then returned to a world that was primed for it.

Photo illustration by Slate. Stills from © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Photo illustration by Slate. Stills from © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Excerpted from Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics by Gordon Arnold.

The Manchurian Candidate brought together conspiracy themes as it reframed 1950s-style anti-communist fears into a complicated package. Its fantastic portrayal of brainwashing brings a science-fiction element to the film to explain how seeming innocents could turn against their homeland. This portrayal was more subtle than the mind-control elements of 1950s science-fiction movies such as Invaders from Mars, but in terms of dramatic effect, it worked in the same way. Communism was again seen as a thief of free will. Almost no amount of caution, the film seems to suggest on one level, is too much when confronted with an enemy that can deceive and control the people. The story implies that defeat can come without people even being aware that the fight has started.

John Frankenheimer’s skillful direction glosses over several inconsistencies within the story that extend beyond the dubious possibility of mind control in the way the movie suggests. As the film nears the end, the pace quickens, and viewers have little time to think about the many leaps in logic and the many strokes of luck that would be required for the assassination plot to achieve the outcome the conspirators envision.

The absurdity of some plot elements is nonetheless difficult to miss, and since Frankenheimer toys with traditional symbols of the all-American life, a satirical reading of the film is suggested. Certainly, there are few dramas in American filmmaking that take the seeming delight that this film does in portraying the dark side of motherhood as construed in mid-20th century America. Raymond, robbed of his free will, turns out to be the victim of his mother’s misguided scheming, having no choice in the matter. A throwaway line early in the film turns out to be prophetic and portending monstrous consequences: “It’s a terrible thing to hate your mother,” he says. Indeed, Raymond’s mother is not merely controlling in the way that assumedly bad mothers are; she is literally his “controller” in an elaborate plot that destroys both of them.

On a broader level, there can hardly have been more dramatic circumstances to accompany the debut of this film. Hitting American theaters on Oct. 24, 1962, its release coincided with the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a time when many Americans feared—quite correctly according to previously secret documents that have since been released—that a nuclear nightmare could occur at any moment. Although the public remained relatively calm during the crisis, a quiet sense of panic was nonetheless evident. Many Americans flocked to supermarkets in order to stock up with provisions in the event that war broke out, even if most citizens tried to go about their business and carry on normal life during those tense days. In such a context, The Manchurian Candidate was surely not much respite for a fearful public, but the currency of the subject matter could not be seriously debated. Fortunately, the Cuban missile crisis ended a few days later with the Soviet agreement to remove its missiles from the island, and life returned to normalcy in most ways. But a portentous context had been established for a film that was to remain a fascinating cultural artifact in future years.

At the beginning of 1963, however, the future again looked brighter. Having stared down the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis, it seemed that the world had stepped back from the brink of calamity and that cooler heads could prevail. On the international front, there was a sense of relief.

Domestically, however, the seeds of social unrest were already planted. American society was headed to a period of unrest and massive change. The burgeoning civil rights movement was coming to a head, and the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, and other sources of social tension lay on the horizon. Indeed, in the coming months and years, the internal dynamics of American society began to respond to the fissures that had been developing for some time. Cultural clashes based on generation, race, gender, politics, and ideology, all of which had been festering for years, would dramatically alter the national climate by decade’s end. In January of 1963, however, most of those changes remained in the future.

Of course, the aspect of the film that has proven to be most intriguing over time is not the brainwashing theme, but rather the assassination subject matter. In this, The Manchurian Candidate was unintentionally prescient. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated only a year after the film’s initial release, its plot seemed more troubling than entertaining. And the idea—even if it had been lost on many viewers at the time—that a film dealing with assassination could have satirical undertones no longer seemed fitting.

Indeed, the conspiratorial nature of the movie’s assassination plot, in which foreign enemies have “conditioned” ordinary Americans to do their violent bidding, was inflammatory. This was all the more true since it was not then clear—and for many people even today, not ever clear—that the real assassination of the president was not the product of a sinister, convoluted international conspiracy. The upshot of this was that national trauma and unease prompted by Kennedy’s death radically changed the context in which audiences could be expected to interpret Frankenheimer’s film of the previous year.

The fate of The Manchurian Candidate in the years after its debut deserves mention. The film was released before widespread cable and satellite television, with their dozens and then hundreds of channels, and before the advent of home-viewing technologies such as videotapes, DVDs, and computer downloads. In the early 1960s, once movies left the theaters, there were limited options to see them again. They might be rereleased or continue making the rounds of second- and third-tier movie houses, or they might be licensed for television broadcast on one of the few networks, or perhaps directly to a local television station. After its initial run, however, it was not unusual for a movie to largely fade from view, only occasionally resurfacing.

Yet, it was unusual for a popular movie that had received considerable press coverage and many good reviews to disappear completely from the scene. But although The Manchurian Candidate had received good notices and was reasonably popular, it did disappear from public view at some point after the assassination of the president. Screenwriter George Axelrod claimed it was shelved very shortly after the tragedy in Dallas because “having an assassination picture floating around seemed to be in grotesque bad taste. Particularly since Frank [Sinatra] had been friends with the president.” Other accounts differ about when the film was pulled from circulation, however, and some put the date years after the original release.

The exact details about The Manchurian Candidate’s disappearance from public view are still not clear, but many accounts do concur that there was a specific decision to remove the movie from circulation. Such accounts imply that the explosive subject matter was the primary reason, although it is sometimes suggested that business reasons also came into play. (Sinatra, who at one time owned rights to the film, had an accounting dispute with United Artists, which some people suggest may be part of the explanation.)

Still, the story of The Manchurian Candidate’s disappearance from public view has since taken on nearly urban-legend characteristics. This is indicative of how the movie’s reputation became entwined in the public fascination with intrigue and conspiracy that grew more prominent after 1963. Frank Sinatra’s links to the president, which have been well-documented, undoubtedly caused some uneasiness about the film. Some reports suggest that Sinatra learned that Kennedy’s named assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had watched Suddenly (the earlier assassination film in which Sinatra starred) shortly before the assassination, and that this caused the actor to have both films pulled from circulation. In other versions of the story, the decision appears to be a more measured one in which the studio, as much as or more than the star, deemed the film had run its course anyway.

Regardless, the film largely drifted from public consciousness, although it was not completely forgotten. Over time, popular culture in the United States embraced Kennedy’s memory and revealed a fascination with his assassination. At the same time, Sinatra grew from star to living legend. These topics seemed naturally to converge in Frankenheimer’s movie, which though not seen over the years was still occasionally discussed. By the late 1980s, Sinatra seems to have dropped whatever objections he may have had and studio executives decided that the time was ripe to rerelease the film. (By then, not only was public fascination with the JFK assassination conspiracy theories the subject of mainstream conversation, but there was a huge new market for older films created by the success of home video technology.) With much fanfare and press attention then, The Manchurian Candidate resurfaced in American theaters in a rerelease in 1988, along with mass distribution of the movie on videocassette. Its years away from public view had only enhanced its reputation, and its long inaccessibility had created a curiosity factor that gave the movie a newfound impact in the popular culture’s embrace of conspiracies, assassination stories, and star power.

Republished with permission of ABC-CLIO, from Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.