"The Manchurian Candidate" has an almost delirious paranoid streak. Director John Frankenheimer takes the notion of political conspiracy and injects it with the devil's laughing gas.
Frankenheimer starts off with quite a yarn. A bunch of American soldiers captured during the Korean War are brainwashed by the Communists and sent back to the States for some evil deeds.
Laurence Harvey plays a returning hero who turns into a robotic killer every time he sees a card with the queen of spades on it.
But beyond the absurd plottings, Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod, who based their 1962 movie on a whiz-bang suspense novel by Richard Condon, go for macabre touches reflecting the Communist dread infecting the Joseph McCarthy era.
Almost every frame reeks of the kind of looking-over-your-shoulder anxiety that made the Cold War such a blast for die-hard pessimists.
"The Manchurian Candidate," screening tonight as part of the Saddleback College/Edwards Cinema "classics" film series, is especially entertaining because it can be read on two levels.
It has the serrated edge of any good film noir and a satiric sweep that puts almost every event in a sly perspective.
In one scene, a far-to-the-right politician, in the midst of a McCarthy-like witch hunt, spontaneously claims over dinner that there are 57 Communists working in the State Department. His inspiration? The ketchup bottle he's holding.
Not every scene, though, is mordant; some are just eerie. For instance, the indoctrination passage in which Harvey mechanically kills a fellow soldier to the delight of his North Korean captors is difficult to watch--Frankenheimer gives it a gun-metal hardness that pervades the movie's few other violent scenes.
It's more sickly amusing to watch Angela Lansbury as Harvey's mother and the picture's prime monster.
She has a bitingly cool delivery that seems especially evil playing off her innocently doughy face. Watching Lansbury engineer the political ascent of her McCarthyesque husband, Sen. Iselin (James Gregory), is to appreciate a true sociopath at work. Lansbury got a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the role.
The film was shot in 39 days and was only made at all after Frank Sinatra came aboard in a key role as one of the brainwashed soldiers, giving "The Manchurian Candidate" some star appeal.
The brief shoot did leave the movie with a herky-jerky feel; Ferris Webster's editing is chaotic at times, generating moments of confusion along with the tension.
That doesn't kill the spirit, though. Harvey helps keep things right with his deadpan performance, and Sinatra is decently earnest as the guy who helps unravel the whole wicked affair.
What: John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."
When: Thursday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m.
Where: Edwards Crown Valley cinema, 26862 Crown Valley Parkway, Mission Viejo.
Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) Freeway to the Crown Valley Parkway exit and head east. The theater is in the Mission Viejo Mall.
Where to call: (714) 582-4656.