Making the Grades
Can a person be hypnotized and commanded to do things against his moral nature?
The question long debated by experts, is one being asked by Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). Although he is not a specialist on the subject, the military man has begun to consider the possibility because of a reoccurring nightmare.
While in the depths of sleep, Marco sees himself with a group of other soldiers he served with during the Korean War. In the typical nonsensical nature of dreams, he and his fellows are sitting at a garden party for a horticultural society. However, the other attendees keep shifting form. One moment they are tea-sipping ladies, the next, they are men in Russian or Chinese uniforms. The keynote speaker keeps changing too. At first, she's a woman droning on and on about hydrangeas, then suddenly, he's a man discussing the power of hypnosis.
The real horror starts when the lecturer calls upon Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), Marco's commanding officer, and asks him to kill some of the members of their company. Worse yet, Shaw obeys his order.
When he awakes, the Major is torn by the absurdity of his subconscious accusations. How can he be entertaining such abhorrent thoughts about Raymond Shaw? Not only is the former Sergeant an upstanding citizen and the stepson of an up-and-coming U.S. senator, but he is also a Congressional Medal winner-whom Marco himself recommended.
The torment of the nagging suspicions eventually forces the suffering serviceman to take sick leave. But his mental health takes a turn for the better when he accidentally discovered another of his old army buddies is suffering from similar visions. With this additional evidence, Marco is assigned to be part of an FBI investigation.
A classic mystery movie, The Manchurian Candidate is too intense for young audiences. Although containing such content as a smattering of mild profanities, main characters drowning their troubles in alcohol, a brief incestuous kiss and some friendly females at a whorehouse, these concerns pale in comparison to the greater issue - the portrayals of violence.
In an era of special and digitized effects, parents might believe any black and white film crafted in the 1960's could hardly compete. Yet in a backhanded way, the lack of such fantasy-like enhancement makes the action in this flick much more realistic. In a hand-to-hand conflict, the participants get winded, injured, and resort to trying to gouge out each others eyes, without any of the popular, stylized choreography. The several murders occurring in the story are depicted in such a cold and mechanical manner, that they'll send shivers the down viewer's spine, whether or not they include blood.
So what makes this movie worth watching? Perhaps it is Major Marco's changing opinion of his former superior. At first critical of his cold heartedness, Marco's primary objective is to root out the dark secret that connects him to Sgt. Shaw. But his focus changes as he peels back the mysterious layers of the tragic man's life. For the recovering Marco (and maybe the audience as well), what he discovers will ultimately redefine his understanding of the word valor.
This sympathetic perspective, and an outstanding performance by Angela Lansbury in a secondary role, contributes to the unforgettable nature of this film. For adults and older teens looking for a compelling thriller, this one is sure to hypnotize.