|Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962).|
(Spoiler alert: This article discusses plot details that The Manchurian Candidate keeps hidden until quite late in the narrative. Though they are quite famous, if you don’t know them you might prefer to see the movie first and encounter the revelations with all the suspense and surprise that the 1962 audience would have experienced.)
Political conspiracy thrillers flourished during the early days of the Cold War and especially during the Korean War. Generally their heroes were pure-hearted Federal agents who succeeded in stemming the insidious behavior of Communist infiltrators, icy devils with no more dimensions than the Nazis bad guys Hollywood had featured just a few years earlier. The exception was Leo McCarey’s notorious and distasteful 1952 My Son John, in which the Commie is a young American man (Robert Walker) who comes home to give the commencement speech at his old high school and alarms his mother (Helen Hayes) by mocking his parents’ patriotism and refusing to attend church with them. He is also clearly gay, though the movie doesn’t say so explicitly; you deduce it from the flourishes in Walker’s performance, which are recycled from the truly splendid one he gave the year before in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The idea seems to be some debased version of the Renaissance notion about the clustering of vices in a corrupted personality. In the great Jacobean tragedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, when the husband of the protagonist realizes she’s a murderess and her partner in crime calls her a whore, the husband replies, “It could not choose but follow.” More specifically in My Son John, the un-American elements in John’s behavior – cynicism, atheism, homosexuality – all point to his being under the influence of a foreign power.