Unsettling and prescient about its own era and also our own in numerous frightening ways, The Manchurian Candidate remains a remarkable achievement and the hallmark in the careers of several of its participants.
The Production: 4.5/5
One of the greatest political thrillers ever made, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate twists the knife of its wily stratagem ever so slowly revealing just enough at any one moment to hold our attention and waiting for the proper moment to drop its next bombshell. Unsettling and prescient about its own era and also our own in numerous frightening ways, The Manchurian Candidate remains a remarkable achievement and the hallmark in the careers of several of its participants.
During the Korean War, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and several other members of the squad led by Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) are captured by the Chinese and brainwashed into cooperating with a plan, a Communist conspiracy of the highest order with years in its planning and execution, to herald Shaw as a hero so that years later when he returns to the United States, his stepfather Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) can be maneuvered into a position of power so that he can inevitably gain control of the government. How Shaw figures into the plan manipulated by his dominating mother (Angela Lansbury) and how the deterioration of Marco’s brainwashing is the first step in thwarting the insidious Communist operation make up the main narrative of the film.
The plot of the book by Richard Condon has been scrupulously followed by producer George Axelrod’s chillingly literate screenplay, and director John Frankenheimer has instilled on the project the perfect amounts of paranoia, delusion, and genuine horror to rivet the attention to the every movement of the poor, manipulated Raymond Shaw. From the moment of that great sequence in which a Communist briefing is surrealistically turned into a New Jersey garden party by the treacherous brainwashing techniques, one is aware the film is something special. Frankenheimer uses a 360° pan to set up the party before then cross cutting between the reality of the briefing and what’s going on in the minds of the servicemen, and the two murders which Raymond commits during this sequence, especially the second, are for their time quite shocking and visceral. Frankenheimer always frames complicated shots so intelligently (a press conference interrupted by the idiot Iselin is captured in real time and on TV monitors which also appear in various shots giving them such verisimilitude that the realism is uncanny, and the climactic Republican Party convention mixes real footage with staged action brilliantly. He also stages a karate fight with uncommon brutality). We’re given pieces of the complex puzzle gradually as we finally are allowed to see completely behind the curtain of this infamous plan, but the film never underestimates its audience and never dumbs down its narrative thus making the ultimate showdown at the end one fraught with tension and heart-stopping apprehension about what’s about to happen. Only the intrusive romance between Sinatra’s Marco and Janet Leigh’s Rosie seems an unnecessary interruption to the truly spellbinding story of Raymond Shaw and his unwitting role as a political pawn, unless, of course, there is an underlying reason for her presence that isn’t made clear in the film as presented (some have suggested that Leigh’s Rosie may be an operative herself sent to steer Sinatra’s Marco in the right direction).
Frank Sinatra and especially Laurence Harvey have never been better than in their complex roles in this film: Sinatra a tortured, driven Army officer determined to get to the truth of his nightmares about his Korean War experiences and Harvey as the dewy-eyed innocent at the mercy of his ruthless handlers. But the performance of the film is, of course, Angela Lansbury as the monster of all mothers (in reality only three years older than Harvey), a merciless scheming harpy who can play soft and concerned but underneath is cold steel and evil sinew. Her work brought her awards from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, but the Oscar went to Patty Duke. James Gregory makes a marvelously braying nitwit Senator Iselin (who might remind us today of any number of politicians who shoot their mouths off without having any real facts in hand), and wonderful work is turned in by beautiful Leslie Parrish as Shaw’s sweetheart, John McGiver as her liberal father, Henry Silva as a Korean interpreter who plays a key role in the capture of the Americans in the opening sequences, and Khigh Dhiegh and Albert Paulsen as Communist operatives eager to get a foothold in America.
3D Rating: NA
The film has been framed at 1.75:1 and is presented in a transfer that’s anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Though Criterion had only a DVD to send for review, it’s obvious that the transfer is a stunning one with not a shred of dust or dirt present, and the grayscale mixed with inky blacks and crisp whites with every shade in between is most appealing. Frankenheimer’s director of photography Lionel Lindon uses lots of deep focus photography and wide angle lenses which occasionally cause problems with sharp focusing (some close-ups of Sinatra late in the film are very soft in counterpoint to very sharp close-ups of Harvey in the same scene, exactly the way the film was originally released and subsequently reissued, so this is not an error with the transfer). Contrast has been consistently rendered throughout. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.
Though the Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix has only a midlevel bitrate, the audio comes through very nicely with easy to understand dialogue, the impressive, sometimes nerve-jangling music by David Amram, and the atmospheric effects all combined into a professional era-appropriate mono track. In quieter scenes, one can hear some evidence of soft hiss or muffled crackle, but it’s not a major concern.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentary: producer-director John Frankenheimer offers lots of interesting information in his track, but it becomes more piecemeal the longer the film runs.
Angela Lansbury Interview (10:47): as one of the few surviving stars of the film, Angela Lansbury offers remembrances in 2015 of her work with John Frankenheimer on this film and on All Fall Down.
Errol Morris Interview (16:32): the director expresses his appreciation for the movie and especially dwells on the effective way the film captures the paranoia of the Cold War era depicted in the story.
John Frankenheimer- George Axelrod-Frank Sinatra Roundtable (7:49): the three men look back in 1988 on what they accomplished with the movie on the eve of its reissue after decades away from the public eye.
Susan Carruthers Interview (20:50): the historian focuses her attention on the subject of brainwashing which was a new fear of the Cold War era and how effectively it is portrayed in the movie.
Theatrical Trailer (1:52)
Pamphlet: contains a cast and crew lists, information on the audio and video transfer, and film writer Howard Hampton’s exemplary analysis of the film.
A great political thriller that spreads out its effects brilliantly to pile dread on top of dread, The Manchurian Candidate is one film that deserves to be seen multiple times to watch the insidious way the narrative has been set up and brought forward. It’s a must buy for those who are fans of the stars or director and certainly for those who didn’t get the first Blu-ray release of the film via MGM in a fine if somewhat less impressive transfer.