Chilling in the extreme, The Manchurian Candidate set the standard for cinematic paranoid thrillers and stands as the quintessential John Frankenheimer film. Faithfully adapted by screenwriter George Axelrod from Richard Condon's novel, the film skillfully exploits shadowy espionage techniques and provides witty political satire. Already tense audiences first experienced the film when it debuted at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis: over the decades, it has lost none of its terrifying atmosphere and, unfortunately, remains politically relevant.
The sordid tale begins with the capture of a U.S. Army outfit during the Korean War. Whisked off to Communist China, the platoon becomes subject to brainwashing techniques that wipe their conscious memory and plant a cover story for Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (a pitch-perfect Laurence Harvey), the man chosen to be a sleeper assassin. Back in America, the platoon members are haunted by dreams that reveal the truth of what occured: though decorated as such, Shaw isn't the hero who saved their lives; rather, he's just another victim of a terrible, traumatic violation. The platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) can't take the cold sweats anymore and, setting out to find answers, immediately runs afoul of danger. Meanwhile, Shaw plays his part—manipulated by Soviet agents and his coldly calculating mother (Angela Lansbury, famously only three years older than Harvey)—as the plot he's been programmed to carry out draws closer to fruition.
Frankenheimer's direction is nothing short of masterful, achieving maximum destabilization of the audience with a blend of unsettling compositions and fly-on-the-wall photography reminiscent of his documentary work. Especially brilliant are the dream sequences that toggle between objective and subjective points of view on the brainwashing demonstration: memories of a ladies' garden club mask the Manchurian captors. The ultimate ruthlessness of power-hungry Americans proves a match for these creep-outs, with Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin betraying an incestuous lust for her own son even as she willingly sells him out as part of a plot to install her husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory, hilariously essaying the ultimate patsy), at the top of the American political power structure. The plot centers on elites rising to power by manipulating American sentiments with hysterical fear—an idea that has lost none of its cachet in the post-9/11 era. With the McCarthy-esque senator, Frankenheimer also gets to take his shots at the Hollywood Blacklist (which complicated his years directing television when many of his casting decisions would go unapproved).
All this and so much more: the unusually moving characterization of Shaw, a cold fish whose shot at romantic happiness we explore in flashback; the disturbing oddity of Marco's strangers-on-a-train meeting with a woman named "Rosie" (Janet Leigh); and bursts of action, including the much-imitated climax. Playing a heroic man rattled to his core, Sinatra was never better, and Lansbury makes a delicious dragon lady. Jonathan Demme helmed a good 2004 remake with Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber, and Meryl Streep, but it doesn't top the impact of Frankenheimer's original.
MGM does right by The Manchurian Candidate in its Blu-ray debut. The transfer is outstanding, offering natural film grain and substantially more detail than the DVD releases. Deep blacks distinguish the image, and the all-important contrast for this black-and-white film is spot-on. It's difficult to imagine this film looking any better. MGM also provides a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix: there's not much to busy the surround channels, but the score sounds better than ever.
This special edition retains DVD bonus features, beginning with a great audio commentary with Director John Frankenheimer. It's a bit spotty, but when Frankenheimer has something to say, it's always worth saying (and hearing).
Though short, the 1988 "Interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer" (7:59, SD) is certainly interesting as the director, screenwriter and star sit together for a chat.
The 2004 featurette "Queen of Diamonds" (14:51, SD) is an interview with Angela Lansbury.
Also from 2004, the featurette "A Little Solitaire" (13:17, SD) finds director William Friedkin giving his perspective on The Manchurian Candidate.
Also here: "How to Get Shot" (1:07, SD), the Frankenheimer interview outtake "Phone Call" (:26, SD) and the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:50, SD).
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