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The Criterion Collection: The Manchurian Candidate | Blu-ray Review

The Manchurian Candidate John Frankenheimer Blu-ray

As we go through another round of sensationalized presidential campaigns with various candidates claiming altruism in the name of power, John Frankenheimer’s classic political thriller The Manchurian Candidate seems more horrifyingly prescient than ever. We currently live in a world where Donald Trump can ride a wave of bigotry and win the Republican nomination, while the corporate media can effectively hush the voices of the people by simply refusing to cover them, a truly terrifying reality that mirrors the McCarthyism fueled candidate grooming that serves as the backbone of George Axelrod’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s eponymous novel originally published in 1959. Frankenheimer’s film, supported by memorable performances by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, James Gregory and Angela Lansbury, starts with a stacked deck, lays all its cards on the table and still manages an air-tight coiling of political suspense that chokes the hope from ones heart, only to give that all important Hollywood ending.

Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Lionel Lindon, who spent much of the late 50s and early 60s on television productions like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Manchurian Candidate paints the current political state in the throes of the red scare with the alcoholic Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in the puppet role as vice presidential candidate while his wife Eleanor (Angela Lansbury as the ultimate ice cold, ultra controlling power mom) calls the shots from behind the Oz-like curtain of femininity. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has captured an unwitting US military outfit and unleashed an invisible weapon within themselves. The face of the outfit is Sergeant Raymond Shaw, “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being,” as his brothers in arms have been brainwashed to call him, is indoctrinated into the communist killing machine as a US Medal of Honor awardee, lavished in praise by the press, but has unknowingly murdered several of his own at the order of the Manchurian military scientist Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh).

Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra at his cinematic best) has been brainwashed with the rest of them, but the repeating nightmares and post-traumatic stress he suffers from cause him to seek out answers in the face of opposition. What he discovers is that Shaw has been molded into a covert super soldier incapable of self doubt or a guilty conscious, as his duties as a foreign assassin are kept locked up in the mind like Russian nested dolls and can be triggered by a coded set of commands and visual cues. Oddly, amidst the political chaos and subsequent investigation, Marco attracts the romantic attention of Eugenie Chaney (Janet Leigh), who upon meeting the nervous wreck of a man is already ready to leave her fiancé. Likewise, Shaw’s sidelined romance with the spawn of his mother’s political opposition crops up to act as the party’s sacrificial lamb.

Narratively complex and socially incisive, The Manchurian Candidate was the first film to grapple directly with the wreckage of McCarthyism. Gregory’s ingeniously belligerent performance as Iselin furiously shouting accusations before the flashing lights and microphones of the press perfectly replicates the fear mongering that was perpetuated throughout the 50s and is beginning to rear its head once again, while Lansbury’s position as the power playing Mrs. Shaw Iselin is a startling depiction of the fear of feminism of the time. What kind of monsters lurk behind the lipstick and powder, ready to program every man and boy into committing unfathomable evil? It’s all quite remarkable – Axelrod’s taut script, the surreal performances and Frankenheimer’s propulsive direction. The film remains an unquestionably powerful, politically acute thriller that cuts a little too close for comfort in our current political climate.

Disc Review:

As is usual for The Criterion Collection, they’ve packed the disc full of goodies and made sure to present the film free of as much dust and damage as possible, thanks to a brand new 4k scan of the original 35mm camera negative. The image is crisp, with a strong sense of contrast across the beautiful black and white cinematography. The monaural track is clean and possesses and startling amount of depth in the soundscape considering its solo mixdown. The disc itself comes packaged in Criterion’s standard clear Blu-ray case.

Audio commentary from 1997 featuring director John Frankenheimer
In fits and starts, the director imparts some excellent gems of info about the film’s production, its inspiration and his own personal memories of the time. The only downside is that he’s only occasionally inclined to comment, so there are substantial gaps in conversation throughout.

Interview with actor Angela Lansbury
In this lively little interview, Lansbury shares some fascinating details about JFK being consulted on the film, Lucille Ball having almost been cast instead of herself, and more. 11 min

Filmmaker Errol Morris discussing his appreciation for The Manchurian Candidate
Watching Morris speak about films that he loves is always a pleasure and this one is no different. Here he shares his appreciation and own personal take on various odd production decisions –  most notably the film’s possible feminist backbone. 17 min

Conversation between Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and actor Frank Sinatra from 1987
Recorded in 1988 for the rerelease of the film, this brief reflective conversation sees these men coming together for the first time since the film’s production. 8 min

Interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the Cold War brainwashing scare
Going into the historical context for the Korean War POW situations that likely served as inspiration for the original novel, Carruthers takes it further by connecting various cultural dots, from America’s increased awareness and paranoia of subliminal messages via television and advertising to the anxieties of the nuclear age. It’s likely the most fascinating and informative included extra. 21 min

Theatrical Trailer
Warning its audience not to be late for fear of missing the always important first few minutes, it relys on its anxiety inducing score and as much action as can be culled from the feature. 2 min

More poster than booklet, this foldout sheet contains the usual credits, transfer notes and an essay by Howard Hampton, a regular contributor to Film Comment.

Final Thoughts:

This film continues to resonate on so many different modern political levels, from media scare mongering to military torture, rigged elections through the lack of gun control. Despite being released back in 1962, ominously just a year before JFK’s assassination, The Manchurian Candidate rings of relevancy while remaining a supreme example of a well made suspense thriller. So now with this new, beautiful home release – watch, enjoy, and obey.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

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