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Our reviews of The John Frankenheimer Collection (published January 22nd, 2008), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (Blu-ray) (published June 2nd, 2011), and The Manchurian Candidate (2004) (published January 24th, 2005) are also available.
"Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire…"
It's fascinating yet chilling to see how this political thriller maintains a certain freshness and feasibility (to conspiracy theorists, anyway) some 40-odd years after its initial release, especially during this particularly polarized election year. Although its ire was clearly raised by the dark era of McCarthyism while its setting is established during the post-Korean War uncertainty, 1962's The Manchurian Candidate continues to present compelling parallels to present-day politics in an almost unsettling predictive (or retrospective?) manner.
Facts of the Case
It's 1952. During a tour of duty in the Korean War, Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey, Of Human Bondage) and his platoon are ambushed and presumed killed. Three days later, Shaw and his squad, minus two brave but fallen soldiers, reemerge, recounting how they overpowered their attackers, with Shaw single-handedly saving his men. Arriving stateside, Shaw is awarded the coveted Medal of Honor, much to the unabashed delight of his irrepressible mother (Angela Lansbury, The World of Henry Orient), who commandeers her son's decoration as means to prop up her current husband and Vice-Presidential hopeful, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory, Murderers' Row, Barney Miller). Yet while his overbearing, overambitious mother manages and manipulates the senator toward his political destiny, Raymond is likewise lost in a somnambulistic consciousness where he is seemingly "triggered" into actions not entirely of his own will.
Shaw, however, is not alone. Maj. Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra, The Devil at 4 O'Clock) is plagued by a recurring nightmare in which he, Shaw, and the rest of their squad are subjected to some sort of mental conditioning at the hands of…is it a New Jersey women's garden club? Or…is it an assemblage of members of the Chinese and Russian Communist Parties led by brainwashing expert Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dheigh, The Mephisto Waltz)? Marco senses something is terribly wrong, especially since he recalls an intense dislike of Sgt. Shaw despite his apparently automatic proclamation that Shaw "is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being he has ever known in his life." Turning to the U.S. Army brass and psychiatrists for help, Bennett unravels the reality of events that had taken place during that Korean ambush and slowly discovers the truth about Sgt. Shaw's deeds, especially those directed against his purported band of brothers. Can Marco, however, reach Shaw and stop his next unpredictable action before the "American operative" sends the hapless would-be hero on a final, unthinkable assignment?
"A normally conditioned American, he's been trained to kill, then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt; nor would he, of course, have reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms—guilt and fear—he cannot possibly give himself away."
And so the squirming begins as we viewers anxiously watch while the calm and calculating Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dheigh) chuckles with sinister satisfaction at the newest weapon of the Communist Party, a "sleeper assassin" designed to establish the ultimate stronghold within the United States and penetrate the highest branches of the American political body. Without a doubt, Richard Condon's 1959 novel-turned-movie's prediction of an unwieldy political apparatus is far-fetched at its core yet, through its unwavering conviction to its own premise, succeeds in planting the seeds of doubt. Given that it's designed to play off the fears and paranoia of the potential for such a "Red Scare," director John Frankenheimer executes this big screen adaptation with skill and precision (he confesses himself that the content of Condon's book was so well-developed that it was barely altered when put to film). Pulling from his well-stocked bag of TV tricks (he helmed the likes of 1954's Climax! and 1956's Playhouse 90), Frankenheimer brings a quick pace and ad hoc style to the film, the same that was often seen in rapidly-produced TV efforts. Here, the style works wonderfully and, when set to a black-and-white film stock, it leads to a frantic, out-of-control, almost newsreel-like frenzy that adds a certain sense of credibility to this very raw, unbridled, and unafraid film.
For Frankenheimer, this film served as a milestone accomplishment, one that gave him firm standing within the motion picture realm (again, he says he had excellent material to work with) while also serving as a "defining vehicle" for many of the film's stars. Many proclaim this to be Sinatra's best dramatic work, a sentiment that would be difficult to impeach. Ol' Blue Eyes turns in an excellent performance, convincingly vacillating between despair and determination. Yes, it was rumored that Frankie was a tough cookie on the set and routinely refused re-shoots (note the out-of-focus sequence involving the deck of Queens), but he also gave some irreplaceable moments that cement this work among his finest.
Lawrence Harvey, as Raymond Shaw, also performs more than competently, instilling an honest-to-goodness creepiness as the sleeper agent (and that is not a spoiler—since this fact is drawn out and exposed to the viewer within the first 10 minutes of the picture). His British tone does feel a bit awkward and out of place here, yet it serves to subtly isolate him from the rest of his platoon; he is the odd card in the deck. The arc his character travels is likewise subtle yet significant, a journey Harvey consummates with perfectly underplayed aplomb leading coolly to the stark events of the final reel.
The picture unmistakably belongs to Angela Lansbury, though. Without a doubt, she's the most frightening element of this Cold War thriller. Her depiction of the smothering, conniving and insufferable Ms. Iselin, mother to Raymond, earned the veteran actress the well-deserved distinction as one of the screen's most reviled villainesses. Moreover, her characterization of a woman possessed and blinded by her own personal goals and ambitions, no matter the cost, is simply more terrifying than that of the Red Threat being visibly paraded across the screen. Actress Lansbury, who most have come to associate with the clever but conservative Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, delivers a powerful performance that will surely take viewers by surprise.
The rest of the cast, including Janet Leigh, Leslie Parrish, James Gregory, and John McGiver, all have their distinct roles that serve the plot progression with the same precision exhibited by all other aspects of the picture. Their parts, and the supporting parts of the other actors in the cast, are played to just the right extent; none overstay their usefulness to the narrative.
This particular DVD is an updated release, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington. While the timing of the remake is somewhat curious (a new twist on a tale of political subversion, perhaps, utilizing a 43-year-old story to steer or sway the perceptions or inclinations of a modern-day populace during an election season), the issuance of this Special Edition disc is most welcome. For starters, this new edition features a crisp and sparkling clean anamorphic widescreen transfer, a much better candidate for your hard-earned dollars when compared to the inferior speckled non-anamorphic transfer found on MGM's 1998 release. The audio is also significantly retooled, offering a well-mixed 5.1 surround track that, while it doesn't behave as aggressively as some explosive-action 5.1 tracks, provides a suitably pervasive soundstage. For purists, the film's original mono track is also present.
In the Extras department, this disc contains the same Frankenheimer commentary that was included on the 1998 issue. [Ed. note: Frankenheimer died in 2002.] The director is rather conservative with his comments, but what he does share along the way is interesting and useful as first-hand background information. Also returning is the 1988 "chat" with Frankenheimer, writer George Axelrod, and star Sinatra. It's slightly embarrassing to see men of Frankenheimer's and Axelrod's stature coddle and practically cower to Sinatra. The same theatrical trailer is also on hand for a second term. New to this edition, however, is an interview with Angela Lansbury in the "Queen of Diamonds" retrospective, where the actress recounts her experiences and reactions to the picture (beware the major spoilers in this one). Then, there's "A Little Solitaire," a new featurette in which the uninvolved William Friedkin gives his perspective on the importance and lasting relevance of the film. A new photo gallery wraps up the new extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's hardly surprising that a potent picture such as this has attracted its own contingent of conspiracy theories and Moviedom myths. While most major motion pictures have their share of behind-the-scenes tales, trivialities, and titillating scandals, The Manchurian Candidate has been afflicted with a much more relevant batch of rumors. The most sensational, and presumably most prescient, back-story is the uncanny parallels the narrative would ultimately share with the assassination of President Kennedy just 11 months after its release. For starters, it has been well established by Frankenheimer and Sinatra that JFK personally endorsed the making of the film, naming Condon's original novel as a personal favorite. After the President's assassination, the story goes that Sinatra pulled the film from circulation for almost a quarter of a century out of respect for the fallen leader, his personal friend. This story, however, has since been disputed—Broadcasting magazine reported the fact that the film made its American television debut on CBS in September 1965, then repeated on the same network later that year. In 1974, the film was broadcast on the NBC network, according to TV Guide. The crux of the twisted tale about the film's temporary disappearance sprung from the fact that, when rights to the picture reverted to Sinatra, the crooner-turned-actor neglected to keep the film in distribution; this, of course, was misunderstood all the way into the annals of urban legend, the film incorrectly noted as being ostracized from exhibition due to its being a purported contributor to Lee Harvey Oswald's actions.
Whether you're a devout conspiracy theorist, a die-hard political thrill-seeker, or a just a lover of classic and classy cinema, The Manchurian Candidate is required viewing. Plainly put, this spellbinding picture is also a required addition to any well-rounded film library. If the previous release wasn't compelling enough from a technical or tantalization standpoint, this new special edition release should have enough to convince you to get a copy for yourself.
Despite its provocative—nay, disturbing—content, all connected with this film are found not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor, this court acknowledging the potentially positive impact of the film's message, be it from a thought-provoking or purely entertaining standpoint. MGM is commended for properly improving upon its former release, providing film enthusiasts with the more appropriate content and quality due this film. Case dismissed.
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