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Manchurian Candidate (1962), The

MGM // PG-13 // April 14, 2011
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 25, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

...or at least that's the party line now. The Marines under Shaw's command in Korea had long found him to be soulless and insufferable, but hypnosis and a few psychopharmacological
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cocktails can do wonders to turn those sorts of frowns upside down. The Communist cabal has resculpted Raymond Shaw into an unflinching, obedient assassin, and the sergeant's men -- the ones he hasn't killed at his new masters' behest, at least -- have been brainwashed into worshipping the ground he walks on. An elaborate story of heroism has been concocted by the Reds, and they've even manipulated Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), the commander of this kidnapped platoon, into recommending Shaw for the Congressional Medal of Honor. It's clear the Communists are eyeing Shaw as more than just another weapon, and two full years pass before their grand design begins to come into focus. As the other Marines are reeling from nightmares of the psychological torture they endured, Shaw is sleeping more soundly than ever. After spending so much of his life under the heel of his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury), Shaw for the first time feels independent and in control...blissfully unaware that the Communists have started to pull the strings of their sleeper agent, aiming his crosshairs at the heart of capitalism.

I'd forgotten just how perfect a film The Manchurian Candidate really is. Despite its Cold War-era setting, the film's politics don't feel the least bit dated, in large part because of its satirical bent. This isn't a story of valiant, freedom-loving 'mericans pitted against the sinister Communist threat. The Reds aren't the film's only villains, and care is taken to skewer the empty bluster of American politics as well. Loudmouthed but vapid Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his cries against Communism seeping into every facet of American society are standing in for McCarthyism. He's not saying anything of substance -- he can't even keep his numbers straight about how many Commies have infested the Department of Defense -- but he bellows loudly enough to stoke the fires of paranoia, drowning out the voices of every other politician in Washington. At the peak of the Red Scare, a single empty accusation is enough to crush longstanding political dynasties. In The Manchurian Candidate, Communism is evil, yes, but at least the Reds are transparent about it. Evil masquerading as a force of good is perhaps even worse.

The Manchurian Candidate never preaches about its politics, though. One of the most fascinating things about the film, in fact, is its complete disinterest in marching in lockstep with any established formula. The Manchurian Candidate is most readily described as a political thriller, and
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that's not at all inaccurate. The Communist threat and the skewering of McCarthyism are a constant undercurrent, the political foundation of our society is at stake, and all of the murder and manipulation are integral to that grab for power. Even with a minimum of traditional action sequences -- dispensing with the usual taunting, posturing, shootouts, explosions, and cat-and-mouse games -- The Manchurian Candidate is unwaveringly intense and suspenseful. Rather than lean on spectacle and bombast, director John Frankenheimer builds tension through lush characterization and remarkably strong performances. The stakes matter because we're so deeply invested in these this world.

The Manchurian Candidate is an intensely character-driven film, steadfastly refusing to settle for archetypes. Every last one of its actors are at the top of their game, and they're each offered at least one scene to truly showcase their talents. Rather than play a stock cackling madman, the Chinese scientist behind the brainwashing (Khigh Dheigh) is perhaps The Manchurian Candidate's liveliest and most charming character. The frigid and embittered Raymond Shaw's gradual transformation into someone happy and fulfilled is as endearing as it is tragic, the dramatic irony of knowing that he's someone else's marionette and that his newfound lust for life cannot last. Laurence Harvey is nothing less than brilliant in the part, seizing hold of a character who's so cold and difficult to like yet finding a way to make him sympathetic as well. Frank Sinatra's turn as a military man who commands authority yet can't control the psychological torment inflicted upon him is by any measure a career best, and Angela Lansbury's Academy Award nomination for her performance as Shaw's domineering mother is richly deserved.

Frankenheimer's presentation of the Communists demonstrating their newest weapon is unnervingly eerie, bounding between a roomful of military officials and the meeting of a bunch of old biddies in a botanical society that the Marines have been brainwashed into perceiving. The way the same dialogue is folded into these tremendously different venues...the way the meetings smirkingly shift visually depending on the
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perspective...the inhuman coldness as the Communists' instrument of destruction is unleashed...the Marines he's been ordered to murder beaming with smiles and cheerfully accepting their's both wonderfully strange and disturbing. Mixed in with all these other disparate tones is an unmistakeable sense of humor. The satire is razor-sharp, from the irony of anti-Communist rhetoric paving the way for a Communist takeover all the way to ketchup indirectly torpedoing dozens of political careers. The humor never gets in the way of the more dramatic elements and serves instead to heighten them.

I've barely started to scratch the surface, not having so much as mentioned Janet Leigh's entrancing performance or the way the film's female characters are its most aggressive and forceful. The Manchurian Candidate succeeds even if viewed as just the political thriller it appears to be at first glance, but there's so much more aching to be appreciated. There's an artful craftsmanship, a profound intelligence, and a wicked subversiveness to The Manchurian Candidate that I can't fathom finding their way into a mainstream film these days. The brilliance of The Manchurian Candidate hasn't dimmed in the slightest over the past fifty years, and there's only one largely insignificant scene that to my eyes separates it from absolute perfection. The Manchurian Candidate deserves a far more lavish special edition release than what MGM has disinterestedly dumped onto Blu-ray, but it's still a thrill to be able to watch a movie I love so deeply in high definition, and its extremely low sticker price makes this disc all but impossible to ignore. Very, very Highly Recommended.

This Blu-ray disc looks to be minted from the same master as MGM's 2004 DVD release; the framing is identical, and the same flecks of dust appear in all the same places. Despite this transfer dating back at least seven full years, The Manchurian Candidate still looks terrific in 1080p -- not as perfect as I would've preferred but by any measure a very worthy upgrade over that earlier standard definition release. Particularly when the camera's closed in tightly, clarity and detail consistently impress. There's frequently a slight tinge of softness that keeps The Manchurian Candidate from matching the most exceptional presentations of black-and-white films from the early '60s, and contrast seems thinner than perhaps it ought to be, but I really can't imagine anyone being disappointed by what MGM is delivering here. Even in medium shots, I feel as if I can discern each and every individual strand of hair in Angela Lansbury's immaculately designed coif. The grittiness of the original film grain is, for the most part, left intact, a far cry from the indistinct texture of the 2004 DVD. Although this Blu-ray disc is marred by frequent speckling, the same as the DVD before it, it's not terribly distracting, and edge enhancement isn't nearly as much of a nuisance either. If you'd like a direct comparison between that earlier disc and this newer high definition release, expand the screenshots below to full-size:

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There is one lengthy take that's out of focus, but that should in no way be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray release. As for the sporadic softness, I can't say for certain if that too dates back to the original photography, if it's an issue with the selection of elements, or if the age of this transfer is to blame. One definite aberration with the authoring of this disc is some heavy processing in just a couple of shots near the very end of the film. I don't recall seeing anything quite like this at any other point, and that just makes the filtering that much more jarring. Opening this image to full-size should clarify what I mean. It's distractingly artificial and digital in appearance, unlike the very filmic look of most every other frame of the movie.

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The Manchurian Candidate doesn't look perfect on Blu-ray, no, but this is still a reasonably worthy presentation, especially considering that the disc debuted at Best Buy earlier this year for all of ten dollars. I'd also point to this Blu-ray disc as a compelling upgrade for owners of the 2004 DVD release.

The Manchurian Candidate has been lavished with a very high bitrate AVC encode that spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The image is very faintly pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.75:1.

Disappointingly, this Blu-ray disc does lose the original monaural soundtrack from the 2004 DVD release. The only option here -- at least in English -- is a 5.1 remix. This 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack starts off well enough, at least, with the opening sequence in Korea making very effective use of all of the channels at its disposal. Discrete cracks of gunfire snarl from each speaker, and the pans of aircraft soaring overhead also contribute to that sense of immersion. The first few minutes offer the largest scale of the action throughout the entirety of the movie, and even with as modest as bass response is here, the levels still seem appropriate. Once The Manchurian Candidate steps foot outside the borders of Korea, though, the multichannel mix really doesn't seem altogether certain what to do with itself. Dialogue has a tendency to leap from speaker-to-speaker, even in the middle of a sentence. The placement of the dialogue shifts with each camera setup and every cut, and this can be extremely jarring. Adding directionality to dialogue can be effective if used sparingly, but forcing it on every single line gets very distracting very quickly. There were also a couple of moments where it sounded as if the same lines were emerging from multiple channels simultaneously. The fidelity overall is passable but unremarkable, and mild background noise does creep in at times, although it really depends on the scene. Passable but lackluster.

The Manchurian Candidate also includes two dubbed soundtracks: a monaural Spanish track (DD 2.0; 256kbps) as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in French (640kbps). Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.

It's a bit annoying that The Manchurian Candidate doesn't bother with any sort of main menu. The movie immediately starts playing and loops once it's finished, and getting to the extras or setup requires digging through the popup menu. Clearly this isn't that much of a hassle, but it does seem kind of cut-rate.

All of the extras from the 2004 special edition DVD -- minus the photo gallery, at least -- have been carried over to this Blu-ray disc. Nothing new has been produced or unearthed for this release, though.
  • Audio Commentary: This feature-length conversation with director John Frankenheimer is extremely engaging when he has something to say. Disappointingly, that doesn't happen all that often, and like a fair number of early Laserdisc-era commentaries, this track is marred by long, long lulls. Despite a quarter-century already having passed when Frankenheimer sat down to record this track, he's able to effortlessly rattle off exceptionally specific technical details about production, he debunks the long-standing rumor about Sinatra only being willing to do a single take (although
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    there is a kernel of truth to that)
    , and he takes care to compare and contrast the original novel with this film adaptation. Frankenheimer tells some terrific stories throughout the commentary as well, such as a Greek theater deciding The Manchurian Candidate was too confusing and taking it upon themselves to lop out a large chunk of the film, how Laurence Harvey managed to hopelessly confuse the guests at one of New York's most prestigious hotels, and working in a Hitchcock homage -- though he has a different word for it -- in the finalé. This discussion is a deeply rewarding listen, but be aware that it isn't nearly as consistently conversive as more modern commentaries are.

  • Interviews (36 min.; SD): There are three sets of interviews scattered across the extras on this Blu-ray disc. The first dates back to 1988 when The Manchurian Candidate was issued on Laserdisc, and it's an eight minute conversation with Frank Sinatra, producer/screenwriter George Axelrod, and director John Frankenheimer. After briefly reflecting on how The Manchurian Candidate came together, the three of them speak about the unsettling relationship between Raymond Shaw and his mother, the film's unconventional tone, the lack of graphic gore, and how Sinatra broke his finger while filming one of Western cinema's first kung-fu fights.

    In her fifteen minute interview, Angela Lansbury delves into how she was wrangled into the role of Eleanor Iselin while working on another film of Frankenheimer's, and the discussion moves from there to the psychology of her character and how the performance took shape. There are some additional notes about The Manchurian Candidate's satirical sense of humor, how lush with characterization it really is, and the film being withdrawn from circulation in the wake of Kennedy's assassination.

    The last of the interviews is with William Friedkin, and the director speaks about the lasting influence of John Frankenheimer, the craftsmanship that defines the direction and editing of The Manchurian Candidate, the tension on the set between the film's director and its star, and the parallels between the movie and the tragic end of John F. Kennedy.

  • Interview Outtakes (2 min.; SD): Two very short outtakes from these conversations are presented on their own. Though I'm trying to step lightly around spoilers, the minute-long "How to Get Shot" has one member of the cast chatting about the research that went into convincingly falling down after taking a hit. Clocking in just shy of thirty seconds is an outtake with William Friedkin riffing when a phone in the background starts to ring.

  • Trailer (2 min.; SD): Last up is a standard definition trailer.

The Final Word
The Manchurian Candidate is the smartest, sharpest, wittiest, most engaging political thriller I've ever seen in my life.

Really, The Manchurian Candidate is an astonishingly brilliant film and a classic by any measure, and although I'd have preferred some sort of lavish Criterion treatment the same as anyone, I'm just thrilled to have a longtime favorite such as this on Blu-ray, period. The extras are admittedly rather slight for a film of its stature, and dismissing the original monaural soundtrack in favor of an awkward remix is a definite disappointment as well. Still, its high definition presentation is reasonably strong, and the very modest sticker price takes some of the sting out. This is a film deserving of a place in most any collection, and with an asking price of $11.99 at several online stores as I write this, this Blu-ray release of The Manchurian Candidate is well-worth seeking out. Highly Recommended.

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