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Manchurian Candidate, The

The Criterion Collection // PG-13 // March 15, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted March 28, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

John Frankenheimer's 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate is an amazing piece of Cold War era filmmaking, encapsulating all of the paranoia and fear that seems to have been so common in the America of that day. The story follows a group of soldiers who have returned home from the Korean War, primarily Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), whose memory seems to be slipping. He knows he's a decorated war hero but he can't remember why and something doesn't seem to be completely right in his head. A few other members of Shaw's troop, chiefly Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), are also having recurring nightmares. What's going on here?

We learn that while overseas, this group of soldiers were brainwashed by a Chinese hypnotist whose grip on the men is so powerful he's able to convince one man to kill another without so much as batting an eye. Marco decides to meet up with Shaw to talk about what happened to them and to see if they can figure out what's going on while Shaw's mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury), and step-father, John Iselin (James Gregory), try to bring him back into society. Things become even more complicated when John gets the Republican nomination for run for President. While Shaw's life starts to spiral, Marco and his girlfriend, Eugenie (Janet Leigh) find themselves deeply involved a deadly conspiracy theory.

One of those rare films where EVERYTHING comes together, The Manchurian Candidate is pretty much a flawless film from start to finish. From the opening scenes in Korea (look for a young Henry Silva playing a Korean man named Chunjin!) through to the return to American soil the film is gripping, tense, exciting and incredibly suspenseful. Frankenheimer's direction is spot on, allowing the audience to put the pieces of the puzzle together only as quickly as the characters in the film itself. This, for lack of a cornier cliché to use, keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout and by mixing in some well played dramatic moments and a few scenes of genuine horror into the pot, we wind up with a movie that really does keep you guessing.

Performance wise, the film makes great use of its top notch case. Sinatra is great here, tough enough to work in the storyline and dashing enough to deserve to hook up with foxy blonde Janet Leigh. They make a good fit here and look great together but don't for a minute think that their relationship is simply another typical Hollywood romance. Nothing in this film is typical. Laurence Harvey is also great in his part, playing his increasingly confused character while supporting efforts from Gregory and Lansbury as high society stuffed shirt types round out the core cast members really, really well. It's hard for some of us not to associate Lansbury with Murder She Wrote but here she plays a perfect bitch so far removed from her Jessica Fletcher character that it's hard to believe it's the same actress.

Fantastic black and white cinematography helps add a noirish feel to the movie, while attention to detail is outstanding. Little moments, like a scene where Sinatra's character is so wracked that he can't even light his cigarette from trembling, help to ratchet up the suspense and keep you paying close attention. The conspiracy theory elements and the way in which the government's side is twisted into the plot are surprisingly envelope pushing for their time, though there are moments where Frankenheimer is definitely going for satire. Regardless, the film is just as good as its sterling reputation would have you believe, a genuine classic if ever there was one.

The Blu-ray:


The Manchurian Candidate arrives on a 50GBBlu-ray framed at 1.75.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. The transfer is taken from a new 4k restoration and it looks excellent. Contrast is spot on, the image is more or less immaculate and there are no problems with any compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Noise reduction is never obvious if it's been applied, and there's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present. There's very good depth, detail and texture evident throughout the entire movie and deep, solid black levels as well.


Audio options are provided in English language LPCM Mono. Again, there are no problems here. There's very good clarity, everything is properly balanced, the dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and understand. Hiss and distortion are never an issue and everything sounds great here. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.


Recorded in 1997 and ported over to this release is a commentary track from Frankenheimer himself. Unfortunately the track suffers from some pacing problems. When the director feels inclined to speak, he's excellent and offers up a lot of unique insight into the filmmaking process and his experiences on this production. He notes certain day for night shots, what locations were used and why, and how it was tough to get this one made as the big studio's didn't want to touch it. That said, he periodically clams up for long stretches at a time and this hurts things a bit. What's here, however is very good. He's got some great stories about the various cast members, Sinatra in particular (he used his own private plane for the airport scene in the first ten minutes of the picture), about the politics of the film and about the different locations that he and his crew used for the shoot, why certain shots look the way they do and the lenses they used to get that shot. It's just unfortunate that there wasn't a moderator here to keep him a bit more engaged.

The disc also features some newly shot material, starting with an interview featuring Angela Lansbury recorded in November 2015. In this eleven minute piece she speaks about what it was like working with Frankenheimer, not just on this picture but also on All Fall Down and how they hit it off. She also talks about what it was like working with Sinatra, how he never wanted to do more than one take, working with Laurence Harvey, her thoughts on the film itself and more. The second supplement exclusive to this release is an interview with Errol Morris that clocks in at sixteen and a half minutes. Here he speaks about his feelings on the film, the themes that it deals with and the extreme paranoia that infected America after the finish of the Second World War and how the film is very much a product of its time in that way. He then goes on to discuss the socio-political climate of the film's day, how Frankenheimer was able to capture the reality of that feeling in this film and quite a bit more.

The disc also includes an eight minute clip from 1988 with Frankenheimer, Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod where they talk about working together on the film twenty-six years after the film was finished. Sinatra sits there with a cocktail in hand while Frankenheimer tells him that without him, they wouldn't have had the movie. It goes from there as they talk about their united belief in the movie, their thoughts on the film and what it was like working together. Another new interview shot in 2015, this time featuring film historian Susan Carruthers, is a twenty-one minute piece wherein she talks about the origins of the story, the influence of communist China on the story, how events in North Korea played a part, the treatment of American P.O.W.'s after the war, brainwashing tactics and quite a bit more. Obviously Carruthers wasn't there and didn't play a part in making the movie but her input here is very interesting, well researched and it helps to give the film some welcome context.

Aside from that we get a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Inside the Blu-ray case alongside the disc is an insert booklet of liner notes containing an essay on the film called Dread Center by Howard Hampton as well as credits for the feature and the disc.

Final Thoughts:

An amazingly tense and exciting film shot with style to spare, The Manchurian Candidate is a true classic of suspense featuring great performances and awesome cinematography. Criterion's Blu-ray release is very strong, offering up quite an improvement over the standard definition releases and even the last MGM Blu-ray release of the film, alongside a great selection of extra features. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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Highly Recommended

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