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The Manchurian Candidate: Special Edition

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury

Written by George Axelrod
From the novel by Richard Condon

Directed by John Frankenheimer

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

John Frankenheimer's vivid adaptation of Richard Condon's arch Cold War thriller spent 25 years on the shelf, after star Frank Sinatra withdrew the 1962 movie from circulation following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During that time, the cult of praise surrounding The Manchurian Candidate grew, and its re-release in 1987 was greeted with cries of salvation from movie enthusiasts. Most of that hype is well-earned.

Sinatra stars as Ben Marco, a U.S. Army Major plagued by nightmares about his service in the Korean War. Marco's patrol had been ambushed and designated MIA, only to emerge three days later, rescued by the heroics of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Marco's dreams, however, hint at a different reality — one in which Marco's patrol was shanghaied by Russian soldiers, taken to Manchuria, and subjected to an experimental program of mind control by a sinister communist cabal. Shaw — stepson to a U.S. Senator — was assigned the role of hero in the charade, but was programmed as an assassin. At first, Marco's superiors think he's suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but when another soldier from his platoon reports similar nightmares, Marco travels to New York to find Shaw and unravel the conspiracy.

*          *          *

With its shocking mix of political intrigue and high-stakes psychological hi jinks, The Manchurian Candidate made unusual and daring film fare for 1962, and once it was withdrawn, it was hyperbolized as probingly prescient. After all, this 2004 Special Edition DVD release arrives in a swelter of politically charged entertainment and polarizing election-year controversies, with a new, updated, all-star film (and loose adaptation) of Condon's novel set (somewhat inappropriately, some might say) for theatrical release for the 2004 summer film season.

Much of Frankenheimer's movie is excellent, expertly balancing political farce with emotionally wrought, action-movie tension. Frankenheimer's skill for turning important dramatic scenes into unforgettable set-pieces is marvelous (even if some of the less conspicuous, early expository scenes are as engaging as cold soup, and the action scenes are dispiritingly clumsy). He also flavors the project with alluring quirks (like images Abraham Lincoln, often obscured or degraded, everywhere). Frankenheimer also brilliantly makes the movie about brainwashing on several levels. Not only is Shaw's mind controlled by sinister suggestion, but throughout the film characters major and minor are servant to a wide range of indoctrination, from ideological conviction, parental manipulation, political puppetry, and military command. The Manchurian Candidate is thorough and bracing in that regard, and yet the much-heralded superficial elements of its plot are not so groundbreaking or premonitory.

Much of the obvious social commentary in the movie lampoons an anti-communist crusading senator as a buffoonish McCarthyite hack, which might have raised eyebrows in 1962 (but has since become the Hollywood boilerplate depiction for like-minded politicians). But given the film's greater context, this serves a purely narrative service with little social value. Also the real-life 1963 political assassination that resulted in the film's withdrawal is more coincidental than anything else, bearing no relation in detail to Shaw's mission. The Manchurian Candidate also wallows in political calculation and yet is utterly naive about the consequences of minor political scandals, let alone enormous ones, severely undercutting any claims of serious political relevance therein.

Rather than inflated notions of historical or cultural importance, most of The Manchurian Candidate's reputation as a classic is tribute to Angela Lansbury, who plays Shaw's unyielding, controlling mother to perfection. Without chewing the scenery, Lansbury delivers one of the great sinister turns of all time. It is a beautiful piece of acting in a mostly fine cast. Also excellent is James Gregory as Lansbury's befuddled, malleable, commie-baiting husband. Sinatra is solid as the movie's straight man, while Harvey has moments in the key role of Shaw, but is often too British for the role (this movie has more than one bit of geographical miscasting, with Henry Silva playing the least-Asian looking Korean on earth). The movie's worst moments belong to the forlorn Janet Leigh, who screenwriter George Axelrod saddles with some truly terrible "quirky" dialogue as Sinatra's love interest (she stiffly says she prefers her nickname Rosie, as it "smells of brown soap and beer"). Never mind that her character is completely superfluous in a film that is not always as lean and taut as it should be, and runs a tad too long.

Nevertheless, The Manchurian Candidate is still a terrific Cold War thriller, with both deliciously comic and harrowingly dramatic moments, and, with a few substantial plot holes, deserves a less-exalted place in movie history than the one where it currently resides (like #67 on the AFI's list of the Top 100 Movies) thanks to its quarter-century banishment.

*          *          *

This new Special Edition DVD from MGM has a great transfer, presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.75:1) with the original monaural audio (DD 1.0) or a new DD 5.1 remix. Extras returning from the original DVD release include the good audio commentary by director Frankenheimer and 1988 interview with Sinatra, Axelrod and Frankenheimer, while new 15-minute interview segments feature Lansbury and Frankenheimer protégé William Friedkin (both of whom also pop-up in interview outtake Easter eggs). A photo gallery and a trailer also are on board. Keep-case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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