Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Studio Line: MGM

Ask Major Bennet Marco and he'll say that Sgt. Raymond Shaw is a hero worthy of the Medal Of Honor. But despite what he says, Marco suspects otherwise. A bizarre, recurring nightmare gives him teh uneasy feeling that Shaw is something far less heroic and far more insidious. Is it possible that Shaw is a traitor? Can Marco convince the Army of his suspicions? How does Shaw's powermad mother figure into all this? So many questions. So precious little time....

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Supporting Actress-Angela Lansbury; Best Film Editing-Ferris Webster. 1963.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1, standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo, Spanish & French Digital Stereo; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; rated PG-13; 129 min.; $24.95; street date 3/24/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by John Frankenheimer; In-Depth Interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - David Amram

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C+/C+

In 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, we find a film that was ahead of its time. The story looks at a group of Korean War veterans who all have recurring nightmares about their involvement in that conflict. More specifically, they imagine that they’ve experienced some sort of bizarre events that leave them permanently scarred.

As the film progresses, we find out more about the nature of what happened to these men. It appears our friends the Communists got their hands on our boys and used them to show the power of hypnotism. As such, all of the men operate under false memories about their actions in the war, and one of them has been programmed to be an assassin.

TMC works as a taut and exciting political thriller in which our main protagonist, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), struggles to come to grips with his demons and find out the truth about his indoctrination. The film’s other main character is Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a sergeant in Marco’s group. Though the movie’s opening scenes show the platoon’s general dislike for Shaw, their cumulative memory of him is that of a hero and a virtual saint. Marco works to expose the facts and attempt to stop calamity from coming.

Shaw’s position is made additionally intriguing because of his heritage. His mother (Angela Lansbury) remarried Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), a sleazy moron who aspires to be another Joe McCarthy. Mrs. Iselin is the brains of the operation, and she keeps the red-baiting dope on a short leash. She also tries hard to maintain a tight grip over Raymond, though the reasons for her need for firm control don’t emerge until late in the movie as the assassin gets his important assignment.

It seems somewhat astonishing that such a film appeared in the fairly benign climate of the early Sixties. A piece such as this would appear more at home during the paranoid and cynical post-Watergate era, not during the years of Kennedy’s Camelot. Nonetheless, although it may have been out of place at the time - which probably explains its lack of box office success - director John Frankenheimer creates a cleanly-realized and compelling look at an insidious would of back-stabbing and deception.

Even when one knows the outcome of TMC, it remains a tense experience. On one hand, the story seems fairly ludicrous, but TMC manages enough realism to make the whole thing eminently believable and terribly spooky. The eerie qualities undoubtedly escalated the following year when Kennedy was killed; doubtless many wondered if a real-life dupe such as this film’s assassin was to blame for that tragedy.

That possibility seems remote, but the drama of TMC still works well after nearly four decades. In addition to the tight pacing and paranoid tone maintained by Frankenheimer, TMC benefits from some terrific acting. Truly, the whole cast do excellent work, and Sinatra is very solid, but Lansbury and Harvey probably provide the best performances. Harvey creates an interesting anti-hero with layers of complexity; while Shaw indeed is a jerk, he’s not a simple one, and as the story unfolds, we learn more about his emotional scars. As his mother, Lansbury proves to be supremely wicked and Machiavellian. Mrs. Iselin is more cartoonish than Raymond, but Lansbury still brings her to life within the evil constraints of the role.

Trivia note: TMC offers yet another movie in which an actor isn’t even remotely old enough to be the parent of another performer. Lansbury was born almost exactly three years before Harvey. Still, that beats the precedent set in 1948’s Hamlet. For that film, Laurence Olivier cast Eileen Herlie as his mother despite the fact that she was 13 years younger than he! What is it with guys named Laurence and their too-young mothers?

Despite that silly aspect of the casting, I found The Manchurian Candidate to provide a consistently taut and exciting experience. The movie seemed ahead of its time four decades ago, and it continues to hold up well as we move into the 21st century. Now you’ll have to excuse me so I can play a little Solitaire…

The DVD:

The Manchurian Candidate appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. The film presented a generally solid picture but some flaws led to its fairly average rating.

For the most part, sharpness seemed nicely crisp and detailed. A few wider shots came across as slightly soft and hazy, but these were rare. Most of the film was distinct and accurate. Unfortunately, this appeared to have resulted from some edge enhancement. I noticed more jagged edges than usual, and moiré effects appeared at times; checked clothes and flags caused most of the latter.

Print flaws seemed acceptably minor for an older film, but they stilled presented some concerns. I saw general light grain throughout much of the movie, and some evidence of nicks, speckles and dirt also appeared. I never found any of these defects to be excessive or terribly problematic, but the image was less clean than I would have liked.

As a whole, black levels came across as deep and dense. Actually, dark tones offered some of the DVD’s highlights, as they seemed nicely rich. Shadow detail generally appeared solidly clear and opaque except for some early shots that used “day for night” photography. As is typical of that technique, these scenes appeared overly dark and thick. Despite some problems, TMC generally looked quite good.

The film’s monaural soundtrack also seemed decent but fairly average for the era. At times dialogue sounded somewhat brittle and bright, but speech usually came across as accurate and acceptably natural, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Music appeared slightly tinny but sounded clear and adequately smooth. Effects occasionally seemed a little distorted - mainly during combat scenes - but for the most part they were clean and distinct. I detected some mild tape hiss and background noise throughout much of the movie. While the soundtrack undeniably seemed dated, it nonetheless appeared quite acceptable for a nearly 40-year-old movie.

The Manchurian Candidate offers a few supplemental features. First up is a running audio commentary from director John Frankenheimer. When he speaks, he provides some very compelling information that adds insight into the production. Unfortunately, Frankenheimer lets much of the movie pass without any remarks. It’s an excellent piece when Frankenheimer offers his thoughts. He covers a nice variety of topics, from alterations made to the original novel to casting to his overall intentions as a director. He tosses in some great anecdotes along the way, including one gem about a screening in Greece. Ultimately, Frankenheimer’s commentary can be frustrating due to its many silent stretches, but it nonetheless provides more than enough excellent information to merit a listen.

Less valuable is the Exclusive Interview found on the DVD. Recorded in 1988, this seven minute and 34 second piece gathers director/writer Frankenheimer, actor Sinatra, and producer/writer George Axelrod together to discuss the film. All three men were corralled into one room where they interacted with each other and reminisced about the movie.

It’s a great idea, but the result is less than thrilling. We hear some basic information about the movie and get a few decent anecdotes, but the absence of an actual interviewer harms the piece; an outside presence may have better focused the men’s thoughts. Still, the brevity of the program means that it doesn’t become excessively tiresome, so I thought it was worth a look.

Lastly, TMC includes the film’s original theatrical trailer. Also, many older MGM DVDs offer nice booklets that provide production notes. Since I rented TMC, I can’t state that it definitely has one of these, but based on my experiences, I’d expect that it does.

Although many movies seem dated within months of their release, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate has barely aged a day over the last four decades. It remains a taut and tense piece that manages to be eerie and thrilling throughout its entire running time. The DVD provides decent but unexceptional picture and sound plus an inconsistent but often terrific audio commentary. Ultimately, the strength of the movie makes The Manchurian Candidate a “must-have” DVD. Since it appeared during the same year as another ageless wonder, Lawrence of Arabia, it wasn’t the best film of 1962, but it’s still a terrific drama that works on virtually all levels.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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