Much like studying the historical events of days past, sometimes it’s good to look back at the history of filmmaking, particularly when Hollywood runs out of creativity and decides it’s time to remake classic films of old. With that in mind, we look back at the original classic, The Manchurian Candidate
It was the creation of Star Wars that changed filmmaking forever. Since the advent of “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” making movies started to mean making spectacles – trying to dazzle audiences with visual effects. The Manchurian Candidate comes from the era before Darth Vader, when movie making was still a somewhat fledgling industry with very little in the way of set rules or boundaries.
The Manchurian Candidate tells the tale of soldiers from the Korean War. Before the opening credits we are quickly introduced to the faces of the young soldiers as we see them captured by the enemy. As the credits close we see them return home with one of their number, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing the soldiers from enemy hands. However not all is well. Shaw has to deal with the political aspirations of his mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather John Iselin (James Gregory). The other soldiers are having a rough time as well, as best shown by Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) who is experiencing odd dreams where he is at a women’s luncheon that transforms into a meeting of communist powers in Manchuria and back again. Soon Marco isn’t the only soldier trying to contact Shaw to get answers from an officer they once despised, but now everyone in the company seems to think of as “the kindest, bravest, warmest and most wonderful human being” they’ve ever known. Soon the tale of Shaw and Marco reveals that the soldiers have been victims of brainwashing, and that one of their number has even been programmed to follow any instruction given under the right circumstances.
The truth is as a movie The Manchurian Candidate is nothing special. It comes from a time where the images on screen weren’t exactly exciting, and the pace of a story wasn’t as important or formulated as it is now. However, it is also from a time where actors and actresses earned their nominations for Academy awards (as proven by Lansbury who won a supporting actress for Candidate). Lots of long continuous shots are used, forcing the actors to hold their own without the safety net of editing. Sinatra in particular was famous for doing things in one take to keep the spontaneity of the moment. This means that if the movie is captivating, which it is, it is a real credit to the actors for making it so.
That’s not to say director John Frankenheimer doesn’t deserve some credit for Candidate’s interesting tale. In a time where static shots were almost exclusively used, Frankenheimer does utilize some interesting techniques. Of particular note is a 360-degree shot during the soldier’s imprisonment that transforms from the subjective images the soldiers think they are watching of a ladies luncheon to a objective view that shows the truth of what’s going on in the scene. Following that the multiple angles that make up the rest of the scene show a mixture of the images from reality and fantasy. It’s a memorable selection of film history that will never be outdone.
With all of that said, while the story of The Manchurian Candidate (based on the Richard Condon novel) is intriguing, the film itself probably could be retold in a more visually interesting method. However, the upcoming remake will have a tough task ahead of it if it plans to compete with the performances of Lansbury, Sinatra, and Harvey.
The “Special Edition” release of The Manchurian Candidate really isn’t much of an improvement over the previous release, and probably only exists to time a release with the theatrical remake. Like the first release of Candidate the theatrical trailer is included along with a director’s commentary by Frankenheimer. Unfortunately the commentary is quite dry and spotty as Frankenheimer doesn’t speak the whole time.
Both versions also share a brief interview with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and writer/producer George Axelrod from 1988. It’s less of an interview and more of a conversation between the three, mostly made up of Frankenheimer and Axelrod reminding Sinatra of behind the scenes information about the movie. The real shame of it is that when it finally gets really interesting, the picture freezes and the “interview” is over.
So what’s new in this release? Well, there’s a photo gallery with images from both behind and in front of the camera during the making of the movie. Beyond that are two featurettes: “Queen of Diamonds” with Angela Lansbury, and “A Little Solitare” hosted by William Friedkin. Both featurettes focus on the host’s perspective of the film. Lansbury talks a lot about her character and what it was like to work with the cast and crew. Friedkin is a random choice to host a feature, as he had nothing to do with the film other then idolizing Candidate’s director Frankenheimer. Friedkin talks about behind the scenes stuff not shared elsewhere like Sinatra’s dedication to the spontaneity of the scene or the movie being shelved shortly after release due to the assassination of JFK. Both featurettes are bland, although Lansbury’s is the better of the two as she actually had something to do with the film as opposed to Friedkin who seems like he just didn’t have anything to do that day so he recorded 10-15 minutes talking about someone else’s movie.
The Manchurian Candidate remains one of my favorite classic movies with probably the best performance by Frank Sinatra. While I expect the story can be told in a better manner, I doubt the performances will ever be rivaled. It’s unfortunate there isn’t a more interesting DVD release for this picture, and with most of the cast and crew already having given input, or having passed away, it’s unlikely a better version will ever come out.