The original Manchurian Candidate, in hindsight, is actually a semi-prescient movie, what with the assassination of John F. Kennedy a year after its release. So, as an historical milestone, it’s definitely up there with films that you need to see if you’re into such things. But it’s also a masterful picture that deserves to be seen by anybody who loves cinema in general. That said, skip the decent 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and stick with this one, as it definitely holds up even today. Oh, and Frank Sinatra really can act. But he can’t do karate.
Brainwashing, McCarthyism, assassination, mommy drama, a love story…jeez, there are so many threads going on in The Manchurian Candidate you would think it would get lost in its own ambitious storytelling. Thankfully, this classic film from the 1960s, based on the book by Richard Condon, remains enthralling and intelligible throughout, making it one of the best, and most revelatory, films of that decade. It contains great acting, good pacing, and a masterful script that stays focused throughout and very rarely lets you down.
To describe the plot of The Manchurian Candidate would require several tangents, as there’s an interesting story for each of its characters throughout, so I’ll just give you the gist of it all. During the Korean War, a bunch of GIs are captured and forced to undergo brainwashing treatments by the Communist party. Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) is the key member of this brainwashing procedure and is turned into an assassin who mentally goes AWOL whenever he sees the Queen of Diamonds. This is all because he was programmed to kill and forget after he sees this card. The story then introduces a web of deceit involving the man’s mother (played beautifully by Angela Lansbury), who seems to play a bigger role in all of this than you would suspect. Now, that’s a very, very poor retelling of the story, because it doesn’t even introduce the headliner of this film, Frank Sinatra, who plays the man who uncovers all the lies. But what I just told you was definitely the most interesting element of the film. Though The Manchurian Candidate is great throughout, there are definitely parts that are more fascinating than others, and the aspect of the brainwashing is the most interesting in the entire film. The uncovering of said brainwashing, though, is just not as good.
The brainwashing plotline opens up so many different avenues that it’s impressive that it all comes together so seamlessly. One thing I absolutely love about The Manchurian Candidate is that it’s a satire that takes itself seriously, but it doesn’t come off as forced or corny. This is mainly because of the McCarthy character, John Iselin (James Gregory), who has all of the bombast of Joe McCarthy himself. This part of the movie, the rising to power of a man set to destroy America, only works because similar events happened in American history. People were blacklisted all the time back then and were proclaimed to be Communists when they really weren’t. It’s a subplot that weaves in brilliantly with the main story, making it disturbingly humorous when situated inside the rest of the pitch-black plot.
Janet Leigh's character does drag The Manchurian Candidate down somewhat, as the love story is a bit slow. If there’s any part of the film that I’d chop out completely, it’s this one, as it doesn’t seem entirely necessary. Also, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie where Frank Sinatra does karate. It’s been said that it’s the first fight scene ever in American cinema to feature martial arts, and it shows, because it is as stiff and comical as a Captain Kirk battle on some alien planet. But besides those two nitpicks, The Manchurian Candidate is a phenomenal picture and I highly recommend it. It’s one of the movies that I’m happy to revisit every couple of years or so.
It’s funny, with all the conversion of movies to Blu-ray these days, it almost doesn’t make sense for some of these older films to be converted. The two main purposes of Blu-ray, by my understanding, are to put more space on the disc and to improve the visual quality of the film. Older movies such as The Manchurian Candidate definitely don’t provide enough of the latter to make it worth the purchase if you already own it on DVD, or for that matter, VHS. I mean, it looks alright on Blu-ray, but it’s definitely not the kind of film that I would recommend you rush to get for the picture quality that you’re going to see on your high-def TV. It’s not Avatar, after all. Just a thought.
As for the special features, well, they’re really not all that special. There’s a commentary by director John Frankenheimer, but half the time he’s silent and admiring his own film. There are interesting tidbits, though, such as the fact that some of the scenes involving James Gregory’s McCarthy character included ad-libbed speeches. Other than that, it’s mostly just the director talking about camera shots and how much Sinatra wanted to be in the movie. Plus, I’m pretty sure it’s the same commentary already used on the DVD edition of the film since Frankenheimer is now dead. Pass, it’s nothing special.
The “Exclusive interview with Frank Sinatra, George Axelrod, and John Frankenheimer” is also from the DVD edition, so it’s nothing new. Nor is it too interesting. Frank Sinatra was very good in this film, but I don’t think he deserves the praise that the writer and the director bestow upon him in this featurette. The “Queen of Diamonds Featurette” has Angela Lansbury, who doesn’t look a day over 65, talking about her role as the mother in this film. It’s probably the most interesting special feature on here, and it’s fascinating to learn just why she took the now iconic role. “A Little Solitaire Featurette” is another feature that’s not all that special, but it does talk about the relevance of the film as a historical document of what was to come with Kennedy’s assassination. “How to Get Shot” is a few minutes of Lansbury talking about exactly that -- how to act like you’re getting shot. The “Phone Call” feature is -- I’m not even joking -- a phone ringing during an interview and George Axelrod making a joke about it. Little wonder that it isn’t even mentioned on the back of the box. The original trailer is also on here, and it’s pretty ridiculous in that you-gotta-love it, '60s style of trailers. “If you miss the first five minutes…”
Overall, the special features are okay, but nothing worth splurging over for the Blu-ray edition if you already have The Machurian Candidate on DVD.