The Manchurian Candidate went through one of the strangest journeys any movie has taken to becoming a classic. It was turned down by every major studio on the initial round of pitching from John Frankenheimer (then best known as a ground-breaking live television director), eventually earning a green light from United Artists after JFK endorsed the book. It was released to modest praise and success, even nabbing a few Oscar nominations. Then the film was removed from release for decades, either a result of superficial similarities to the Kennedy assassination or Frank Sinatra’s feud with UA over profits depending on who you believe. When it was finally pulled from the vaults in the 90s, it was instantly embraced as a lost masterpiece and continues to resonate with audiences in surprising ways. Hell, it even got a decent remake from Jonathan Demme in 2004. Now The Manchurian Candidate has finally entered the Criterion Collection and frankly, it’s about damn time.
The plot shouldn’t really be described to anyone who hasn’t seen it and those who have will hardly need a refresher. A peculiar mixture of brainwashing, communist plots, McCarthyism satire, assassination, and pure paranoia, it’s a story from a very specific time. Born out of the unrest of America on the brink of a variety of social revolutions, Frankenheimer casts a world in which communists are using the red scare to sneak a candidate into presidential power. It’s hinged on bizarre medical experiments, a damaged Frank Sinatra, and none other than Angela Lansbury as one of the most terrifying mothers to ever grace the silver screen. It works as a pure thriller, yet also boasts a dark wit. It’s a tough movie to pin down to a specific genre or tone, which is likely why it’s endured for so long. Any time you watch The Manchurian Candidate, it’s possible to see a different and deeper movie than the one you saw before.
Which is not to say that The Manchurian Candidate is perfect. The performance style of many of the actors is dated and it features an absolutely ridiculous karate chop fight from Sinatra that the star insisted make it into the movie to justify all of the training he was doing in his spare time. Yet, even those wonky moments add to the film’s charms. One particularly odd n’ awkward exchange between Sinatra and Janet Leigh has been reinterpreted for years and could either be a secret brain washing sequence or just a poorly written scene. It’s hard to say, but either way it’s a fascinating moment. One thing that is undeniable is the visual mastery that Frankenheimer displays. In particular the iconic communist brainwash/lady’s tea party sequence is both a surrealist visual stunner, a brilliant bit of bleak comedy, and a horrifying nightmare that still packs a punch. The film could be watched and adored silently as pure visual poetry. The fact that it serves such a complex and rich narrative only adds to the unique power of the flick.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Manchurian Candidate is the way the movie has remained such a uniquely fascinating achievement despite the decades of paranoid thrillers that came in it’s wake. Pretty well any thriller made in the 70s owes a debt to the mixture of political angst and genre conventions defined here. Yet, none of the mountains of imitators (including Demme’s remake) have quite been able to match this unique concoction. It’s the type of mainstream entertainment that questions national values that the film industry could use more of these days. It’s doubtful anyone could ever top Frankenheimer and co.’s unique achievement, but it would be nice to see a few people try. Lord knows there’s plenty to be paranoid about these days.
The Manchurian Candidate has been released on Blu-ray before, so you’d better believe that Criterion went out of their way to justify this double dip. First there’s the remarkable new 4K transfer that retains all of the natural film grain of the era while revealing new depths and shading never available at home before. Given Frankenheimer’s love of wide angle lenses and compositions spread across a deep depth of field, there are plenty of shots that deeply (pun intended, apologies!) benefit from this lavish new restoration. It’s incredible. The audio has also been touched up with any nagging hisses and pops from the previous release removed. Again, it’s noticeably improved yet given that this is a mono mix, don’t expect too much.
Next up are the special features and they are plentiful. The excellent John Frankenheimer audio commentary from the previous release has been ported over as is an 80s talkshow appearance from Sinatra, Frankenheimer, and George Axelrod that’s well worth a look (nothing else from the previous release was retained, but to be honest that’s not a big loss). New to this release are three fresh interviews. The first is with Angela Lansbury who provides a delightful recollection of the film’s production, release, and legacy that’s well worth a look (don’t worry, she talks about the incest you filthy so-and-sos). Next up is a surprisingly entertaining and energetic chat with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris about his love of the film and he provides some pretty intriguing and bizarre analysis that is well worth considering. Finally, historian Susan Carruthers offers a cultural context for the film that is absolutely fascinating. Diving into everything from the then fresh fascination with brainwashing and subliminal messaging to the obsession with over-mothering children that hit that generation, Carruthers provides a fascinating framework for the themes discussed in the film that should enrich any viewer’s appreciation.
Toss in a trailer and Criterion have officially delivered the new definitive Manchurian Candidate release. Toss out all of your other Manchurian tapes and discs. They’re useless now. Criterion have done it again! God bless em.