“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” All the men who served under him in Korea say so. Which is odd because the guy is a cold, self-righteous jerk. Maybe it has something to do with the way they seem to be on autopilot when they say it.
Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate deals in brainwashing. Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and his men have had their minds altered by Russian and Chinese scientists for some strange and evil purpose. But the Commies aren’t the only villains here. Fanatical right-wing anti-Communists stand eager to destroy our freedoms in order to save them.
Indeed, Angela Lansbury gives the performance of her life as one of these American fascist schemers. She plays Shaw’s mother as a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. She utterly dominates her son and her idiotic husband—a US Senator modeled after Joe McCarthy and played by James Gregory.
Frank Sinatra also gives his best acting performance here, even if it’s not as showy as Lansbury’s. The movie’s nominal hero, he’s burdened with nightmares (the result of the brainwashing) and tries desperately to figure out what’s going on. This is no James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, but an army intelligence officer who feels like he’s in way over his head. “Intelligence officer? Stupidity officer is more like it,” he rants.
Writer George Axelrod (adopting Richard Condon’s novel) and director John Frankenheimer, put everything together in a taut, suspenseful, and dazzling fashion. The film, released a little more than a year before JFK’s assassination, proved prophetic.
Of course, you can bring up the pop-up menu if you want to change a setting or watch the extras.
How It Looks
My first impression was one of disappointment. The pre-credit sequence, set at night in Korea, looked grainy and only mildly HD—better than the DVD but not better enough to justify the upgrade.
But once the credits ended and the story switched to America, the image got sharper and the 1080p resolution began to show it’s stuff. Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon use a lot of deep-focus shots and razor-sharp visuals to dramatic effect. Occasionally a character would be slightly out of focus, adding a sense of frayed senses. These subtle effects work much better here than on DVD.
For what it’s worth, the film was shot, and is presented here, in black and white.
How It Sounds
Once again, we’ve got a film originally released only in mono, available on Blu-ray only in 5.1 surround. This is the fourth Blu-ray I’ve reviewed in a row that failed to include the original mono soundtrack.
Yes, I understand that some people prefer surround sound even for a film that wasn’t intended to have it. But why can’t the studios understand that other people want the original mix? It’s easy enough to put both on a disc. In fact, my DVD of The Manchurian Candidate contains both the new 5.1 mix and the original mono.
For what it’s worth, the 5.1 mix (presented here in lossless DTS HD Master Audio) makes little use of all those speakers. Just an occasional sound effect or off-screen voice. The mix begins to do something interesting during the famous 360-degree pan shot, but doesn’t follow through.
And the Extras
The Blu-ray comes with almost exactly the same extras as the DVD. It lacks the follow gallery, but adds two new, very short shorts total about a minute and a half between them.
In other words, there’s a commentary by Frankenheimer, and five stanard-definition videos totaling less than 40 minutes. They tell some interesting stories, and make it clear that writer Axelrod had as much to do with the final product as director Frankenheimer.
All things considered, this is a good but not exceptional presentation of a great motion picture.