Manchurian Candidate Criterion

Evil Chinese, worse Americans, innocent bystanders, brainwashing, assassination, and party politics collide in this surprisingly timely cold-war thriller from 1962. While the suspense grows, the story attacks both Communism and McCarthyism (a recent memory with lingering effects in the early 60s). it also contains the most evil mother in the history of movies.

I reviewed Fox’s first Blu-ray of The Manchurian Candidate back in 2011. Now Criterion is re-releasing the movie, in a new, improved 4K transfer, with the original sound mix and some new extras.

The film starts in the Korean War, where an American platoon is captured by the Chinese. Then it shifts to the post-war USA, where the platoon’s sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. He’s cold, aloof, and thoroughly unpleasant. That’s understandable. His mother (Angela Lansbury in the best performance of her career) is an evil, scheming, manipulating monster. In her eyes, anyone who crosses her is a Communist. She controls not only her son, but also her husband–a senator clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy.

James Gregory plays this idiotic senator (whom Shaw constantly reminds people is only his stepfather) to hapless comic perfection. Twice, director John Frankenheimer visually compares him to Abraham Lincoln. It’s never a complimentary comparison.

Compared to these two, the main Communist villain is a pussycat. Even with his disdain for human life and his Fu Mancho mustache, Khigh Dhiegh comes off as likeable. At least he has a sense of humor.

I should mention that this film, written by George Axelrod from a novel by Richard Condon, could not possibly have been made when it was set–in the mid-1950s. By 1962, its undisguised attack on McCarthyism was just barely acceptable in a Hollywood feature.

While Shaw tries to avoid Mommy, other veterans of his platoon suffer from a reoccurring dream. They’re listening to well-dressed women talking about horticulture, but these women also seem to be Chinese and Russian men–many of them in uniform. The dreams are, of course, a side effect of brainwashing. But for what purpose?

The brainwashing dreams/flashbacks are in themselves masterpieces of editing and camera movement. The American soldiers, dazed and lethargic, seem to be waiting out time in two places at once.

Although Shaw is really the central character, Frank Sinatra gets top billing. He’s certainly the most sympathetic character. A member of the platoon suffering from those dreams, it’s his job to unravel the mystery–or at least try.

Janet Leigh plays his romantic interest, but her character is far from believable. When she first meets Sinatra’s Ben Marco, he’s so messed up emotionally he won’t look her in the eye. His hands shake so badly he can’t light a cigarette (this is 1962; everyone smoked in the movies). So what does she do about this crazy person? She gives him her phone number.

And yet, that meet-odd scene works, primarily because of its almost surreal humor. She’s clearly an unusual woman.

This isn’t the only great thriller to come out of the cold war, and it’s certainly not the most fun (that would be North by Northwest). But it’s probably the most intelligent, and the only one to attack extreme anti-Communism. And all the while ratcheting up the suspense.

First Impression

The Manchurian Candidate comes in a standard Criterion clear plastic box, with a unique, simplified illustration on the cover. Inside, along with the disc, is a foldout that contains film and disc credits, About the Transfer, and an article by Howard Hampton (see below).

When you insert the disc for the first time, the home menu screen sports an animated version of that cover, with the various options on the left side–Criterion’s usual location. There are no setup options; not even subtitles.

When you insert the disc again, you’ll be asked if you want to return to where you were when you last ejected it. You can easily get back to where you started. As is standard for Criterion, there’s a timeline where you can place your own bookmarks.

How It Looks

Lionel Lindon shot The Manchurian Candidate in standard widescreen black and white (at a time when color was just becoming ubiquitous). It contains a lot of deep focus shots, often with one face just slightly out of focus. In a couple of very interesting scenes, we watch the same action from two angles–with one of those angles on a TV monitor.

The Criterion transfer comes from a new 4K scan off of the original camera negative. It’s presented on the disc in 1080p with AVC encoding. The aspect ratio is an unconventional 1.75×1 ratio, which was apparently Frankenheimer’s choice.

The result is a major improvement over the 2011 release, with stronger blacks and significantly more detail. A couple of scenes looked over-processed, but that probably wouldn’t bother anyone who wasn’t looking for problems.

How It Sounds

Criterion presents the original mono mix in a single, uncompressed 24-bit LPCM stream. This is probably the best it has sounded since Frankenheimer signed off on it in 1962.

It’s a major improvement over the 2011 release, which had only a 5.1 remix.

And the Extras

  • New Article by Howard Hampton: On the fold-out, not the disc. Do not read this essay before seeing the movie–it contains spoilers right from the start. If you have seen the movie, it’s an interesting take on it.
  • Commentary by John Frankenheimer: Recorded in 1997. What the film’s director has to say here is always interesting. Much of it is technical–lenses, mixing film and TV, and so on. The problem is that he didn’t have much to say. For long stretches, you’re just watching the movie.
  • New
    Angela Lansbury: 1080p, 11 minutes. Interview from 2015. Mostly she discusses working with Frankenheimer. But she also talks about how Sinatra pulled the film out of distribution after Kennedy’s assassination, so it had to be rediscovered.
  • New
    Errol Morris: 1080p, 17 minutes. The documentarian talks about how much he loves this movie. His enthusiasm wears out after a while.
  • George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer, and Frank Sinatra: This 1988 interview was clearly shot in standard definition video, but for some reason Criterion presents it in 1080p (it still looks like SD). My only real complaint is that, at 8 minutes, it’s not long enough.
  • New Susan Carruthers: 1080p, 21 minutes. The historian discusses the brainwashing scare of the 1950s. It’s fascinating history, and helps you understand the cultural world in which the film was made.
  • Trailer

Four shorts from the original Blu-ray release aren’t here: Queen of Diamonds, A Little Solitaire, How to Get Shot, and Phone Call. No big loss.

I don’t believe that any of these extras discuss the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington.

The disc goes on sale on March 15.