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Criterion Review: The Manchurian Candidate

March 15, 2016

By John Corrado

The Manchurian Candidate Blu-rayDirector John Frankenheimer’s groundbreaking political thriller The Manchurian Candidate is being released on Blu-ray this week, as part of the Criterion Collection.

This 1962 classic follows a celebrated Korean War veteran (Laurence Harvey), who has been brainwashed to become an assassin who coldly kills in a trance-like state, and his controlling mother (Angela Lansbury), who is married to a fear-mongering senetor (James Gregory) looking to move up in the political ranks.

Laurence Harvey carries the film with a brilliantly measured and controlled performance, and Frank Sinatra brings star power as the fellow prisoner of war using his vivid dreams to start uncovering the conspiracy.  Angela Lansbury netted her third Oscar nomination for this unforgettable role.

A few years before directing the equally paranoid Seconds, which got the Criterion treatment in 2013, John Frankenheimer is in top form throughout The Manchurian Candidate, delivering almost feverish amounts of tension as more twists are revealed and the intricate plot thickens.  The final minutes of the film keep tightening the screw until the last possible second, building an incredible amount of suspense over the mechanical assemblage of a sniper rifle, which is poetically scored by the national anthem.

The film utilizes excitingly modern camerawork to help keep this tension going all the way through, and the crisp black and white framing adds a sense of timelessness to many of the most haunting images, like a bullet that pierces a carton of milk, leaves its victim lying dead in a pool of white liquid.  The Oscar-nominated editing and still impressive cinematography are perhaps most notably on display during the pivotal nightmare sequence early on, which uses cross cuts and a spinning tracking shot to illustrate the depths of hypnosis and mind control the characters have undergone.

Adapted from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate grows even more fascinating when viewed with knowledge of the political climate from when it was written.  It’s infused with the residue of Cold War paranoia that was still very much alive at the time, using pointed satire to tackle the ongoing fear of communists that was being harboured in the post-McCarthy era.  Released in the fall of 1962, exactly a year before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who was reportedly instrumental in helping get the apprehensive United Artists to produce it after Frank Sinatra asked for the president’s blessing, the film proved itself to be eerily prescient of forthcoming events.

With the Hollywood Blacklist still in effect, there is also sweet hypocrisy to the fact that such a scathingly political film was even released within the studio system at such a time.  A further twist of fate, involving a rumoured financial dispute between United Artists and Frank Sinatra, kept the film hidden after its initial release for over 25 years, before it was finally rereleased in 1988 to even more acclaim.  It was remade by Jonathan Demme in 2004, with more modern political allegories of evil corporations and right-wingers posing as progressive just to get elected.  But the original still remains king.

Among the best and most influential films of the 1960s, The Manchurian Candidate is a fascinating and brilliantly crafted conspiracy thriller that provocatively explores the close intersectionalities between war and corruption, and how violence is often used for political gain.  These themes were revolutionary at the time of their release, and they remain disturbingly relevant over fifty years later.  It’s become iconic.

The Blu-ray includes a 1997 commentary track with John Frankenheimer, a 1987 conversation between him, screenwriter George Axelrod and Frank Sinatra, as well as a new interview with Angela Lansbury and a featurete with documentarian Errol Morris on his appreciation for the film.  There’s also a talk with historian Susan Carruthers on Cold War brainwashing, and an essay by critic Howard Hampton.

The Manchurian Candidate is 126 minutes and rated PG.

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