In retrospect, American movies made after 1949 increasingly reflect the period in which they were made. Whereas the 1930's on film had been an escapist panacea of mythical art deco backdrops not found anywhere in the real world, by the late 1950 film culture had begun to embrace a growing sense of realism. This was, of course, still being artistically reconstituted and marginally reconciled with the realities of the world at large. Movies and movie stars were still very glamorous. However, as the studio system that had fostered such glamour steadily declined throughout the 1950's and later fell into complete oblivion, the chasm between life on film and life in general narrowed.
By the 1960s America was a country disillusioned, both morally and socially and utterly divided along the lines of equity in gender and race. These precursors of a time yet to follow were not necessarily the result of that fallout from the war itself, but from a shredding of America’s own cultural touchstones on the home front, and by the new found and ever-increasing paranoia over the threat of nuclear annihilation that had all but paralyzed the collective consciousness of the nation. As such, the 1960s became the perfect decade for movies about reexamining our own corruptibility and self-destructiveness through variously themed morality plays. Throughout the decade filmmakers would continue to mirror this world-weary angst and ambiguity about the future. One of the first was John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Based on Richard Condon's 1958 novel, the screenplay by George Axelrod begins in earnest during the Korean War. The Soviets capture an American platoon and take them to Communist China where they are collectively brainwashed. After the war, the soldiers, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) return home as decorated war heroes, but with an implanted account of a skirmish that, in reality, did not happen. Shaw's mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) has remarried to Senator John Iselin (James Gregory); a thoroughly misguided McCarthy-esque fop whom she hopes to put into the White House. Eleanor arranges for a marching band to meet her son at the airport, thereby linking the Senator's name with Raymond’s presumed military success. But Raymond shuns the spotlight and thwarts any and all further attempts to make himself a part of their political machinery.
Instead, Shaw rekindles his romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of one of his stepfather's arch political rivals, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver). Unlike Senator Iselin, Senator Jordon holds no grudges over Raymond's head. In fact, he is both tender and encouraging of the romance that continues to blossom between Raymond and his daughter. Under Platoon Commander Captain Bennett Marco's (Frank Sinatra) recommendation Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor. But something is remiss. Marco knows that Shaw is cold and calculating, yet he finds himself compelled to refer to him as the kindest, bravest, gentlest man he's ever known. This contradiction about Shaw is echoed by the other soldiers in his platoon. But Marco is having second thoughts. Since his promotion to Major he has been plagued by crippling nightmares in which he witnesses Raymond Shaw murder two of his fellow soldiers at the behest of a Chinese commander.
Learning that another soldier from his platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards) is also having these nightmares, Marco decides to go to Army Intelligence with the understanding that they have all been brainwashed. After identifying key figures in the Communist government, Army Intelligence agrees that something is wrong and decides to help Marco in his investigation. Meanwhile, Eleanor Iselin is revealed to be the communist party’s American operator; sacrificing Raymond to the cause and responsible for triggering his episodic lapses in memory whenever he is shown the Queen of Diamonds playing card. Inadvertently, Jocelyn arrives at a costume party thrown by Eleanor dressed as the Queen of Diamonds. Raymond becomes hypnotized by her and when Jocelyn suggests that they marry Raymond agrees under her spell.
Although pleased by the announcement, Senator Jordon informs Eleanor that he will seek her husband's impeachment if he even dares make a run for the White House. Instead, Eleanor hypnotizes Raymond with another bout of the cards and thereafter sends him to Jordan’s residence to assassinate the Senator. In the ensuing gunfire Jocelyn is also murdered. This treason dutifully carried out under hypnosis, a stunted Raymond returns to the Jordan house much later to discover the bodies. With no prior knowledge of his own crime, Raymond is genuinely grief stricken. Meanwhile, Marco has befriended Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) a compassionate reporter who encourages him to seek help for his persistent and haunting nightmares.
Learning the secret of the Queen of Diamonds on his own, Marco confronts Raymond with a game of cards and observes as he triggers Raymond's complete obedience. Under hypnosis Marco commands Raymond to break his association between the Queen of Diamonds and any assignments he is given thereafter. Unaware that Marco has tampered with her son's programming, Eleanor primes Raymond to assassinate the Presidential nominee at the convention center, thereby securing Senator Iselin's nomination. Raymond complies with her command, or so it would seem. He arrives at the convention center disguised as a priest and takes refuge in a high balcony where he assembles a rifle with a scope.
Having deconstructed the plot for himself, Marco hurries to the convention center with his superior, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson) to apprehend Raymond just as the Presidential nominee (Robert Riordan) is about to take the podium and deliver his speech. Instead, Raymond exacts his revenge on his mother and stepfather, shooting them both before taking his own life in front of Marco while still wearing his Medal of Honor.
The Manchurian Candidate is taut entertainment with a political kick. Frankenheimer and Axelrod had to do some minor tweaking of Condon's references to family incest between Eleanor and Raymond, but otherwise the film remains exceptionally faithful to its source material. One interesting anomaly in both the book and the film worth noting; neither makes comment about whether or not Rose Chaney is Marco's controller in the same way that Eleanor is Raymond's. Yet, the initial 'cute' conversation between Rose and Marco on a train bound for Washington suggests a rather curious familiarity between two people who have only just met. In the book Rose is more a transient figure. In the film she becomes a romantic interest for Marco, one - so it is hinted by the end of the story - who will continue to remain at his side.
After 1963 The Manchurian Candidate was rarely shown in public presumably because Frank Sinatra had it removed from distribution after the assassination of his friend, President John F. Kennedy as an obvious embarrassment of art influencing life. In the years since, the decision to keep the movie out of circulation seems to have been inspired more by bad timing and lapsed copyright that necessitated a renegotiation of terms with the original UA holding company before the film could be reissued.
Viewed today, The Manchurian Candidate continues to pack a powerful punch. The usually starchy and stoic Laurence Harvey is ideal as Raymond Shaw - a man so emotionless and mentally scarred that he is driven into isolation from the whole human race. In retrospect, Frank Sinatra has proven himself a remarkably eclectic talent. Anyone who has seen ol' Blue Eyes as the scrawny singing counterpart to handsome Gene Kelly during their musical heyday at MGM will be hard pressed to ignore the transformation from the bobbysoxer’s delight into a genuine star with real acting ability realized. While middle-age has often proven the kiss of death for many a star – both male and female – it was something of an elixir for Sinatra’s career. He effortlessly transitioned from featherweight musical/comedy star to a grittier sense of self, frequently exercised in war pictures like Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and steely-eyed detective thrillers like The Lady in Cement (1968). Arguably, none of these movies would have been possible without The Manchurian Candidate. Angela Lansbury is diabolically effective as the unscrupulous matriarch who would exploit her own son to topple a government. In the final analysis, The Manchurian Candidate is not to be missed.
Fox/MGM Home Video's Blu-ray transfer is adequate though hardly exceptional. The biggest improvement to the B&W image is in its black levels. These have become very deep, especially when compared to the DVD, supporting Lionel Lindon's somber cinematography. Overall, the image is 'tighter' on Blu-ray. But edge effects and issues with grain not looking very film like still persist, particularly during the opening sequence shot at night and title sequence that immediately follows it. Bottom line: this is a 1080p bump of the original digital files used in the DVD’s mastering rather than a complete rescan of original camera negatives. Fox is famous for going this quick and cheap route rather than taking the time to redo things accordingly. That’s a shame, because The Manchurian Candidate could definitely use the upgrade!
The audio has received a new DTS 5.1 but the question remains...why? This isn't exactly a movie to give your surrounds a workout and it would have been more advantageous to have a true hi-res scan with the original mono elements left intact. Extras are all carried over from the DVD release including a comprehensive audio commentary by Frankenheimer and several brief but instructive featurettes on various aspects of the making of the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)