The first time I saw the opening scene from the 1962 paranoid thriller The Manchurian Candidate, out today on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, I’m not going to lie: It kind of blew my mind.
Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having a nightmare, which is revealed to be about the least scary thing ever: a group of ladies having a hotel garden party. He and his troop are all there, completely out of place of course but looking nonchalant or bored, cigarettes draped from their mouths as a woman goes on about hydrangeas.
As the camera pans around in a circle, we suddenly notice Chinese soldiers on the stage with them. One, in a nice suit, is pouring a himself a glass from a pitcher of water. The camera pans out to show large posters of Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and other Communist leaders. Now he is speaking. About brainwashing. The director, John Frankenheimer, cuts back and forth between POVs: What the Americans see, and what’s actually happening. The natural flow of the editing is what makes it so surreal, and it must have either confused or scared audiences to death when it came out. Again: 1962.
Taking on big themes like conspiracies and assassination attempts with zero attempt to sugarcoat them, The Manchurian Candidate, adapted from a 1959 novel by Richard Condon , was way ahead of its time. JFK would be assassinated a year later, of course, so it was prescient as well. Watching it now, however, on this beautifully restored 4K transfer to Blu-ray, what strikes me is the savvy and modern craft of its filmmaking.
Even after being closely analyzed and picked apart since then — and pretty much universally recognized as a true classic — The Manchurian Candidate still holds mystery. Korean War hero and Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is the stepson of Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) — a Joseph McCarthy-like U.S. Senator who preys on the fear of the American people and trumpets falsehoods about Communists having infiltrated the Defense Department. But Shaw is brainwashed to kill and Iselin is a puppet. There’s conspiracies upon conspiracies here, and lets just say that Shaw’s beloved Mommy (Angela Lansbury) may be behind it all.
When I say there was mystery still to be nailed down in The Manchurian Candidate, I’m not trying to peg the film as ambiguous in the divisive sense that its often used today — where movies with ambiguous endings force one to think deeper about the questions they raise (while undoubtedly raising questions with producers about risky box-office prospects). No, The Manchurian Candidate is pretty much wrapped up in a bow by its conclusion.
It’s that infamous scene on the train between Sinatra and Janet Leigh. In addition to the dialogue being totally obtuse (she says she’s a Chinese railroad worker and he says something about Columbus, even though they’re in Delaware), Leigh is shot at first like some kind of apparition — we’re not sure at first from what angle she’s observing the nervous Major or why. Then it’s a terrifying rising music cue as Sinatra freaks out, followed by a 2-minute unbroken take of banal conversation and non-sequiturs that neither actor seems surprised by. Apparently its taken almost directly from the Condon novel.
Errol Morris talks at length about that scene and more in an excellent featurette that is one of three new pieces of extra content on the new Criterion Blu-ray that weren’t on previous home releases. In addition to his 17-minute interview, there’s a new 11-minute interview with Angela Lansbury with some nice tidbits about Frankenheimer, and historian Susan Carruthers puts the film in socio-political context.
An eight-minute archival interview with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and writer George Axelrod is also included, as well as the informative but dry 1997 feature-length commentary track from the director that’s appeared on other versions of this release. These are nice added features for sure, but the key reason to get this version is the remastered soundtrack and visuals are truly top-notch — way better than the last Blu-ray and DVDs I owned.
At the height of the Cold War, the chilling thought that we couldn’t tell the enemy from ourselves was too much to for audiences, who turned a cold shoulder to The Manchurian Candidate. As a film fan, don’t make the same mistake.