Based on Richard Condon's novel of the same name, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate is a captivating Cold War political thriller about enemies of the United States trying to takeover the country from the inside, an idea that resonates stronger today than it has in years due to allegations regarding the election of President Trump.
Opening in Korea 1952 during the war, a group of U.S. soldiers get into a battle where Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) earns the Medal of Honor. His stepfather is U.S. Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), an anti-Communist fighter who claims the government is infiltrated with a varying number of Soviet agents, but it his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) who is the brains and puppet master behind John.
Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who served alongside Raymond, has a frequent nightmare. He and his fellow soldiers are at a ladies function, but in a brilliant bit of staging, the camera spins around the room, revealing the gardening lecture to be a cover for the brainwashing he, Shaw, and the other men received. When Allen Melvin (James Edwards) reveals a similar dream, the army begins an investigation. Two years go by and the Soviets activate Raymond, intending to use him as an assassin in order to install their own candidate who "will make martial law seem like anarchy." Marco learns of Shaw's conditioning and tries to break him free, but can't stop him from going after his target.
Screenwriter George Axelrod has created a compelling script filled with many plot twists that are unexpected yet believable coming from the characters' decisions and motivations. The film ends with a good twist but it is partially based in misdirection to throw off the audience.
The actors deliver marvelous performances all around, particularly Lansbury who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, although it could just as easily have been considered a lead performance. She is calculating and ruthless. Harvey is very good alternating between Raymond in and out of hypnotic control, as is Gregory as Eleanor's useful idiot. Sinatra is arguably at his best in a role of a man struggling with PTSD while trying to save his friend.
The video has been given a 1080p/ MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.75:1. The liner notes state “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at Deluxe in Culver City, California. A previous video transfer supervised by John Frankenheimer was used as a reference for the new master. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, jitter, and flicker.”
The picture offers rich blacks and bright whites, which contribute to a pleasing spectrum of grays. The image presents sharp details and fine textures except for the scene where Marco is out of focus when he talks with Raymond. On the commentary track, Frankenheimer says it was Sinatra's best performance so that's why they used it.
The LPCM mono track was "remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm optical soundtrack negative" and is free of defect from age or wear. The dialogue is clear and is balanced well with the effects and David Amram's score.
The Special Features include:
- A commentary by Frankenheimer recorded in 1997 with gaps in his speaking.
- Angela Lansbury (HD, 11 min) - Recorded in November 2015, she talks about working with Frankenheimer and on the film. - Interesting that Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball to play her part.
- Errol Morris (HD, 17 min) Also recorded in November 2015, the documentarian raves about the film as an exploration of the heart of the American family.
- George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer and Frank Sinatra (SD, 8 min) Recorded for the 1988 re-release, the screenwriter, director, and actor are reunited for a discussion.
- Susan Carruthers (HD, 21 min) - Recorded in November 2015, the author/historian talks about brainwashing and Korean War POWs.
The Manchurian Candidate is highly recommended, especially this version from the Criterion Collection because of the high-def presentation and the insightful extras.