20 February 2015

Blu-ray Review - The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Suspense thriller
Arrow Films
Rating: 15
John Frankenheimer
Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh
Release: 23rd February 2015

The Manchurian Candidate came out during the height of the cold war in 1962. It’s an eerily prophetic film that certainly has parallels to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the following year, but it was not withdrawn from circulation due to the similarities as is often reported. John Frankenheimer directed the film and unfortunately, he has been somewhat forgotten, but like his contemporary Sidney Lumet, he is the bridge between old Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the late ‘60s and 1970s.

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is decorated with the medal of honour after his service in the war in Korea. His entire platoon says “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life” but they all know in the back of their mind he is a very cold loner who made more enemies than friends. Marco (Frank Sinatra) is suffering from surreal nightmares where Raymond kills the missing members of the platoon in the Communist military base, and wants to investigate it after he learns of another soldier having the same dream.

Shaw is also the son of Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) who is married to the right-wing Senator John Yerkes Iselin - a character who is clearly based on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who believed there were ridiculous numbers of communists in the US Government. Unbeknown to Shaw, Eleanor is actually an agent for the communists and is behind the brainwashing of her son in order to assassinate a presidential candidate.

Frankenheimer came out of live television drama and that might be why his best films form a loose trilogy about '60s cold war paranoia, and have this almost modern kinetic feel. One of the most talked about scenes in The Manchurian Candidate is a scene where Iselin is giving a press conference and it looks straight out of a real TV newscast. He is a director who perfectly blended stark reality base film making with added surreal touches, quite seamlessly. In the dream sequences where Marco has white female gardeners, and his black fellow officer has the same dream, just with their skin colour switched, is a wonderful surreal touch. He would take this to psychedelic extremes with his 1966 masterpiece Seconds starring Rock Hudson.

Laurence Harvey died very young, and like Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra gives a career best performance here. He was from Lithuania, grew up in South Africa, and studied acting in the UK, so he had a bizarre mix of accents, including American. Harvey’s mixture of accents helps this otherworldly coldness of the character he portrays. His daughter was a bounty hunter and they made a biopic loosely based on her life called Domino starring Keira Knightley.

Sinatra, of course, was a famous singer and would only do one take in both his music, and his screen acting, which is quite stunning as he managed to pull both off so effortlessly. Despite never having military service, he nails that post-war weariness that actors like Sterling Hayden or Lee Marvin had, and that prevails throughout film noir. The film has some aspects of the genre, but due to it being post-50s, it’s more of a neo-noir. It is also the textbook example of a conspiracy thriller.

The rest of the cast is full of character actors of the '60s. Angela Lansbury gives on of the great performances as Shaw’s mother; one of the most terrifying portrayals of a power hungry woman. She was Oscar nominated for the role but shamefully lost. Janet Leigh plays one of the film’s most fascinating characters Eugenie, her role in the film will still be debated for years to come as to if she is actually a communist agent that activates Marco’s brainwashing. A bizarre conversation on a train between the two supports this theory. The rest of the cast is rounded off with Henry Silva, James Gregory and Khigh Dhiegh, who was also in Frankenheimer’s Seconds.

JFK’s supposed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was widely believed to have seen and been possibly influenced by The Manchurian Candidate, and that’s certainly quite possible as it was a fairly popular film at the time. However, the film Oswald certainly did see was Suddenly, which also starred Sinatra in which Sinatra holds up a family in their home and tries to assassinate the president. Oswald would later be called a “Manchurian Candidate” by many conspiracy theorists. Ironically JFK was a great fan of the book the film is based on by Richard Condon.

The Manchurian Candidate wasn’t widely available again until it’s re-release in 1988, where it was a revelation to many. It was up to that point, a minor cult film and since that re-release it has found it’s place in the list of great films. It remains one of the most perfectly constructed films of all time, it’s also full of brilliant satire, which is what Richard Condon mostly wrote. The performances are all career best and the cinematographer by Frankenheimer’s frequent collaborator Lionel Lindon is superb. Sadly it’s normal for classics to be remade, and this was by Jonathan Demme in 2004 but I have refused to see it.

The new blu-ray is loaded with bonus features, which hardly surprised coming from Arrow, including a Frankenheimer commentary that was recorded for the old DVD in the ‘90s. One of the discs highlights is the vintage interview with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and screenwriter George Axelrod for the 88 re-release. William Friedkin conducts an appreciation of the film, and there is also an interview with Angela Lansbury. On top of all that, there is the John Frankenheimer episode in the The Directors series - which out of the many I've seen, is the least insightful and poorly made one - a lengthy booklet by Peter Knight, who wrote Conspiracy Culture, and even a piece on brainwashing.


Ian Schultz

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