One of cinema's greatest political thrillers finally gets the 4K UHD treatment and it's well worth a double dip. This twisty and twisted story of a brainwashed American POW who's transformed by his Communist captors into a cold-blooded assassin is flawlessly directed by John Frankenheimer and impeccably acted by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and especially Angela Lansbury. The Manchurian Candidate still rivets, stings, fascinates, and horrifies 60 years after its premiere, and the spectacular HDR/Dolby Vision transfer and upgraded audio make it more intense and involving than ever before. Must Own.
The early 1960s spawned several top-notch Cold War paranoia films - Fail-Safe, Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - but the granddaddy of them all is The Manchurian Candidate. Director John Frankenheimer's mesmerizing adaptation of Richard Condon's novel brilliantly captures the fear and anxiety that gripped America during that fateful period by painting a portrait of evil so insidious and ruthless it could topple our government and change the face of our nation. Far-fetched yet disturbingly plausible, the movie taps into our inherent mistrust of our political system and feeds off of it, heightening and confirming many of our suspicions. It also remains surprisingly relevant. Just look at America's recent history and our current political climate. If any movie from 60 years ago feels like it's ripped from today's headlines, it's this one.
Ominous messages and potent themes aside, The Manchurian Candidate is first and foremost a damn good movie - taut, tense, intelligent, intricate, and laced with an underlying, biting humor that brings the action down to earth. Frankenheimer casts a - pardon the pun - hypnotic spell, combining captivating drama with comedic accents and an eerie sense of surrealism to create a scary, unpredictable world where no one can be trusted, everyone's motives are suspect, and anything seems possible. His exhilarating technique, distinguished by 360-degree shots, changes in perspective, extreme close-ups, off-kilter camera angles, and the creative use of TV monitors, keeps the eye transfixed and perfectly complements Condon's tangled tale of human conditioning, political skullduggery, and twisted relationships.
Any type of detailed plot analysis would ruin this tightly wound exercise in shock and awe, so I'll only provide a skeletal outline here. The film opens during a Korean War skirmish in 1952 and depicts the ambush of an American army company by North Korean forces. The captured soldiers are brought behind enemy lines, where they're systematically brainwashed during an intense three-day period by Communist operatives who use Pavlovian methods to control their minds and manipulate their actions.
Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) responds particularly well to the conditioning. Groomed to be "police proof" and immune to the "uniquely American symptoms" of guilt and fear, he becomes a robotized assassin for the Communists once he returns home to the bosom of his dysfunctional family, led by his domineering, outspoken mother, Eleanor (Angela Lansbury), and milquetoast stepfather, U.S. Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), who's a puppet of both the anti-Communist far right and his rabid, often shrill, and always controlling wife. Eleanor reviles Communists and seeks to swat them down with the same vehemence as she would a swarm of pesky flies and hopes to propel her doltish husband into the political realm's upper echelons by making him the platform's mouthpiece.
As Shaw begins to execute a series of violent directives (the game of solitaire triggers his conditioned behavior), his military cohorts, many of whom are plagued by horrific flashback nightmares, inform the Army of their experiences in captivity. Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) leads the charge, and after some initial reticence, the intelligence wing green-lights an investigation into what drives Shaw's behavior and what - if anything - can be done to stop it.
Truth is often stranger than fiction, and fiction often predicts truths to come...and The Manchurian Candidate reflects both sides of that coin. Produced at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when Americans most feared their Soviet foes, The Manchurian Candidate wore its topicality on its sleeve, capitalizing on the paranoia preying upon the public and funneling it into a frightful scenario. The brainwashing depicted in the film may seem outlandish, but the North Koreans actually conducted such mind-altering experiments on POWs during the Korean War with varying degrees of success. Many have opined the movie inspired Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President John F. Kennedy (or at least gave him an idea of how to do it), and one can't help but connect the climactic wheeling and dealing at the Republican National Convention with subsequent political skirmishes.
Frankenheimer's superior direction and George Axelrod's masterful script elevate The Manchurian Candidate to a rarefied cinematic plane, but without the riveting, finely etched performances of Sinatra, Harvey, Lansbury, and Janet Leigh, whose understated portrayal of Marco's mysterious love interest often recalls Eva Marie Saint's Eve Kendall in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, the film wouldn't be nearly as successful or entertaining. Sinatra contributes arguably his best work, eclipsing his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity and searing portrayal of a recovering heroin addict in The Man with the Golden Arm, while Harvey's icy reserve has never been exploited to better advantage. Harvey's cold gaze and stiff demeanor suit Shaw well and yet he still manages to engender sympathy for a man whose life is irrevocably altered and whose brutal actions are beyond his control.
It's Lansbury, though, who steals the show and every scene in which she appears, crafting a bravura performance that was justly rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Patty Duke's Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.) Rarely has villainy been embodied so convincingly and with such calculated precision. Despite the fact Lansbury was just three years older than Harvey, their relationship as mother and son is utterly believable and their interchanges crackle with tension. Eleanor is a part that easily could have been overplayed and transformed into a caricature, but Lansbury embraces and nails every nasty element. She even outshines the magnificent Meryl Streep, who gamely tackled Eleanor in the 2004 remake.
Deliciously chilling and superbly crafted, The Manchurian Candidate remains one of the all-time great political thrillers and it plays just as well today as it did more than 60 years ago. Combining powerful themes with an edge-of-the-seat story and episodes of shocking violence, Frankenheimer's film grabs us from the opening frames and never relinquishes its grip. It's a fascinating, visceral experience and required viewing for anyone who loves movies.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
The 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case. The 4K UHD disc houses the main feature and a 1997 audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer. All the other special features reside on a second Blu-ray disc that does not include the main feature. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR/Dolby Vision and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. (A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new HDR/Dolby Vision master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative produces hands-down the best Manchurian Candidate transfer to date. Though the 4K source seems to be identical to the one Criterion used for its 2016 Blu-ray release, the subtle boosts in clarity and addition of Dolby Vision HDR loft it onto a higher plane. The Criterion transfer still looks mighty fine when compared to this 2160p/HEVC H.265 rendering, but small details set the KLSC transfer apart and make it well worth the upgrade cost.
The 4K UHD image is slightly darker, resulting in more pronounced contrast and depth, richer blacks, and a wider array of grays. Grain is still evident, preserving the essential feel of celluloid, and though levels occasionally fluctuate, the effects are not jarring. Like the story, the cinematic presentation of The Manchurian Candidate isn't a smooth ride, but the bumps and quirks that are baked into the original negative (like the just-a-hair-out-of-focus close-up of Sinatra toward the end of the film that was used because Sinatra couldn't duplicate the same degree of emotion and intensity on subsequent takes) complement the gritty themes and Frankenheimer's semi-documentary style.
The enhanced clarity adds dimension to the image and heightens the sense of urgency and unease that permeates the narrative. Background elements are better defined (the names of the states are easier to discern in the convention long shot), the textures of battered walls and bits of decor are more distinct, and shadow delineation is superb. The more intense blacks do produce some fleeting instances of crush, but I much prefer the inkiness here to the grayer palette on the Criterion Blu-ray.
Close-ups are sublime and provide a window into the actors' souls. Sweat is everywhere on all the men almost all the time; it either faintly glistens or shines brightly with distinct beads and droplets, but it's so palpable you can feel the heat and distress that grip the troubled characters. (Not surprisingly, all the women look fresh as a daisy throughout. Hollywood glamor won't be denied, not even here.) Facial blemishes, stubble, pores, and wrinkles are also razor sharp, and Leigh looks particularly lovely in every shot. (You can almost feel the stickiness of her mascara.)
A bit of extra clean-up also seems to have been performed by KLSC. A faint vertical line that ever so slightly marred a scene between Corporal Melvin (James Edwards) and his wife (Mimi Dillard) on the Criterion transfer has been considerably softened so only a trace remains, and a couple of other nicks have been erased. Though there aren't night-and-day differences between KLSC's 4K UHD transfer and Criterion's 1080p transfer, the upticks in clarity, contrast, black levels, and shadow detail are significant enough to merit an upgrade, especially if you revere this film.
Two soundtracks are included and both differ substantially from Criterion's LPCM mono track. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is the best option and makes The Manchurian Candidate sound better than ever before. Though the film was originally released with a mono track, this 2.0 track possesses some definite stereo accents, especially with regard to David Amram's score, which enjoys an expansive feel across the front channels. There's even some rear bleed during the brainwashing sequences that immerses us in the eerie, mind-bending atmosphere.
The mix is balanced and nicely prioritizes the dialogue during cacophonous scenes. Dynamic range is broad; excellent fidelity and tonal depth heighten the impact of Amram's score, and solid bass frequencies add oomph to critical moments. Sonic accents like a piercing whistle, helicopter rotors, sirens, ringing telephones, shattering glass, and gunfire are crisp, while subtleties like rain, a ticking clock, and faint train noise effectively shade the action. Distortion is absent and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. This track is definitely a step up from Criterion's audio, which sounds flat and constrained by comparison.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is disappointing, namely because it pumps up atmospherics at the expense of dialogue. Whenever lots of activity occurs in the frame (the Korean bar, Shaw's homecoming at the airport, the blustery Senate hearing, the climactic convention) several snatches of dialogue are overwhelmed by competing effects. There's also precious little surround activity, which isn't surprising for a mono movie, but I expected more. Some gunfire in the opening battle sequence emanates from the rear speaker, but the surrounds don't kick in again until the movie's final moments, and though Amram's score sounds rich and full, it too lacks a noticeable surround presence. All the fine points of the 2.0 track are here as well, but it lacks the focus and distinct layering that's essential for this kind of film. Every word and every sound in The Manchurian Candidate is critical, and occasionally this 5.1 track just jumbles everything together. It's really an unnecessary addition to the disc.
This KLSC release includes all the extras from the 2004 MGM DVD. Some of the supplements also appear on the 2016 Criterion Blu-ray, but the material produced by Criterion exclusively for their release has not been ported over. So if a more recent interview with Angela Lansbury and two interviews with film scholars are important to you, you'll likely want to hang onto that disc.
Audio Commentary - Back in 1997, director John Frankenheimer recorded this insightful, largely technical commentary that provides vital perspective on the film's production. He calls The Manchurian Candidate "one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life" and one of the first movies to both seriously address McCarthyism and use an African-American actor in a role that didn't specifically call for one. In addition, he details his innovative shooting style, which featured a reliance on wide angle lenses and real locations, and outlines the difficulties of capturing several complex sequences on film. Frankenheimer also talks about the casting of Harvey and Lansbury, relates how Sinatra became involved in the project, cites the differences between Richard Condon's novel and George Axelrod's adaptation, points out a shot he stole from Hitchcock, and explains why he used an out-of-focus close-up of Sinatra in one of the movie's key moments. Though several lengthy gaps mar the discussion, Frankenheimer's remarks are well worth hearing and will enlighten anyone who appreciates this classic thriller.
The Manchurian Candidate Interviews (SD, 8 minutes) - Director John Frankenheimer, writer George Axelrod, and actor Frank Sinatra reunited in 1988 at the time of the film's theatrical re-release to reminisce about making the movie. Sinatra dissects his karate fight scene with Henry Silva and all three share several anecdotes, recall the aura of enthusiasm that pervaded the set, and praise the acting of Harvey and Lansbury.
"Queen of Diamonds: Angela Lansbury on The Manchurian Candidate" (SD, 15 minutes) - The legendary actress recalls how she got the part of Eleanor Iselin and how she approached it in this engaging 2004 interview. ("I've always had a problem with playing just downright rotten women," she says.) She also praises Frankenheimer and analyzes his style and choices, shares memories of Sinatra and Harvey, dissects a couple of key sequences, and talks about how the Kennedy assassination caused the film to vanish from view for 25 years.
"A Little Solitaire: William Friedkin on The Manchurian Candidate" (SD, 13 minutes) - The director of The French Connection calls Frankenheimer "the best film director of my era" in this insightful 2004 interview. He also talks about Sinatra's penchant for only doing one take, notes the "healthy tension" between Sinatra and Frankenheimer, lauds the editing, gives Janet Leigh her proper due, examines the film's satirical slant, and relates how some of the movie's fiction became fact when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated a year after The Manchurian Candidate's release.
Outtakes from Lansbury and Friedkin Interviews (SD, 2 minutes) - When I first saw there were outtakes on this disc, I assumed they were from the actual movie, so you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered they were merely snippets of Lansbury and Friedkin that didn't make it into their respective featurettes. Lansbury discusses her choices during the climactic scene and Friedkin jokes about a ringing phone that disrupts his interview.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - Creepy and foreboding music dominates the film's original preview that highlights the film's avant-garde aspects and warns patrons if they enter the theater five minutes after the movie begins, they won't know what's going on. The trailer for the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber is also included, along with trailers for other Frankenheimer, Harvey, and Leigh films.
A mesmerizing cinematic odyssey, The Manchurian Candidate stands as one of the all-time great Cold War thrillers and it's never looked or sounded better than it does here. Few 60-year-old movies still possess the power to shock and dismay, but The Manchurian Candidate continually takes our collective breath away and remains surprisingly relevant and topical. Though Criterion's 2016 Blu-ray remains solid, the enhancements KLSC has brought to its stunning new HDR/Dolby Vision transfer, along with upgraded audio and a solid supplemental package make this the definitive edition of a defining film. Must Own.