The Manchurian Candidate: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

February 22, 2016 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

The year was 1962 and director John Frankenheimer was about to be at the center of controversy. Before this film, he cut his teeth directing live TV. He had gotten wide acclaim and much respect in the industry. His project at hand was a tale of veteran nightmares and the consequences there after. This looked like any ordinary movie release that was going to come out at the time. A year later, our nation came across tragedy and the film, gearing too close to home with the feeling in the nation as well as the subject matter, was shelved away for twenty five years never to be seen again. However, in present day, seventeen years after it’s re-release, it’s a powerful enough movie to be given an updating coming later this year. That movie is The Manchurian Candidate.

Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) have both been captured during the Korean war. A few years after the war, Marco tries to put the pieces together as to how to remember his fellow comrade, Shaw. Despite not being liked in his platoon, he tells the public that Shaw is worthy of any good honor, but what he starts to realize is that during his capture he and Shaw was the subject of hypnosis at the hands of the Communists. Fearing that Shaw may be in danger, he tries to track him down. Meanwhile, Shaw is in a prominent position now that his mother (Angela Landsbury) is married to Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) who has plans for himself. Can Marco get to Shaw on time before he does something he might regret for the rest of his life?

Here’s a movie that combines an intriguing premise along with a wonderful cast. It’s hard to believe it was kept away from the public’s eye for so long that it holds up well almost forty years after it’s release. The offbeat casting of Angela Landsbury is quite a bold one. The result is an outstanding performance as Laurence Harvey’s mother that could have a few tricks up her sleeve and has plans of her own for her son.

The film moves at a tight pace and I could’ve sworn it could’ve been made yesterday with the same pace. At a screening a few years ago with Frankenheimer in attendance, he had mentioned that a few scenes were cut that could’ve made the film a more effective film than the final result. I don’t know how that’s possible, let alone how the re-imagining of the story will hold with the original later this year but, whatever the case may be, the original Manchurian Candidate remains a thriller for the ages and a great movie overall.

Video: How does it look?

The previous version (or at least the one I saw) was an MGM DVD released around 2000. It featured a non-anamorphic transfer that, while a bit harsh in places, didn’t look too bad. Granted the film is in black and white, so a lot of things that tend to plague non-anamorphic transfers didn’t really impact the overall quality of the presentation. And on a side note, I don’t think I’ve typed the term “non-anamorphic” in quite some time, ah how time changes things…Moving, on we now have this film on Blu-ray and we all know that Criterion can, has and will do their utmost to ensure that any and all films released under their name will look the best they can. This new 4K restoration has breathed new life into this film. I love watching black and white films that have been restored. It really does do a lot to bring the viewer into wheat’s going on and without me being distracted by colors, flesh tones and the like – I was able to focus more on the action on screen. Granted, I was more interested in contrast, shadow detail and brightness, but there really isn’t an issue with the picture. The 1.75:1 AVC image looks simply amazing with the ever so slight bars at the top of the screen (at least on my HDTV). Little things like the beads of sweat, the facial hair and graduated shadows give a depth to this picture that I’d not seen before. As per usual, Criterion does not disappoint and this is one top notch image.

Audio: How does it sound?

Audio wise, there’s not a lot to choose from as the mono track is the only selection. That said, mono tracks can still sound good and the monorial track on this disc is fair and impressive in the dialogue area and spotty in the effects area. The sixties limitations are apparent giving a natural muteness to the track. All comes out clear and the score sounds fine but when it comes to effects, especially at the opening of the film, the result is underwhelming and calls for a better track. Range is a bit limited as there is only the single track, but I was duly impressed.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Several of the supplements found on the MGM DVD have made the cut to this Criterion Blu-ray, but the real treat here are the new supplements. Let’s check them out.

  • Audio Commentary – director Frankenheimer. Here he keeps his great reputation for commentary and gives an informative track talking about the technical aspects of the film along with the choices he made upon filming. The track does tend to be a bit gappy but it doesn’t take away from the listening experience making for a solid extra.
  • Interviews – Three new and one archived are included.
      Angela Lansbury – New to this edition is a new interview with actress Angela Lansbury as she discusses one of her more iconic roles, her relations and interactions with Frank Sinatra and Frankenheimer as well as the infamous scene with Lawrence Harvey. Running a bit over 10 minutes, it’s nice to see on this disc.

      Errol Morris – Acclaimed director Errol Morris discusses some of the themes found in this movie and at the period in time as the Cold War was escalating. Reviewer Jake Keet has covered a few of Morris’ films: The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida.

      Susan Carruthers – Author and historian Susan Carruthers gives us the skinny on the origin of the term “brainwashing” as well as what was happening in our country during the time the film was being made. It’s a bit like Morris’, but interesting nonetheless.

      John Frankenheimer, Frank Sinatra and George Axelrod – Obviously an archived interview, this one is ported over from the MGM DVD as we chat with John Frankenheimer, actor Frank Sinatra and author George Axelrod discussing making the film. It was made in 1988 and an updated look would’ve been more appreciative being that their comments added nothing additional that was already in the commentary.

  • Theatrical Trailer

The Bottom Line

Ahead of its time, The Manchurian Candidate struck a chord with audiences while hitting their respective nerves.  It’s a frightening look at the power of the human mind and what countries are willing to do to gain an advantage. Criterion’s Blu-ray looks and sounds amazing and though not quite as feature-packed as some other titles, still warrants a space on your shelf.

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