July 2, 2011
Nefarious Russian and Chinese psycho-scientists stupefy GI war prisoners into a psychic narcosis. The Manchurian Candidate transpires in 1952 when Korean Communists seize a US Army patrol led by Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), with the intent to remold their morals and remodel their ids to dispatch Capitalists back in the States.
Meanwhile at home, using much of the same arsenal, a different kind of firebrand was flaming her own fusillade. Mama Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) was orchestrating a psychotic attack on all hues of Reds and pinkos while she conspired to place her 'holic hubby, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), in the Oval Office.
Her boy, Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), becomes part of her plot. He was captured with his company, brainwashed to do bloody deeds, and returned home disguised as a war hero.
The story is about good versus two evil isms: truth versus Communism and McCarthyism.
In 1962, when The Manchurian Candidate was released, Joseph McCarthy was gone but not forgotten. For the decade, the Marxist/Maoist/McCarthyist demagoguery was played out over Vietnam. Throwing sticks and stones and calling names were still the game. For sure, dirty Commies continued to hide and seek under every rock for ways to launch America's mortal coup.
Closely based on Richard Condon's spooky novel, George Axelrod's script baffles, bewitches and beguiles with its conspiracies, nightmares, homicides, hypnosis, hydrangeas, eurekas, an Oedipus kink and the mesmeric Janet Leigh.
The concept was ripe for movies and television of the paranoid fifties and sixties. And we have never relinquished the seductive notion of mind-bending for personal or political power. Many a TV show, be it the "Twilight Zone," later the "X Files" and "Alias," up to today's "Fringe," can't resist a psychotropic plot. And then there's the 2004 Jonathan Demme The Manchurian Candidate remake and update with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep.
Moreover, the theme is an enduring catalyst for entertaining fear today as extreme ideologues continue to convert missionaries, catechize minions, indoctrinate members and control minds.
While lines such as, "Make like a housewife," date the film, the story does have relevance for today's audience.
The pedigree of the film should attract plenty of viewers: Condon wrote Prizzi's Honor; Axelrod scripted The Seven Year Itch and Breakfast at Tiffanys; and Frankenheimer directed Birdman of Alcatraz.
Not unlike most DVD Extras, the talking heads sound more like name-dropping social-climbing sycophants. Every one of the crew was talented, profound, prophetic, impressive, important and perfect - whether actor, writer, director, cinematographer, set designer, editor... You name it; we get it.
The off-putting obsequious panegyrics mar what are sometimes interesting and informative Features.
Frankenheimer boasts about pioneering the casting of African Americans and one Puerto Rican in non-stereotypic roles. With good reason. Meanwhile, ironically, Spanish-Italian Henry Silva and Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese Khigh Dhiegh (both native Americans) played their usual formulaic Asian villains.
Some historic notes of interest derive from John Kennedy's friendship with Frank Sinatra and his support for the film - which, upon the president's 1963 assassination, was withdrawn from the theaters. The Extras suggest the film's content presaging the tragedy caused the film to be pulled from circulation; Roger Ebert said it was Producer Sinatra's financial dispute with United Artists.
The 1988 reinstatement of the film rebooted Angela Lansbury's career, which has escalated ever since. She received an Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe as Manchuria's shrewdest of shrews.
Listening to Frankenheimer's sparse run-along commentary is clearly akin to a second viewing, but he does speak-up occasionally to enlighten viewers who might appreciate his unique contribution to cinematic history.
Two scenes are notable. Sinatra's hand-to-foot combat with Silva is more realistic than most modern fist-a-cuffs. Frank shows off his broken finger to prove it.
Particularly remarkable is the highly-choreographed minimally-scripted masterpiece of the vitriolic verbal blitzkrieg over Congress counting card-carrying comrades. Look and listen to John Frankenheimer's exposition of the single-shot single-take of the Senators: the simultaneous shooting of several TV cameras taping the skirmish live while we see that very action live on TV monitors. An original perspective on a movie-within-a-movie.
And, by the way, the black and white Blu-ray is beautiful.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh, Leslie Parrish
Length: 126 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Dolby Digital Mono
5.1 Dolby Digital
English SDH, Spanish, French