The Manchurian Candidate (Kino Lorber, NR)

John Frankeheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is a prime example of a film that didn’t do that well when first released, but today is recognized as both a cinematic classic and as a film more relevant than ever to our current situation. Besides the original lukewarm reception (critics thought it was unbelievable, an odd criticism for a film so obviously not aiming for naturalism), it had another handicap to overcome: being taken out of distribution and, some say, suppressed due to the plot line being uncomfortably similar* to a real-life event.

The story of The Manchurian Candidate, based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, touches on a number of contemporary concerns, in part due to the specifics of the plot (which admittedly can be outlandish) but even more so in the general sense of a hidden universe of power brokers manipulating the world most of us live in in ways we’ll never know. That we do know in this film, and that things get at least sort of resolved, is a comfort seldom available in the real world, which just goes to show the power of fiction as a way to confront and work through our worst fears. And as far as topical references go, there are many that would have resonated with a 1962 audience, including brainwashing, the threat of communism, the archetype of the domineering mother (a staple of pop psychology in the 1950s and early 1960s, and one that has never really left us), manipulation of the media by politicians, the public’s willingness to accept outlandish claims without evidence, and the need for demobilized soldiers to find their way in a civilian world that has become strange to them.

I’ll admit that it took multiple viewings of The Manchurian Candidate before I could put all the pieces together. I think that’s the best way to experience it—go in cold and let it wash over you, tolerating the inevitable confusion of a first viewing—but if you want to consult a detailed plot synopsis, Tim Dirks wrote a good one. Put briefly, the story involves some American soldiers who are kidnapped and brainwashed in Korea, then allowed to return to their normal lives; one of them has been programmed to kill the American president. Lawrence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, the soldier in question, Angela Lansbury his mother the mastermind (she’s truly scary as the kingpin, and creepy in the more-than-motherly affection she clearly feels for her son), and James Gregory his stepfather Johnny Iselin, a Senator and presidential candidate. Also in the cast: Frank Sinatra as Bennett Marco, one of Raymond’s army buddies; Janet Leigh as Rosie, Marco’s love interest; and Henry Silva and Khigh Dhiegh as Chunjin and Dr. Yen Lo respectively, two of the conspirators behind the kidnapping and brainwashing.

There are a number of brilliant sequences in The Manchurian Candidate that show what a gifted director can do even when limited to the technical means available in 1962. One of the most famous is the “garden club” scene, experienced as a dream by Marco, in which the soldiers find themselves apparently being lectured about chrysanthenums in the presence of a number of ladies of a certain age, only to find the scene shifting to something else entirely. Another is the scene in which Marco and Rosie meet on a train and engage in dialogue so extraordinary you have to wonder if they’re speaking in code. There are some bizarrely funny scenes (Heinz Ketchup figures in one) and many great small touches as well. Some of the latter I don’t know how Frankenheimer got past the censors, like an early scene that obviously takes place in a brothel, but he did. So The Manchurian Candidate provides a reminder to not judge films by their year of release (other films released in 1962 include the Doris Day/Cary Grant vehicle That Touch of Mink and the musicals The Music Man and Gypsy, but also David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia).

The Manchurian Candidate is an extremely disturbing film, a remarkable achievement given that you don’t see that much in terms of graphic violence or overt sexual behavior on the screen (the theatrical film is listed today as PG-13, although that rating didn’t exist in 1962, so my guess is that it was probably released as an “M”  or “for mature audiences” originally). It mixes genres—political thriller, science fiction, film noir, family melodrama—in a disorienting way, and Lionel Lindon’s black and white cinematography combines heightened realism with more fantastical sequences. Like the characters in this film, you may often be unsure what’s real and what’s not, and you just have to piece it together as best you can. Which is not a criticism at all–the complexity means this is a film that rewards repeat viewings, and which always seems to have one more surprise up its sleeve.

*That would be the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, which some people think was modeled on or otherwise influenced by this film. However, others say the film was simply finished with its theatrical run by the time of Kennedy’s assassination, as happened in the years before home video, and was later withdrawn from circulation as a simple business decision. In any case, it was “lost” in the sense of being unavailable for viewing by the public for about 15 years before being presented, to overwhelming acclaim, at a film festival in 1987. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Manchurian Candidate is distributed as a two-disc Blu-ray set by Kino Lorber. The disc containing the film is 4K UHD, so be sure your player can handle that format before purchasing this release, while most of the extras are on an ordinary Blu-ray disc. The extras with this release include an audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer, video interviews with Angela Lansbury, Frankenheimer, and screenwriter George Axelrod, two outakes, and a selection of trailers for this and several other films.

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