MGM seems to finally comprehend that DVDs are here to stay. They have released tons of their classics in the past, with just the barest of special features. But lately they have been re-releasing these films with the extras that fans have been craving. Recently they released excellent new special editions of “The Great Escape” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Now it has happened again with John Frankenheimer’s exciting military brainwashing thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate.” While most of us loathe shelling out money every time a studio decides to put out a different version of a DVD, at least MGM isn’t suffering from what I like to call, “Anchor Bay Syndrome.” There must be at least 5 versions of Carpenter’s “Halloween” out there on DVD, but MGM tries its best to get it right on the second try. Though not as fine as the “The Great Escape” or “Ugly” special editions, this “Manchurian” is a fine improvement over the last version.
The opening scene of the film shows Bennett Marco (Sinatra) and his platoon of men in the Korean War getting ambushed and captured. After a year, the men return home and while Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) returns with a Medal of Honor to his mother (Angela Lansbury) and step-father, Sinatra’s character returns only to suffer from bizarre nightmares about being with the platoon, sitting around while a “garden party” with old women is taking place. This sequence is brilliantly directed and edited between what the character observes (garden party) and what is really occurring. What the platoon is experiencing during this festive garden gathering is a brainwashing experiment by enemy forces in order to create “sleeper agents.” As Marco starts investigating what really happened with his platoon, he begins to disentangle a knot of political deception and a plot of assassination.
The transfer of this new DVD is far smoother and crisper than that of the last one. Some of the newer special features include a featurette with Angela Lansbury, another with “Exorcist” director William Friedkin, a photo gallery and a new anamorphic widescreen transfer complete with a 5.1 Dolby soundtrack. The old features, such as the commentary with director John Frankenheimer and the theatrical trailer, are there as well.
The first line of the commentary track isn’t an introduction but an exciting line that leads the listener to believe that it will be an interesting one. It begins, “This movie was turned down by every studio in Hollywood.” If you appreciate what was going on during that period of the late forties/early fifties in Hollywood involving the House of Un-American Activities, it is easy to see how the subject matter of this film made studio heads uneasy. With that statement you would hope to get some interesting insight to some of those problems but as it ends, you really learn nothing of the sort. The commentary track is often silent with pauses abound but when John Frankenheimer speaks, he does chronicle a huge portion of the writing process and his direction of the film. His comments on the editing styles that garnished an Academy Award nomination for Ferris Webster are also enlightening. Future cinematographers who are interested in learning about some of the many camera lenses and the types of shots they produce, might find his explanation instructive and educational.
For those of you that have not seen this John Frankenheimer masterpiece, or even if you have seen it, giving this film a viewing now would be a perfect way to prepare for this summer’s remake directed by Jonathan Demme. Denzel Washington plays the Sinatra character but with a shorter name (Ben Marco). Could this syllable reduction be any indication that other great things about this film are to be reduced or perhaps omitted? I sure hope not.