The problem with watching classic film is that often, one is left with the feeling that the story in question has been seen and done before. The oft-emulated “Manchurian Candidate,” through certainly no fault of its own, is one of those films that now resides firmly in the “somewhat dated” sub-category of the classics section. This, coupled with its adherence to the draconian censorship laws of the era, does not substantially detract from the experience; however, and though the violence isn’t that violent, the sex isn’t that sexy and many of the themes have been muted in comparison to modern-day thrillers, “Candidate” is still an excellent departure from much of today’s mindless tripe.
“The Manchurian Candidate” works wonders on many levels and is solidly acted by an outstanding cast which includes standout performances from Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Lansbury does the best work here as the embittered Nurse Ratched of a mother to Harvey in an Oedipal role that will leave you feeling just a wee bit, well… dirty. (Plus, her character is so evil, you really want someone to throw her off a cliff for most of the film.) Sinatra delivers an inspired performance as well, aptly touching on a wide range of emotions during the course of the film in which his character, U.S. soldier Bennett Marco, is initially pitted against virtually everyone with whom he comes into contact. Harvey’s portrayal of the much-despised Raymond Shaw starts out in the somewhat annoying column (his ever-present English accent is definitely a bit out of place) but by the end his performance comes across as nothing less than inspired.
Based on the Richard Condon novel of the same name (and toned down a bit to get past the ratings system of the time), this 1962 thriller tackles McCarthyism head-on and is rife with social commentary that ranges from Cold War paranoia to analysis of gender roles. Frankenheimer takes some fairly obvious cues from Hitchcock to create the surreal environ of the story with excellent results as the viewer is virtually transported into the warped reality in which the main characters are entwined. The story (complete with occasionally ham-fisted dialogue) is engaging enough to keep even the most experienced film-viewer riveted especially if one is able to remind oneself that this was all penned in the early 60s when things get a little corny.
Complaints? Sure, I had a few: The liberal use of insta-sweat whenever the character in question is experiencing tension, Harvey’s aforementioned accent, one over-used shot composition that places the action at a great distance with a giant-headed supporting actor in the extreme foreground (shots that Frankenheimer goes to extreme lengths to point out and praise in the “Extras” Director’s Commentary). Otherwise, “Candidate” is a groundbreaking political satire that is worthy of a renewed audience even if its Cold War setting has, well… cooled.
DVD Details ^ “The Manchurian Candidate” features a remarkable transfer that is provided in both wide (letterbox 1.75:1 aspect ratio) and full screen versions from which to choose and provides English, French and Spanish soundtracks in Dolby Digital 1.0 formats. This super-clean transfer made “Candidate” a joy to watch.
The “Extras” department wasn’t quite as well conceived, however, with the original trailer that looked as well preserved as Mother in “Psycho”, a mediocre Director’s Commentary by Frankenheimer and an a*s-kissing contest disguised as a “reunion” interview with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra.
The Commentary definitely sheds light on some parts of the film (several excellent technical discussions are quite welcome) and features Frankenheimer tooting his own horn a bit with supposed “firsts” achieved by “Candidate” (including “first karate fight” and “first black man cast in a role for which an African American character was not specifically designated”). Frankenheimer’s commentary definitely goes silent during many sequences, however, leaving you to wonder whether he has fallen asleep, suffered a fatal embolism or just is so enamored with “Candidate” that he would simply prefer to watch along with the dedicated viewer. In other words, when I watch a Director’s Commentary, I am not simply seeking someone with whom to watch the completed film.
The “reunion” interview brings the director, writer (Axelrod) and star (Sinatra) together for the first time since the film wrapped (supposedly) and comes across as more of a tribute to Sinatra than a terribly informative discussion of the film. In fact, Frankenheimer and Axelrod spend much of the time kowtowing to Sinatra’s genius. To his credit, Sinatra does an admirable job of feigning modesty during the onslaught of these accolades and manages to inject the discussion with some anecdotal information regarding his experience making the film.
Despite the relative lameness of the Extras, “Candidate’s” additional features are worthy of a peek and the overall merits of the film itself make this a DVD that would be an excellent addition to any collection.