Editor’s Notes: The Manchurian Candidate will be released on this Criterion Blu-ray Special Edition March 15th.
The Manchurian Candidate (The Criterion Collection), starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, and John McGiver, is a political thriller that packs a punch. Made in 1962 by director John Frankenheimer, the film was remade, far less successfully, in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep as the leads.
A group of Americans taken prisoner in the Korean War have been brainwashed by Chinese and Russian military. One of them, Raymond Scott (Harvey), has been programmed to carry out an assassination that will affect the entire world.
One of the film’s most gripping scenes is the brainwashing sequence. The prisoners listen quietly to a talk about flowers delivered by an elderly lady in a straw hat — who occasionally morphs into a tough-looking brainwashing expert. The episode concludes with a shocking demonstration of Raymond’s usefulness as a lethal weapon.
Filled with first-rate performances, the film was not a commercial success initially and was not seen, either theatrically or on video, for many years. Sinatra owned the rights and one speculation is that he was so disturbed by JFK’s assassination that he pulled the film from circulation. It resurfaced in 1987 at the New York Film Festival and shortly thereafter had a theatrical re-release followed by a video release.
If you know Angela Lansbury only from her TV appearances as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher or her musical theatre performances, you’ll be in for a surprise. Lansbury’s monstrously ambitious mother is a tour-de-force and may be her very best film performance. Interestingly, though she plays Laurence Harvey’s mother, she was only three years older than he. The sheer malevolence and power of the character she creates makes the relationship believable.
The script by George Axelrod, adapted from the Richard Condon novel, is a biting satire of the McCarthy era of anti-communist witch hunts. The first film to attack McCarthy and his questionable political tactics, it is also a meticulously crafted, riveting thriller. Its dark subject matter may account for its not having been a commercial success in 1962, but it long ago entered the realm of certified film classics.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray Special Edition include audio commentary from 1997 featuring director John Frankenheimer; new interview with Angela Lansbury; conversation with Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and actor Frank Sinatra from 1987; new interview with historian Susan Carruthers about the Cold War brainwashing scene; and a critical essay.