John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel of cold war paranoia and brainwashing gets an new UK DVD & Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films via their Arrow Academy line.
When US soldiers Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra return from the Korean War, Harvey is awarded Congressional Medal of Honour for allegedly saving the lives of his platoon in combat, while Sinatra is plagued by nightmares that suggest fighting for their country wasn’t the only thing their platoon did out in Korea. According to his dreams, they also attended lectures on hydrangea rearing during while, at the behest of the lecturer, Harvey killed the two members of the platoon allegedly lost in action.
It soon becomes apparent that Harvey has been brainwashed by dastardly communists to become an assassin programmed to act in response to verbal and visual cues. Now back in the USA, Harvey’s skills are tried out in a couple of test runs before he is given the go ahead to fulfil the task he has been sent back for.
The above is a very simplistic summary of a far more complex, but never confusing, plot line that’s very much worth discovering for yourself if you’ve never seen THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Following straight on from BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, this more than any other movie sealed John Frankenheimer’s reputation as a director of gritty, almost documentary-style thrillers. Despite that, there’s a heavy science-fiction element to the idea of brainwashing, and the film was so influential that it’s difficult to think of a 1960s TV series from either side of the Atlantic that didn’t use the idea for at least one episode. Visual influences on those later shows abound as well - the 360 degree tracking shot in the brainwashing chamber foreshadows similar scenes in THE PRISONER, and the use of giant playing cards popped up in everything from THE AVENGERS onwards.
The performances are all excellent, with the two leads being exceptional in remarkably different ways. Laurence Harvey gets to do all the acting as the brainwashed innocent who doesn’t even know he’s committing murder, but even better is Frank Sinatra, who has the difficult job of doing all the reacting and anchoring what could be a ludicrous comic-book story in some kind of reality.
Despite these stellar performances, it’s also interesting to note that it’s the female characters in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE who are actually the movers and shakers (Angela Lansbury as Harvey’s mother is the main influence on both him and his weedy senator stepfather, and Janet Leigh ‘saves’ Sinatra’s sanity) while the male roles are essentially passive, the playthings of governments, agents, and everyone around them.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE looks nice and crisp in this new Blu-ray transfer from Arrow. Extras include a old commentary from John Frankenheimer (he died in 2002), and interviews with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, screenwriter George Axelrod (all from 1988) and a separate interview with Angela Lansbury. There’s also the John Frankenheimer episode of The Directors, and William Friedkin waxes lyrical on the picture in his own little piece. Of course there’s also the by now de rigeur reversible cover and a booklet with new writing on the film.
Arrow Films released John Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on Dual Format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 23rd February 2015