The timing couldn’t be better for the return of “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) on Blu-ray this week from Criterion, with history repeating itself and fueling Cold War nostalgia (witness last year’s successful “Bridge of Spies”). But thanks to a new 4K digital transfer from the original camera negative, John Frankenheimer’s political hothouse of fear and paranoia comes into sharper focus as if a veil has been lifted.
Of course, the wildly chaotic narrative—built around career-best performances by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury and Janet Leigh—has lost none of its subversive power. Credit George Axelrod’s fearless adaptation of Richard Condon’s bizarre novel along with Frankenheimer’s neo-noir vision. Yet nobody could’ve imagined how horribly prescient “The Manchurian Candidate” was — from the JFK assassination through the rest of the violent events of the ’60s.
To his credit, Frankenheimer was the hottest director at the time and asserted complete artistic control. He was fascinated by “the idiocy” of Far Right and Far Left fanaticism inherent in the project: a dark and disorienting convergence of the real and the fantastical that fits right in today. And the collaboration with cinematographer Lionel Lindon, production designer Richard Sylbert, Oscar-nominated editor Ferris Webster and composer David Ambram resulted in what critic Howard Hampton describes as the first American New Wave film (“Dread Center”).
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Take Sinatra’s surreal brainwashing nightmare (lifted mostly from the novel). It would make a great VR short today, commencing with a 360 tracking shot of a garden club where Sinatra and the other prisoners view their captors as old ladies discussing hydrangeas, then switching to the Communist operating amphitheater and cutting back and forth from different perspectives and outrageous fantasies, concluding with a mind-blowing execution. The sequence was filmed three times in its entirety on three separate sets with the camera turning completely around in each.
By contrast, the strange encounter on a train between Sinatra and Leigh (coming off her divorce from Tony Curtis) is filled with such loneliness and longing that it becomes absurd, what with its string of non sequiturs. Roger Ebert believed that it only made sense if Leigh was a spy, but then it loses its creepy romantic force. And Ambram anchors it with his melancholy score.
But it was all in service of performance, and Frankenheimer was one of the great actor’s directors. He liked to tell the story about Sinatra being a one-take wonder because he was more of an entertainer than an actor. When shooting the intense scene when confronting Harvey with an entire pack of Queen of Hearts trigger cards, Sinatra delivered brilliantly, particularly in close-up. However, the cameraman inadvertently shot it out of focus and Frankenheimer asked Sinatra for a reshoot. Naturally, it wasn’t as good, so he went with first take, prompting analysis that it was an intentional stylistic choice.
You couldn’t trust anything or anyone in “The Manchurian Candidate.”