The Manchurian Candidate Film Review
Over half a Century later, The Manchurian Candidate is still as gripping as it ever was.One of John Frankenheimer’s – and indeed star Frank Sinatra’s – career best, this 1962 thriller was only the former live television drama director’s fourth full-length feature film, bringing a then, and perhaps still now, prescient tale of politically-infused conspiracy which reflected the changing times. The Manchurian Candidate helped usher out the old 50s era of societal ignorance and ambivalence to welcome in a decade of doubts, paranoia and conspiracy theories. Indeed, so prescient was the tale that the film – released in the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis – was pulled from distribution little over a year later, after Kennedy was assassinated, and shelved for over a quarter of a Century. In fact the film is the father of the modern conspiracy theory movie, paving the way for films as diverse as The Parallax View and JFK.The story follows Sergeant Shaw, who returns from Korea and gets awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for single-handedly saving all but two of his platoon from capture. When his commanding officer starts to have recurring nightmares about alternative events that may have transpired behind enemy lines, he begins to question what’s real and what’s not, and investigate who the returning hero truly is. With Sinatra putting aside his usual star demeanour in favour of delusional sweats, panic attacks and increasingly frenzied behaviour, and Lawrence Harvey bringing a suitably robotic turn to his supposed hero, the film was critically well-received and one of the first 100 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It remains an exercise in taut tension and conspiratorial intrigue; a classic thriller which will keep you guessing throughout.
Blu-ray Picture QualityThe Manchurian Candidate reaches UK shores courtesy of Arrow who ostensibly – and rather worryingly – announced that the “HD master was produced by MGM and made available to Arrow”, causing fans to rightly become worried that this was going to result in little more than an equally flawed replication of MGM’s US effort from a few years back. Sure, the MGM disc could be argued to be the best that the film has looked in half a century, but it was probably universally regarded as far from what the classic truly deserved.
Thankfully Arrow immediately set the record straight with an opening statement in their accompanying booklet, which clarifies that “The High Definition master was produced by MGM and made available for this release” as already known, but goes on to say “additional picture restoration as performed under Arrow’s supervision at Deluxe Restoration, London”. Phew.
Undoubtedly this is the best that the film has ever looked, finally doing justice to the classic.
Detail is impressive throughout, bringing us some great wider shots and subtle dual-focus-style framed images, but truly excelling in the numerous close-ups which reveal some wonderful fine object observation, skin textures and layering and even beads of sweat accumulating. This, of course, is at odds with one particular sequence in the feature where Sinatra’s character looks completely out of focus, but fans will be well aware of the fact that this scene was notorious in the production history – it was Sinatra’s best take on the material and so it was kept in the final cut despite the fact that it was slightly out of focus, and the out of focus style actually works for the scene because it makes it look like it’s a point of view shot as seen through the eyes of Lawrence Harvey’s delirious counterpart.
The black and white cinematography stand the test of time – once again – with rich depth and wonderful shades expressing a complete tonal range. Black levels are rich and strong and the range extends right through to clean whites which are never overblown; a balanced contrast playing throughout. There’s also a wonderfully textured layer of perfectly filmic grain pervading the piece, proving the lack of excessive DNR application robbing any of the finer detail, and rendering the movie with a respectful cinematic flourish. It may not be perfect, but it’s a step up over MGM’s own version, and another great addition to Arrow’s hard-to-fault catalogue.
Blu-ray Sound QualityAnother upgrade, although it’s somewhat counterintuitive to think about in that way, is the inclusion of the original mono track in LPCM 2.0, as opposed to the US disc’s attempt at a remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. As is the case with a fair few older classics, trying to remix them for six-speaker surround arrangements is a tough ask, and more often than not ends up sounding a little bit artificial, whether in terms of dialogue placement or surround coverage.
It’s a pleasure to finally get The Manchurian Candidate with its original mono soundtrack.
With clear and coherent dialogue rendered throughout, taking precedence across the admittedly-limited but surprisingly natural-sounding track, there are some richer elements at play, from sporadic gunshots to bustling committee meetings and political gatherings. Sure, there’s little weight afforded the aural elements, but they still spark up a decent amount of resonance, especially considering the vintage of this material, and the soundtrack gets decent promotion too. With no overt distortion, the reproduction here is a respectful and authentic presentation of the original film’s audio. It may never be demo material, but nobody ever expected it to be.
Blu-ray ExtrasAlthough it does sport one sizeable new archival extra, the rest of the extras on offer are the same ones that were present on both the old US Blu-ray and even its preceding MGM DVD. Thankfully, they were already fairly impressive, headlined by a Director's Commentary from the late Frankenheimer, as well as a 1988 reunuion Interview with the key players - including Frankenheimer and Sinatra - which was filmed around the time of its re-emergence from self-imposed exile. Queen of Diamonds is an interview with Lansbury, whilst A Little Solitaire spends time with fellow director Friedkin talking about his peer's contribution to the industry, and the importance of the film. The biggest addition on this new Arrow release is a segment called The Directors, which spends an hour looking at Frankenheimer's work as seen through the perspective of many of the stars and filmmakers that worked with him, and featuring plenty of archival material including interviews from the likes of Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson and Rod Steiger. The disc is rounded off by a Trailer and Stills Gallery and the package is adorned with a reversible cover featuring alternative artwork and original artwork, as well as Arrow's usual impressive booklet sporting further interesting interviews and articles.
The Manchurian Candidate Blu-ray VerdictThe Manchurian Candidate was critically well-received and remains one of the first 100 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It’s a supreme exercise in taut tension and conspiratorial intrigue; a classic political thriller which will keep you guessing throughout.
A great classic finally done justice by Arrow Films.
Arrow Film's unsurprisingly impressive new release - on a Region B-locked disc - sports excellent video and authentic original mono audio, as well as all of the extras that came before, and more, trumping the US counterpart in all three aspects. There's no denying that this is the definitive edition to own, and comes highly recommended.
You can buy The Manchurian Candidate on Blu-ray here
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