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The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate on DVD

Just in time for its remake to hit theaters, this quintessential cold war thriller is a wonderfully intelligent but frightening look at the lengths to which the forces of the political left will go to ensure their world view prevails.

It’s a sobering movie, yet highly entertaining.

Frank Sinatra stars as Bennet Marco, US Army officer in the Korean war who, along with his men, is taken captive by the North Koreans, then returned to duty with minds still captured, to serve as pawns in the communist plot for world domination.

The chief pawn is the stepson of a US Senator, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a man who is uniformly despised by his comrades in arms – except that once they return to the US he’s uniformly loved by them and, thanks to testimony from the others and led by Marco, he’s awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery he never exhibited and deeds he never did.

As it turns out, it’s all a con, a brainwashing-inspired plot to send Shaw back to the States as a sleeper assassin who can be activated at any time and made to perform any nefarious deed his communist masters desire.

And what a plot it is! We won’t spoil it for you here; suffice it to say the plot involves foreigners bent on bringing the land of the free to its knees, aided and abetted by Americans from a wide variety of social and political strata – including some very highly-placed politicians.

(Warning: Spoiler alert. If you don’t know the plot, don’t read this paragraph) One thing that’s fascinating about Candidate is the way it shows how some politicians use “backwards truth” to paint their opponents as enemies of the state. In this instance, it’s a Senator whose “Wormtongue” of a wife has him accusing his political opponents of being communists in order to marginalize them, all the while he himself is working for the communists.

It’s a propaganda technique used today by the Left and the US Democratic party, which repeatedly lies about its opponents while practicing exactly the kind of dirty politics of which it accuses them in their efforts to gain power at any cost. Divisiveness and hyper partisanship are merely two examples.

Sinatra is excellent as the soldier haunted by nightmares that fight their way into his consciousness in order to alert him to the truth. Also first rate is Harvey as the soft spoken but ultimately deadly sleeper. But the best performance in The Manchurian Candidate comes from Angela Lansbury, as Shaw’s mother. If you only remember her as the lovable Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, you’re in for a real eye opener here as she turns in a terrifyingly evil performance as a Hillary Clinton-like idealog bent on pursuing her political agenda at any cost.

Janet Leigh, as Sinatra’s love interest, turns in a smart and sexy performance, though (perhaps because of the inevitable “shorthand” required to turn a book into a movie, or maybe through editing after shooting was completed) there seem to be some lapses in logic in her character’s actions.

Director John Frankenheimer crafts an engrossing and involving film that’s a cinematic treat from its opening to its surprising conclusion. The scenes of the brainwashed soldiers on display in Manchuria are not only fascinating, they’re excellent cinema. One of the shots is a complete 360 degree pan of the camera that’ll knock your socks off.

This is one heck of a film!

It’s a very good DVD, too. The black and white picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, and the picture is sharp and clean and looks very good. Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround as well as the original mono. Audio quality is fine considering the age of the source and there’s even some interesting use of the surround channels on the 5.1 track, though it’s sparse.

You also get some pretty good extras on this Special Edition disc. First up is a running commentary by the late director Frankenheimer, who in many ways was one of the industry’s greats. We also enjoyed the interview with Sinatra, Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod recorded in the late 1980’s.

Also on hand are two relatively short featurettes, one of which features filmmaker William Friedkin opining on the innovations in the film and the other of which features Ms. Lansbury.

You also get a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.

As of this writing, we have no idea what the new version of The Manchurian Candidate will be like, but since the Cold War is now over, we wonder who they’re going to pick as the enemy of freedom this time. If we were betting people, and given Hollywood's slant, we’d put our money on it being evil corporations….

Time will tell. In the meantime, remember that remakes are generally not as good as the originals – and that the new Manchurian Candidate has really big shoes to fill.

The Manchurian Candidate, Special Edition, from MGM Home Entertainment
127 min. anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory
Produced by John Frankenheimer
Written by George Axelrod, directed by John Frankenheimer


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