The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
1.33:1 (Full Screen and 16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural and 5.1
MGM Home Entertainment, $14.95

Some motion-picture masterpieces endure because they’re infinitely comforting in their greatness; they provide more or less the same satisfactions on each viewing, and the intelligence and artistry of the people who made them keep the films fresh and lively decade after decade. But The Manchurian Candidate is a different kind of masterpiece, one so bold and complicated that its meaning seems to change all the time, depending on what has changed in the culture that produced it. It always seems to tell us something new about America — the America of 1962 (the year in which the picture was made), the America of the 1950s (the year in which the story takes place), and the America of today.

This perception might stem in part from a sense that The Manchurian Candidate is a movie spiraling out of control, a film so overflowing with contradictory ideas and wild shifts in tone that it always seems in danger of collapsing into an incomprehensible mess. Both politically and technically, the picture is as audacious as the masterpieces of the French New Wave that were coming out at about the same time, but The Manchurian Candidate didn’t gain widespread critical acclaim until its theatrical re-release in 1988.

The film’s premise — that a group of Korean War veterans has been brainwashed to act as secret Communist agents in collusion with a McCarthyesque U.S. senator — invites multiple interpretations. In fact, the themes of political opportunism, social breakdown and terrorism resonate now more than ever. Working from Richard Condon’s novel, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod let their creative instincts run wild, creating a picture that features black comedy, political commentary, brutal violence and offbeat romance — not to mention elements of science fiction, horror, martial-arts films and melodrama.

The labyrinthine plot finds its visual corollary in the intricate, deep-focus compositions created by cinematographer Lionel Lindon, ASC. Throughout the film, there are images that seem to recede into infinity, implying that danger might emerge from anywhere in the frame at any given moment. Lindon, whose credits encompassed projects as diverse as Hope/Crosby road movies and television work with Sam Fuller, was at the top of his game when he shot The Manchurian Candidate. Just a year earlier, he had photographed John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues, and The Manchurian Candidate feels like an odd but potent combination of the kind of experimentation embodied by Cassavetes’ work and the superb Hollywood craftsmanship of Lindon’s earlier film and television assignments.

This juxtaposition of the avant-garde and the traditional is most effective in the film’s famous dream sequence, which skillfully shifts perspective from the objective to the subjective — once in a single, awe-inspiring 360-degree pan. Like the rest of the movie, the scene moves from one seemingly incongruous idea to another so quickly that it almost feels as though the filmmakers are having a difficult time keeping up with their own inventions. Both stylistically and conceptually, there’s a feeling of risk that makes The Manchurian Candidate feel alive in a way that some classics don’t, yet the picture is never confusing or vague.

The filmmakers do a masterful job of keeping viewers oriented to the action, even when that action is utterly outrageous. In a tour de force press-conference scene, the action cuts from an event to the media’s presentation of that event with dizzying speed. During the disk’s informative audio commentary (repurposed from the first DVD of the film), Frankenheimer discusses the process by which he and his collaborators achieved such extraordinary effects. Also from the first DVD pressing is an amusing but superficial interview with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and co-star Frank Sinatra.

This new transfer is an improvement over the previous DVD, which was slightly grainy and suffered from the compression problems common to early releases in the format. Lindon’s crisp, deep-focus images are clearer, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is dynamic. The DVD also features two enjoyable featurettes new to this pressing. The first, Queen of Diamonds, is an interview with Angela Lansbury in which she discusses Frankenheimer’s working method and the importance of the film to her career, as well as the careers of her co-stars. The second, A Little Solitaire, contains a terrific interview with director William Friedkin, who contends that Frankenheimer was the most important director of his era. Friedkin makes a compelling case by exploring Frankenheimer’s technical and thematic innovations, particularly his merging of documentary and fiction film techniques, which helped make The Manchurian Candidate a masterpiece.

– Jim Hemphill

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.