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With: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, Khigh Dhiegh, James Edwards, Douglas Henderson
Written by: George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127
Date: 10/24/1962
IMDB

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Card Tricks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962, disappeared from circulation for several years, and was re-released in 1987. The reasons for its disappearance range from remorse over Kennedy's assassination in 1963 to money disputes with star Frank Sinatra (who owned a good chunk of the film and had it pulled from circulation) -- to both.

In any case, its MIA years only enhanced its reputation. When it resurfaced, it was a legitimate, concrete classic. Not to mention that 1987 audiences, inundated with Beverly Hills Cop II, Three Men and a Baby, etc., realized that nothing currently playing quite packed the punch of this 25 year-old relic.

What's more, its story -- centered around a Joseph McCarthy-like senator attempting to shake up the American public via fear of Communism and a coup to steal the presidency -- easily translated to modern-day, post-Nixon political paranoia.

Now in 2004, with the new remake by Jonathan Demme opening in theaters, MGM/UA has released the original on a brand-new DVD with new extras. I watched them both within a few days of one another. Demme's film works as an effective thriller, but Frankenheimer's film seems even more prophetic and darkly satirical today than it did in 1962 or 1987.

It begins with an astonishing, nightmarish gut-punch of a scene, with Captain Marco (Sinatra) and his unit sitting around a hotel lobby listening to a bunch of old ladies talking about flowers. The camera circles around 360 degrees; when we reach the starting point again, the old ladies have changed into a band of sinister-looking enemy soldiers and we learn of a terrible brain-washing plot. We even learn that dedicated American soldiers can be coaxed to kill one of their own with little or no trouble.

The unit comes home with the story imbedded in their heads that Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) saved their lives. Shaw wins the Congressional Medal of Honor, which his mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), begin to use to their advantage in the upcoming campaign.

Shaw has been hypnotized into a fearless, remorseless assassin; his trigger is the red queen in a deck of cards. His brainwashing is so effective that he kills his one true love, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) and her gentle father Senator Jordan (John McGiver) -- Raymond's mother's sworn enemy.

Meanwhile, Marco has been plagued with terrible nightmares and suspects that everything may not be peachy-keen. He meets and falls in love with a girl on a train, Rosie (Janet Leigh), who gives him the support he needs to solve the case.

Educated in live television and documentaries, director Frankenheimer brought a front-page tension to the film, treating it as if it were news rather than a movie, although the satirical nature of Richard Condon's original novel creeps in around the edges; it comes across as a wry joke instead of a paranoid rant. Screenwriter George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany's) certainly had a sardonic grin on his face when he wrote scenes like the ladies' flower club or Jocelyn showing up to a costume party wearing a Queen of Hearts costume, or the brain-dead Senator Iselin scraping blue caviar out of a giant American flag mold.

It's both exciting and disheartening that a 42 year-old satire like this still works as pointedly as it does. But the film itself doesn't quite rate as a masterpiece. Frankenheimer's direction is superb; there's no question that he never really equaled it in the rest of his spotty career, which included French Connection II, Prophecy and Dead Bang.

Sinatra is excellent as Marco, flawed, filled with doubt and sometimes unable to take action. Angela Lansbury is magnificent to behold, pinched and powerful, lucid and frightening. She earned one of the film's two Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actress (she lost to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker). The other nod went to film editor Ferris Webster.

But the film has its share of silly flaws and bad decisions. A dated karate fight between Marco and Henry Silva is very silly and Janet Leigh's character has no real reason to exist; she adds nothing to the plot other than a nice happy final scene for Marco. Moreover, Harvey is one of the stiffest actors in history, and while this part may have been tailor-made for him, he's still too steely cold to pull it off 100%. A scene in which Shaw and Marco get drunk and talk should have been warm and touching but thuds like a hunk of lead.

Regardless, The Manchurian Candidate holds up well to multiple viewings and definitely earns a place in a permanent home library. (I can't say the same for the remake.) Hopefully the political climate will improve over the next few decades, but even if it doesn't it will be interesting to match the film up to whatever future regime holds the reins.

The new DVD comes with the already-available audio commentary track by Frankenheimer, and the sit-down interview with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra. This new disc comes with all-new interviews with Angela Lansbury and director William Friedkin, who was a disciple of Frankenheimer's. It also contains a photo gallery and a theatrical trailer.

In 2011, MGM and Fox released a gorgeous Blu-Ray edition with all the same extras.

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