Sometimes it's very hard to write about your favorite movies, because you don't even know where to start. This is certainly the case with The Manchurian Candidate, which is perhaps the greatest spy thriller ever made. There are so many amazing scenes, nuances, new details you notice every time you watch it, that it becomes overwhelming to even figure out a workable entry point, especially when the goal is to write a brief review of the film itself before getting to the goodies that anyone interested in the new Criterion release really cares about in the first place: The A/V transfer and the extras. Chances are, if you're interested in this Blu-ray, you've already seen The Manchurian Candidate, and you might already love it as one of the greatest American films ever made, the way I do.
John Frankenheimer's 1960s output was fearless, where he dealt with grim subject matter with brutal sociopolitical honesty a full decade before American audiences were ready to get into some pretty dark and adult stuff in the 70s. His great 1966 social allegory sci-fi/drama Seconds is so ahead of its time, that I'm not sure contemporary filmmaking as an art form caught up with its go for broke style and narrative approach yet. The Manchurian Candidate stands out as Frankenheimer's clear masterwork, mainly because it was the perfect project for him to meld the various genres and styles he was already an expert in.
It's a tightly paced and wholly unpredictable spy/action/thriller, one that uses the then extremely timely cold war paranoia to weave a timeless and universal story about the terrifyingly immoral and cruel tricks powerful people and countries will use to gain more power. The concept of a soldier (Frank Sinatra, in the best performance of his career) going after a senator's son (Laurence Harvey) who might have been brainwashed to kill a presidential candidate could have easily turned into melodramatic schlock in the wrong hands. But look at the assured and patient way Frankenheimer weaves the mysteries of the story.
The incredibly unsettling scene where soldiers who were kidnapped by the enemy become brainwashed is a marvel of brilliant editing in the way that it cuts back and forth between the real session being watched by sinister men, and the soldiers imagining that they're watching a tea party thrown by a bunch of nice old ladies. The inherent goofiness of that concept is what makes the scene as terrifying as it is, and the fact that Frankenheimer resists the urge to use heightened dramatics or bombastic musical cues once the scene actually becomes disturbingly violent is one of the many reasons why The Manchurian Candidate still stands out as the best example of its genre.
If you've never seen The Manchurian Candidate, don't read any more details about it, and just get your hands on it. And please, stay away from the neutered remake. After you've seen it, I heavily recommend reading Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay about the film:
Now let's get to the goodies that you've been waiting for, the technical details of Criterion's new Blu-ray release. The previous Blu-ray of The Manchurian Candidate wasn't bad, and sported a perfectly serviceable black and white transfer with decent grain and contrast. Criterion's new 1080p transfer from a recent 4K restoration, on the other hand, is absolutely gorgeous and pitch perfect. What's best about this great transfer is how it finds a balance between the distinctly digital look of recent Blu-ray releases and the old school look of a film print with a healthy amount of grain. The transfer looks as clean and crisp as it gets, but the great folks at Criterion don't use a lot of DNR in order to give the film an overtly digital look. Getting a solid representation of The Manchurian Candidate's stark black and white cinematography is essential in its enjoyment, and you won't get any better than Criterion's Blu-ray.
Some of the extras are ported over from the previous Blu-ray and DVD releases, such as an incredibly informative commentary by Frankenheimer, and a brief video of Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and screenwriter George Axelrod getting together in the 80s to discuss the film they obviously poured their souls into. But of course what matters to the fans are the new extras, which include a touching 2015 interview by Angela Lansbury, whose portrayal of a ruthless puppet master politician created one of the most chilling antagonists in film history. The best new extra, however, comes in the form of a new interview with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, whose passion for The Manchurian Candidate shines through as he discusses the real life political legacy of the film.
Criterion once again knocks it out of the park with a new home video release of yet another timeless classic. Fans of Frankenheimer's masterpiece are highly urged to spend their hard-earned money on this Blu-ray. You won't be disappointed. Either buy it, or go play a game of solitaire.
The Manchurian Candidate will be available on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion on March 15: