As the granddaddy of the political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate offers a précis on what sets the genre apart from other suspense films. Thrillers are generally defined by absence, withholding details so as to prevent audiences from getting ahead of plots that lean on an element of surprise. Yet John Frankenheimer’s film subverts such trends at nearly every turn. It provides the clues to a crime before the crime is even committed, leaving the viewer to parcel out which details are related and relevant and building tension from the mounting realization that they all are.
The film’s structure is at once straightforward and subtly dissonant, as when the opening scene, of the ambush and capture of an American squad in Korea, jumps abruptly to the men, minus two comrades, returning home safe and sound days later. The seeming ease of the men’s escape jars with how completely the soldiers were routed, making one wonder just how they managed to get to safety. Almost immediately, flashbacks reveal the truth: that the soldiers were brainwashed with false memories and deliberately released back to the Americans. One of the men, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), has even been programmed to kill on command. Instead of focusing on the mystery of what happened, The Manchurian Candidate shifts focus onto what will happen, pitting the certainty of Shaw’s danger against the question of whether his squadmate, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra), will be able to come out of his own conditioning to stop him.
The deceptive simplicity of this setup is matched by Frankenheimer’s direction and Lionel Lindon’s cinematography. Wide-angle lenses distort the dimensions of the compositions, stretching figures in the foreground, while the backgrounds are cramped and narrowed, an effect made clearer by the deep-focus photography. A feeling of alienation hangs in the air within these distended interiors, of being unable to find one’s bearings within normal spaces. The perversion of perspective is made explicit in the scene depicting the GIs’ conditioning, which cuts between, then eerily merges, the objective view of communists conducting their brainwashing experiments with the soldiers’ hallucination of being in a ladies’ gardening club. The horror of the sequence peaks when it looks as if prim and proper New England women, not Chinese and Soviet agents, calmly suggest orders to test their obedience.
The eerie compositions are matched by the actors’ performances, which are filled with halting pauses and stiff line deliveries that accentuate the film’s jarring tone. Harvey plays Shaw as if the man were drifting in a kind of detached stupor, haunted by his inability to remember why he’s so traumatized. And if Sinatra’s Marco generally snaps out of his brainwashing, the traces of terror that still grip him cause him to freeze with apprehension during seemingly normal conversations. Most unsettling of all is, of course, Angela Lansbury, who stars as Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Iselin. Issuing barbed criticisms with aristocratic condescension, Mrs. Iselin manipulates everyone with an ease that’s frightening, be it her conditioned son or her buffoonish senator husband (James Gregory). Lansbury’s mirthless commands suggests those of a criminal mastermind and a stage mother.
Subsequent films in this genre would draw on the paranoia and conspiracy surrounding the Kennedy assassination and Nixon’s presidency to depict omnipotent, clandestine forces aligned against the common man. The Manchurian Candidate is unconcerned with such paradigm shifts, freeing it to paint a broader portrait of a nation’s internal social tensions.
Senator Iselin’s anti-communist rhetoric immediately marks him as a satire on Joseph McCarthy, but the film takes its caricature even further, spotlighting his dubiously sourced, always changing number of “confirmed” reds within the government as proof of the self-promotion that motivates his ostensible patriotism. And behind the scenes, Mrs. Iselin stokes his seeming buffoonery to hoodwink a willing media, shifting focus away from whether there are any communists within the government to how many there may be. When Iselin derails a defense department meeting with his allegations, his tirade is seen via a shot of his wife watching him on a news crew’s playback monitor, compounding the impact of the senator’s rhetoric by reminding the viewer that it’s playing to all the folks at home, not just the officials in the room. The film may derive its immediate drama from Cold War fears, but its most demented suggestion is that regardless of what external foes seek to wreak havoc in America, the nation is already primed to eat itself.
So much of The Manchurian Candidate's power derives from the clarity of its distorted images, and Criterion's 4K-sourced transfer maximizes every pristine detail of Lionel Lindon's deep-focus cinematography. John Frankenheimer's films always look relatively normal at a glance and reveal their visual eccentricities on closer inspection, and that balance of the banal with the perverse is excellently rendered here. Black levels are stable and contrasts emphasize grays, but the highlight of the transfer is the detailed skin textures, clearly marked with nervous sweat and drained of blood and color. The monaural audio exudes a surprising depth of field, especially in scenes where the echoes of someone's voice carry across a voluminous room.
An archival commentary track by Frankenheimer covers nearly every aspect of the production, and most notably the director’s many difficulties in pulling off the film’s subtle technicality. Additionally, the disc comes with a batch of video interviews, including a new interview with Angela Lansbury and an old one with Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and writer George Axelrod. Yet the best of these interviews come from a couple of admirers: Film historian Susan Carruthers breaks down the social context of emerging fears of communist brainwashing in the wake of the Korean War and how it shapes the film, while Errol Morris offers a concise critique of the movie even as he effusively praises it with fannish glee. Finally, an accompanying booklet contains a thorough essay on the film by Howard Hampton.
John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece gets a sparkling new transfer that brings out the most of its skewed interiors and domestic horror, positioning the film as much an influence on Alan Pakula as David Lynch.