Possibly John Frankenheimer’s finest film, The Manchurian Candidate speaks to the Red Scare, the horrors of war, paranoid fears of brainwashing — all tied in with the game of Solitaire. Frankenheimer owes a lot to George Axelrod’s script and Richard Condon’s gripping novel, which tells the story of a perfectly brainwashed soldier (during the Korean War), played by Laurence Harvey, who becomes a no-remorse assassin after capture and brianwashing by the enemy. His target and handler are both kept as mysteries until the end, but it’s Frank Sinatra as an old war buddy who’s suffering terrible nightmares that brings it all to light.
The film, as compelling as it is, is almost undone by Sinatra’s performance, which is capable but unequal to his co-stars. Sinatra, of course, had so much power during the making of the film, that he’s never really pushed for a good take. As a result, weaker scenes have been left in, presumably due to Sinatra’s notorious unwillingness to do retakes. Too bad, because they’re needed here badly. It’s little matter, though: The Manchurian Candidate‘s classic structure and breakneck pacing are a perfect match for the movie’s incredible story punch to the gut. George Axelrod’s script turns Richard Condon’s novel into classic cinema. Its suspense is gripping, and its biting political statement (lambasting McCarthyism deeply) is unparalleled in cinema this side of a Michael Moore movie.
Ultimately The Manchurian Candidate stands as one of the greatest thrillers ever made. In addition to the above, it inspired the nearly equal Jacob’s Ladder, features gorgeous cinematography, and maybe has the only credible performance Angela Lansbury has ever turned in (she was nominated for an Oscar). And when it all comes together, it’s a fabulous film.
The new special edition DVD adds even more footage. In addition to Frankenheimer’s commentary track and archival interviews, two new featurettes are added: one with Angela Lansbury and one with noted director William Friedkin.
This film also appears (with the same extras) on the John Frankenheimer DVD box set.