Manchurian Candidate, The (Blu-ray Review)23 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, James Gregory.
Seeing the George Axelrod-John Frankenheimer version of Richard Condon’s Cold War novel was a different experience if you saw it before the JFK assassination. Not that, in the great scheme of things, a whole lot of people did. The movie’s New York premiere came late in October 1962, and even the same month’s Cuban Missile Crisis couldn’t sell it at the box office. By early January 1963, it was at my second-run neighborhood movie house in the Midwest (next to a White Castle) and became the first theatrical movie I saw that year. Ten months later the president was dead.
My fellow teen buds and I loved it, of course. It had brainwashing for real; Frank Sinatra in a rare role with real dimension — but also engaging with second-tier “friend of the Rat Pack” Henry Silva in a martial arts wipeout of an apartment; a subtext flashback to the days of Joe McCarthy, who still lingered in the memories of the Right-wing suburb where I grew up; an eventually Oscar-nominated Angela Lansbury, whose characterization reminded me of an odious teacher or two with whom I’d butted heads; Leslie Parrish (just three years after she’d played Daisy Mae in the movie version of Li’l Abner) in that sexy Halloween outfit; and the nail-biting finale in which one party’s presidential nominee is targeted for sniper’s fire in Madison Square Garden. But it all seemed a little … well, far out, at a time when “Bobbie’s Girl” and “Hey, Paula” were big on the Billboard charts.
The JFK assassination, of course, changed how everyone looked at everything (and everything political) forever. Candidate eventually came to seem so far ahead of its time that Hollywood even did the obligatory lame remake in 2004 (which, along with his re-do/boo boo of Charade — called The Trouble with Charlie — sucked a lot of valuable wind out of director Jonathan Demme’s career). Even the original Candidate’s strange mix of tragedy and ticklish satire — though David Amram’s memorably mournful score pushes the balance toward the former — seems positively modern, and it did this kind of thing five years before Bonnie and Clyde did.
For a movie that was once so hard to see (more on this in a minute), Candidate has been issued for the home market many times, and its premiere on Blu-ray not unwelcomely recycles its interviews with Frankenheimer, screenwriter Axelrod and with Sinatra, all of whom are long gone. This is another 20th Century Fox release of an MGM-held title from the old United Artists library (aren’t the vagaries of film distribution fun?), and like others of their rights-controlled ilk, it looks better on Blu-ray than it has before without looking particularly distinguished. Or, to put it another way, not quite as snappy as the new Blu-ray of Twelve O’Clock High, a Fox release of a literal Fox title that is 13 years older.
On the other hand, the Blu-ray must do something right because I noticed more than ever how much Sinatra, a career-best Laurence Harvey and so many of the male principals sweat here; either Frankenheimer was shooting them in tropical rooms or the off-camera spritzer technicians were getting time-and-a-half. I have always wondered what it was about this movie that induced Sinatra to try here (as compared to in the recording studio), which he never seemed to do very much after From Here to Eternity and Suddenly! Judging from Candidate and a fine late-career role in 1980’s somewhat underrated The First Deadly Sin, Sinatra may have had a mostly untapped talent for playing guys going understandably off their trolleys.
There’ve long been rumors that co-producer Sinatra pulled Candidate from distribution after the Kennedy assassination, but its long period of unavailability stemmed from a business decision and didn’t commence until the early-to-mid-1970s. In fact, it launched one mid-‘60s season of CBS’s Thursday night movie — where its 126 minutes were shoved into a two-hour time slot that also included commercials and Sinatra’s final “hell” was bleeped out, presumably so that the network’s R.F.D. demographic wouldn’t balk. Nice.
And speaking of launching, Candidate’s huge revisionist rep began with a rapturously received showing at the 1988 New York Film Festival (followed by a theatrical re-issue). The NYFF presentation was touted as the first in well over a decade, which isn’t quite true. Early in the ‘80s, I programmed the movie at the American Film Institute Theater and had to get Sinatra’s permission. The affirmative letter that came from his lawyer became my all-time favorite legal clearance of the many hundreds we had to do every year. Enclosed with it was a Xeroxed copy of our original request, where, scrawled at the top in ballpoint, was a notation: “OK per The Man.” Did somebody say, “His Way?”