Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory
Director: John Frankenheimer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono, Spanish Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.75:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: July 13, 2004

“Why don’t you pass the time with a game of solitaire?”

Film ****

If one is to ever think of a single motion picture to be made ahead of its time, John Frankenheimer’s masterful The Manchurian Candidate can easily be noted as such. Perhaps one of the first films to ever usher in an effect of extreme paranoia, the film version of the novel by Richard Condon has earned the status as of a true cinematic classic.

With a superbly crafted plot that lies somewhere between political thriller and political satire, the film may seem ever more resonant in the midst of today’s heated political climate. Looking back to its original release period, it’s kind of chilling once you come to realize an important footnote. This thriller involving a possible political assassination was released one month short of a year before President John F. Kennedy was fatally killed in Dallas, Texas.

The film’s story opens in Korea, 1952, where a U.S. military platoon has been kidnapped by a group of Communist soldiers. The details of the abduction are revealed in bit pieces throughout the movie. The story cuts to the aftermath of the Korean War, where two members of the platoon, Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), have apparently returned to a normal civilian life.

One fact, though, has Marco kind of bewildered. Somehow, Shaw has returned home a decorated hero, having received nothing more than the Medal of Honor for bravery. Having absolutely no knowledge of what Shaw did to receive such an award, Marco and the rest of the platoon members who served with him maintain that Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they’ve ever known in their lives.

Marco, who’s now working as an investigator for the Pentagon, has another thing troubling him. Every night, the major has repeated nightmares about what may or may not have taken place during the time he and his fellow soldiers were kidnapped. What haunts him nightly is that of a heinous brainwashing experiment that possibly turned one of the soldiers into an assassin. Convinced that Shaw was indeed the primary test subject, Marco attempts to confront his former squad member to get specific details about why he was chosen and further more, if whether or not a future assassination plot is possible.

Shaw, with no knowledge of the actions he may be capable of, is anything but happy with his present life. The stepson of an arrogant senator (James Gregory), Shaw finds himself unable to shake the corrupt grasp of his controlling mother (Angela Lansbury). Never wanting to be linked to his stepfather, having been mistakenly labeled “The Senator’s Son” more than he would like to hear, Shaw has come to resent just about everything in his personal life. Even if he is to be something of a pawn in some sort of assassination plot, Shaw has pretty much played the role of a pawn all of his life.

The one possible cure of depression for Shaw lies in that of a beautiful woman named Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish). The two met during the summer prior to Shaw’s enlisting in the army. The two have now met up again and plan to get married. Marco, having conducted some private questioning to Shaw, doesn’t want to arrest him because he feels the romance may save him from any potential harm doing, since he is completely in love with her and has never displayed such happiness before in his life.

What lay ahead in the plot of The Manchurian Candidate is pure movie history. Though the details of the plot may not be so secretive now, I would still not even think of revealing any more. After all, if you have never seen this film before, and are reading this review, it would be a crime on my part for doing so.

With Jonathan Demme’s remake ready to hit theaters, there isn’t a more perfect time to discover, or re-discover The Manchurian Candidate. If you do plan to see the remake, which I certainly do, you owe it to yourself to watch the original once more, since from what I’ve heard, Demme’s version does have a few changes in the plot. A lot of people have been outraged by the notion of a remake of such a classic, but having seen the trailer and having full faith in Demme and his marvelous cast, I am willing to give this one a positive chance. In other words, I don’t think we’ll have another Psycho-like catastrophe.

The Manchurian Candidate is certainly one of cinema’s most treasured pieces. In the realm of the paranoia-driven thriller, you simply cannot top the strong efforts displayed by the late-great John Frankenheimer, who most certainly created his most crowning achievement to date with this film.

Video ***1/2

Rarely have I seen a film with this much age soar successfully in the video area on a single DVD release. MGM has thankfully given The Manchurian Candidate the proper anamorphic treatment following its first release to DVD in 1998. The anamorphic picture displays endless sharpness and beauty in the images. The level of detail in Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, particularly in that of the climatic set piece of the presidential convention, is most breathtaking. A touch of grain may be noticeable for about a second, but that hardly begins to distract in such a stunning and glowing presentation.

Audio ***

The newly restored 5.1 mix is put to superb use, adding a bit more bite to an already biting suspense thriller. The biggest element is perhaps David Amram’s score to the film, which is delivered in a purely sharp, top-notch form. Dialogue is delivered with ultimate clarity and the numerous scenes of background noise pay off extremely well. The climatic sequence is particularly impressive.

Features ***1/2

MGM Special Edition re-issuing of this classic boasts some nicely done extras. There is a commentary track with John Frankenheimer, as well as an interview segment with Frankenheimer, Frank Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod. Also included are two additional featurettes, “Queen of Diamonds”, an interview with Angela Lansbury, and “A Little Solitaire”, and special interview with director William Friedkin. Lastly, there is a photo gallery and a theatrical trailer.


42 years after its initial release, The Manchurian Candidate remains as rich and remarkable as ever. In the wake of the remake, now is the perfect time to experience what is for my money, one of the truly best suspense films ever made.