Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Manchurian Candidate (Arrow Academy)

Korea, 1952. A platoon of US soldiers are kidnapped and undergo 3 days of interrogation by Russians. The men are released and return to their homeland, with Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) receiving military honours and a hero's welcome. Shaw reserves a hostile attitude for his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather Johnny (James Gregory) who unite in hunting down anyone they believe has communist sympathies; a mindset Raymond abhors. Shaw's comrades appear to have nothing but the highest praise for a man they advertise as a wonderful human being, but a series of nightmares plant a doubt in the mind of Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). Marco 'sees' Raymond murder two members of the platoon - visions shared by other members of the squad - and sets out to discover the truth.
Based on a novel by Richard Condon, 'The Manchurian Candidate' boasts a fine script, some terrific performances, assured direction from John Frankenheimer and very nifty editing. While it's true that certain plot threads do require suspension of disbelief - Janaet Leigh's 'strangers on a train' encounter with Marco and subsequent whirlwind love interest may make one wonder if the point to her character is another example of Soviet involvement - but the overall effect is electrifying.
Witness the scene involving Raymond and Eleanor towards the end of the film, and drink in every drop of Lansbury's extraordinary turn. It's chilling in the extreme, very moving and culminates in a taboo moment that went further in the novel. Sinatra, too, turns in possibly his finest performance, clearly relishing the dialogue and character motivation at his disposal. If you have yet to see this film - which will surely earn a new generation of admirers - I unreservedly recommend Arrow Academy's Blu-ray release.

Image quality is superb, with a fine layer of grain and an abundance of detail. A fine showcase for Lionel Lindon's photography.
The extras begin with a director's commentary track where John Frankenheimer explains how the rights to the novel were obtained following a suggestion by George Axelrod. He chats about David Amramu's score; the talents of Lionel Lindon who was DOP on 6 Frankenheimer films; Sinatra's preference for Lucille Ball for the role of Eleanor Iselin and how he was persuaded otherwise, and why the two weeks of rehearsal time were vital. It's true tht there is some dead air in places - doubtless the director was savouring the experience of seeing his film again - but it's an informative and enjoyable chat.
'The Directors: John Frankenheimer' runs for 58m 32s, and goes through the director's television career at CBS and why he was initially against moving into cinema. He talks about a period of great despair when his films were not in demand, and there are appearances from Lansbury, Rod Steiger, Samuel L Jackson and other notable figures. We can also enjoy the clips from 'The Young Savages', The Birdman Of Alcatraz', 'All Fall Down' and 'Grand Prix' which I recall my father taking me to see at the cinema.
Next up is a 7m 48s interview where Frankenheimer, Sinatra and Axelrod discuss the film, explaining why United Artists were so scared of the picture and how everyone involved truly believed in the film and gave their very best.
'Queen Of Diamonds', shot in 2004, is a 14m 51s interview with Angela Lansbury who declares she found her role to be extremely challenging, and how her director put real passion into the film. She also cites Sinatra's performance as "The best work I ever saw him do".
'A Little Solitaire' is a 13m 17s interview with William Friedkin who records the tension between th director and Frank Sinatra: the former in pursuit of perfection, while the latter craved spontaneity. He also praises Janet Leigh's performance in what he feels was the film's most difficult role.

This Blu-ray also comes complete with another of Arrow's booklets. The first article is 'The Manchurian Candidate', written by Peter Knight. Peter's excellent piece contains information and theories about Sinatra, the Kennedy brothers and Richard Condon and goes on to discuss the fascinating subject of mind control while looking at the role of women in Frankenheimer's film. Contemporary reviews of the film are also included in the booklet, ranging from The Evening Standard to The Financial Times. Neil Sanders' piece 'The Facts Behind The Fiction' follows, looking at the case of alleged assassin Sirhan Sirhan who gunned down Robert F Kennedy. Various US projects are also discussed with direct involvement in the dark art of mind control, and interviews and declassified documents are the icing on the cake of an absolutely fascinating read. The booklet concludes with information about the transfer and a nice still of Sinatra, Leigh and Harvey.

'The Manchurian Candidate' has certainly stood the test of time, with its compelling story of paranoia, political intrigue and a stormy relationship between mother and son that will ultimately threaten the security of a nation. I strongly suspect that it will be even more relevant in the years ahead as the political machinations of world super powers work behind closed doors with their own agendas.

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