John Frankenheimerís classic paranoia thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, presenting the film in Frankenheimerís preferred aspect ratio of 1.75:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new restoration sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative.
The upgrade over the MGM/Fox Blu-ray is noticeable. That disc didnít look horrible, but in the end it simply looked like the master used was made with only DVD in mind: it was a bit soft, detail never that striking, with off contrast, and some fairly obvious noise. Damage, though not all that heavy, was still littered throughout. Criterionís transfer is far cleaner with less noise, retaining a more filmic quality. The restoration work has also been far more thorough: though you can still at times make out the faintest bits of debris along with the occasional faint tram line, like one that appears around the 39-minute mark, this is the cleanest Iíve ever seen the film and throughout most of its running time it looks virtually spotless.
I found detail to be quite a bit sharper, delivering crisper, cleaner edges around objects, and contrast is better balanced here as well. The MGM Blu-ray (and DVD) looked to be boosted quite a bit more and black levels were off and the shifts in the gray levels werenít very clean, which led to details getting washed out in dark scenes. Film grain, which looked a bit clunky in the old Blu-ray, is very fine here, more cleanly rendered, and I didnít notice any noise or artifacts.
The improvement in the end is quite noticeable and very nice. The image looks much cleaner and substantially more natural. Criterionís done a wonderful job with this one. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Surprisingly Criterion doesnít upgrade the supplements much over the previous MGM special editions, basically giving us the same thing just with some new and recycled material. John Frankenheimerís original audio commentary recorded in 1997 for the MGM LaserDisc and reused on the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray special editions (I donít believe it appeared on the original DVD) makes its way. Listening to it again itís still a fine track, though by this point I do sort of wish we could get something newer, maybe a more scholarly one. The track is quite technical, with Frankenheimer more or less giving a production history along with comments on the editing and the performances. He also talks a bit about the source novel and this adaptation, which remains mostly true to the source, though with a few changes. He also does manage to give some historical context to the film, talking about the time period and the McCarthy hearings, as well as some of the fears that played into creating the crazy story to this film. Again, itís a fine track and if youíve never heard it before itís certainly worth the time, but something new to accompany it, maybe offering some alternate perspective, would have been more than welcome.
Criterion does include a new interview with Angela Lansbury, replacing the one (well, two) on the old edition. For 11-minutes she pretty much covers the same material, talking about working with Frankenheimer, first on the film All Fall Down and then being hired on for The Manchurian Candidate. One thing Iíve always found interesting, which is mentioned again here, is that Frank Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball to play the role of Eleanor. Thankfully, Frankenheimer was fully intent on Lansbury (and donít get me wrong, casting Ball would have been an ingenious bit of stunt casting, and I think Ball could have pulled it off, but Lansbury is really just a knockout in the film and itís hard to imagine anyone else in this role, to the point where I just couldnít get past Meryl Streepówho was still fineóin the remake). She also talks about her fellow performers in the film, chiefly Laurence Harvey and James Gregory, and talks about the one sequence that alludes to incest, where all the movements and gestures were fully planned by Frankenheimer (thereís actually much worse in the book). She even talks about the art of acting like youíve been shot, which humourously got its own feature on the previous Blu-ray, more than likely just to pad out the supplements. I liked the interview with her on the old disc but was still more than happy with it here. She still makes for a great interview subject.
Missing from the previous special editions is an interview with filmmaker William Friedkin, where the director just shared what he liked about the film. Instead, to cover this angle, Criterion includes a new interview with director Errol Morris. Morris first states that he had recently just went through a period of watching the film over and over again, apparently for another project, and shares how much he admires that the film is not only so skillfully made (with some odd touches) but still manages to be so timely (the film points out how easy it is for someone ďso stupidĒ to make it to the white house). He also admires how it so clearly represents America, not just at the time (which is clearly shown through all the paranoia of those pesky commies and brainwashing) but even in general as to how paranoid the country can be, even when times are good. He lumps the film together with a couple of others, into a ďparanoia trilogyĒ, which includes this film along with Frankenheimerís Seconds and Seven Days in May. Iím sort of surprised Criterion didnít carry over Friedkinís interview, though I must say I much preferred this one. It runs over 16-minutes.
This release also carries over a 1988 conversation between director John Frankenheimer, screenwriter George Axelrod, and star Frank Sinatra, which was filmed in conjunction with the filmís rerelease. Itís disappointingly short at 8-minutes, but the three share stories about how the production came together, Kennedyís interest in the project (it was one of his favourite novels and his interest helped get the film, considered controversial, made), the fight scene, where Sinatra broke his finger, and the other performances, with Sinatra praising Harvey. Thereís also some detail about how the dream sequence was edited together: amazingly it sounds like it was rushed together to appease Sinatra, who wanted to see it. Itís a fine conversation, though just disappointingly brief.
Criterion does add one new feature that differs from everything on the previous editions, which aims to offer some context for newcomers to the film. Though I wasnít yet even a thought when the film was made, I did grow up during the 80ís when the cold war was still a thing (even if it was by that point seeming rather silly) so I did get the fears and paranoia found in this film to an extent, but nowadays I can imagine younger audiences coming to this rather bewildered by it. Yes, the film is fairly satirical (and Iím always pleasantly surprised at the humour in the film each time I watch it) but it is based on what were very real, genuine fears at the time, even if they were, in retrospect rather silly an obvious overreaction. To explain this Criterion gets history professor Susan Carruthers to talk about this period, where the term ďbrainwashingĒ came to be and the fear there was around POWs, captured during the Korean War, coming back as possible agents. These fears were also heightened by the fact that some prisoners were giving false confessions a little too easily to their captors, that it didnít appear prisoners were trying to escape, and the fact that this generation of soldiers was ďsoft.Ē This even led to POWs having to first go through treatment at psychiatric clinics just to make sure they hadnít been brainwashed. There was of course plenty of science to support the fact these fears were all based on hooey, but this didnít ease things any. Expanding on other areas, including subliminal messages in advertising and other media, I found this to be a rather solid addition to the release that newcomers should find of some value.
The filmís theatrical trailer then closes off the supplements. One of Criterionís fold-out ďroad mapĒ style inserts is also included, featuring an essay on the film by Howard Hampton, who sets up the time period of the filmís release and how the film addressed the anxieties of the time. His dismissal of Frankenheimerís career trajectory after Seconds and the death of his friend, Robert F. Kennedy, is not entirely fair in my eyes, but itís a good essay that nicely closes off the supplements.
Thereís a certain letdown that Criterion didnít offer much in the way of new materialólike a new commentary trackóand really, in the end, just offers an alternate collection of supplements that covers the same material found on the old MGM release (the Carruthers interview at least provides context for newer audiences). Still, I enjoyed going through them and they do, on the whole, feel to be better than what previous editions offered. 7/10