Demme knowing, nerve-shredding take on iconic conspiracy thriller pulls off the improbable
So how do you remake a drop-dead, hands-down, white-kunckle cult movie classic? In Jonathan Demme’s case, with a powerhouse A-list cast, a subversively topical political agenda and an armour-piercing payload of indie-blockbuster attitude. Intelligent and engrossing, The Manchurian Candidate goes off like a smart bomb under the lazy notion that big-budget Hollywood thrillers can only be dumbed-down, neutered, reactionary crap.
Based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 blueprint for The Manchurian Candidate was a freak phenomenon. A pulpy little Cold War potboiler about psycho-sexual brainwashing and political assassination, it assumed the mantle of prophecy as the Machiavellian conspiracies of the late 20th century mushroomed around it. Thanks to historical accident or some darker kind of alchemy, it became greater than the sum of its parts.
Released a year before JFK’s death and a decade before Watergate, Frankenheimer’s film was adopted as an all-purpose allegory for half a century of government lies and Kafka-esque conspiracies. Grounded in the Korean war and the McCarthy-era Red Scare, it was a monochrome noir chiller that infiltrated our nightmares. But Demme’s slick remake adds a killer twist to the original plot, cranking up the nerve-shattering paranoia by several notches.
The action takes place Right Now, during a US presidential election fought in the teeth of a national security panic. Washington gives a more contained performance than Sinatra in the role of Bennett Marco, a US army major whose composure unravels as his recurring nightmares churn up echoes of a sinister reprogramming session during the first Gulf War. Schreiber is a revelation, meanwhile, stepping into Laurence Harvey’s shoes as the zombie-like Raymond Shaw, a vice-presidential puppet candidate controlled by the shady Manchurian Global corporation and his domineering mother, Eleanor Shaw.
Angela Lansbury, who played this matriarchal monster in the original, has already sniffed at Streep’s portrayal. But the queen of Method perfectionism delivers a deliciously toxic cocktail of incestuous mother-love and manicured spite—think Hillary Clinton meets Cruella De Vil. Streep also gets to savour some of the film’s best lines: “The assassin always dies, baby, it’s necessary for the national healing.”
Unlike its more open-ended predecessor, Demme’s Manchurian Candidate feels almost hard-wired into current events. Daniel Pyne’s screenplay about right-wing candidates stealing elections and stirring up national panic for their warmongering corporate paymasters could almost have been written last week, not three or four years ago. You needn’t dig too deep to find George Bush, Dick Cheney or even John Kerry lurking between these lines, and passing references to “regime change” and “civilian contractors” sound uncannily like tomorrow’s news headlines. For all its flashy swagger and occasional lapses into hammy melodrama, Demme’s movie shares more of a kindred spirit with documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 than with its big-budget studio peers.
Demme also finds time to acknowledge his roots in underground films and rockumentaries. The eccentric support cast for The Manchurian Candidate includes his legendary indie-movie mentor Roger Corman, plus cult British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. Former Fugee Wyclef Jean, who previously worked on Demme’s politically slanted documentary about Haiti, The Agronomist, also makes a soundtrack appearance. Right at the edge of the canvas, this attention to detail feels impressive.
Demme is making no inflated political claims for The Manchurian Candidate. He knows this project is first and foremost a studio star vehicle conceived as slam-bang entertainment. And he’s right, thankfully, because there are plenty of worthy arthouse fables out there for the marginal movie-goer. This film is a mainstream thriller—and therein lies its subversive Trojan Horse power to follow us home and haunt our nightmares. But, 40 years from now, who knows? We may still be talking of Demme’s remake the way we now discuss Frankenheimer’s iconic original—with shock and awe.