MovieHype00664 – THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATES
This is the inaugural edition in our series on Makes/Remakes (I really don’t have a better title, and would be grateful if you could suggest one.) Since this is the first time, I thought I should say a word or three about remakes.
There is contention over what kind of movies should be remade. Some hold that to remake a poor movie is stupid; it was bad the first time, why not let it go? Others counter that the film might have been executed poorly, but the idea still had merit.
Others submit one should only remake a great film, since you know the source material is a winner. That argument is countered by outraged purists, who shout that if the original is close to perfect, why remake it at all? You can see how these arguments can and often do lead to nerdly fisticuffs.
I personally think there is no hard and fast rule—a filmmaker needs to make what inspires him or her personally—but it makes sense to tell great stories, and that means great movies. Of course, I love old movies, so sometimes I shake my head and wonder why a remake would be necessary. However, I concede that most of you aren’t going to track down a classic movie, and a remake is the only way most people will ever access a great story. (And maybe they like it so much that it leads them to the original.)
For example, the original KING KONG is possibly one of the ten greatest movies ever made, but that didn’t stop me from being blown away by the remake. Sometimes a remake is even better, like THE ITALIAN JOB or OCEAN’S ELEVEN. Sometimes a remake is wholly unnecessary (PSYCHO, anyone?), and sometimes the remake is so god-awful, that we all agree to never speak of it again.
This brings us to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.
The original came out in 1962, and is often regarded as the best political satire ever made. If you’re movie literate at all you have probably heard of the film but don’t know much about it. That’s because virtually nobody saw it from 1964-1988.
The legend was that Frank Sinatra (the star of the movie) purchased the rights and kept it out of circulation over remorse for his friend’s death. (That statement will make more sense in a minute.) The truth is rather more mundane. Sinatra had a dispute with United Artists over the profits, and if the Chairman of the Board ain’t happy, nobody’s happy. (The re-release includes an short piece of Sinatra, director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod reminiscing about the movie and how great it was, without a single mention of why nobody saw it for 24 years.)
The plot device has become iconic, but just in case you want to be totally surprised, SKIP THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH. In both versions soldiers are kidnapped and brain-washed into believing things that are not true. The soldiers are led to believe that Raymond Shaw—from a powerful political family—has saved all of their lives and deserves the Medal of Honor—when in fact he’s made into a sleeper agent capable of killing when he hears the “trigger.” Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra in the original and 2004 Denzel Washington) was in the same army unit, is plagued by dreams, and is convinced that his memories of Shaw and what happened in battle are false, and that Shaw is dangerous. Obviously nobody believes him.
The 2004 version has Denzel Washington running around doing his Denzel Washington thing, a mixture of that guy with demons, the guy pushed too far, and the determined hero; in other words: all the things we’ve come to love Denzel for. Raymond Shaw is played by Liev Schreiber and his powerful mother is Meryl Streep. All the performances are fine, not incredibly nuanced, but this is a thriller after all, and I have no complaints.
In the remake the bad guy is Big Business, a concept that might be easier to believe in this day and age when so many are already suspicious that Oil concerns control foreign policy and multi-national corporations pull the strings.
In the original the Big Baddie is Communism. Frank Sinatra is going after Laurence Harvey (whom most of you won’t know unless your movie IQ is through the roof), and Janet Leigh shows up in a small but incredible role. (More on that in a minute too.)
An entire paragraph needs to be given to Angela Lansbury, who plays the powerful mother of Raymond Shaw. First of all, Angela Lansbury is sexy! If that last sentence made you clench your bowels, imagine how it feels to watch it. But we can’t stop there, because we need to discuss how amazing she is. Nominated for an Oscar, she pretty much steals the movie. You will never forget her performance, or watch Murder, She Wrote the same way again.
Hyperion’s Rating Guide.
Suspension of Disbelief: both films play on the fears of the day, but when you come right down to it ask us to believe fairly preposterous premises. 8 (out of 10).
Genre Grade: We’re squarely in Political Thriller here. 1962: A. 2004: B+.
Sex/Violence? Nothing objectionable in the first, the second has some language and violence. High schoolers should be able to handle it, but I’m not sure they’d be able to understand what they are seeing.
Kickassability: Pretty high for both films, both the main characters and the whole sinister plot: 40 (out of 100) for both.
Pantheon Percentile: The 1962 MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE will never be duplicated and deserves a 95 for still holding up. The 2004 version is a good remake for the times, and earns an admirable 85.
Having got all the particulars out the way, let’s discuss which is better. The films are similar in construction and execution, but subtly different enough that they play quite differently. Some of this is the eras the movies were made in. Acting styles were different, plotting was different; audience assumptions and general knowledge was different. For example, Jonathan Demme, who directs the remake, assumes the audience is already aware of the big conspiracy, and so instead of making it a bit reveal later on he reveals the set up early on, playing with our “knowledge” to make his twists even more effective.
There’s also the knowledge that a 2006 watcher needs to have to enjoy the original. If you don’t know anything about the McCarthy hearings, quite a bit of the 1962 version is going to go over your head. If the Cold War is nothing more to you than Pepsi vs. Coke, the 1962 version is going to seem almost quaint. Understanding these things leads to a far richer enjoyment of the film itself.
That said, the 1962 version is superior. The scene where we learn the big mystery is so brilliantly conceived that I went back and watched it four times. Tarantino, Hitchcock and Spielberg together couldn’t have done better.
Angela Lansbury is another reason to favor the 1962 version. This isn’t a knock at the world’s greatest actress: Meryl Streep is as fabulous as always, and wisely doesn’t try to mimic the earlier performance. But Angela Lansbury….it’s one of the great female performances of the entire decade. (I have no idea how Patty Duke won the Oscar that year for THE MIRACLE WORKER.)
The dialogue of the original is better too. Consider the following:
Raymond Shaw: There are two kinds of people in this world: Those that enter a room and turn the television set on, and those that enter a room and turn the television set off. [Yes, that quote is from this movie.]
Raymond Shaw: It's a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn't always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her.
Chairlady: You will notice that I have told them they may smoke. I've allowed my people to have a little fun in the selection of bizarre tobacco substitutes... Are you enjoying your cigarette, Ed?
Ed Movole: Yes ma'am.
Chairlady: Yak dung!... hope tastes good - like a cigarette should! [To anyone over 50 that last sentence was hilarious.]
There’s one other aspect I want to talk about, but I cannot do so without going again going into the “secret” of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. If you are interested in the movie, stop now and rent the original. If you like it, go ahead and watch the second one and compare, and then come back and read the ending here and see if you agree with me.
Let me set this next part up: Frank Sinatra (Ben Marco) is falling to pieces. He’s reported the dreams that Raymond Shaw is not a war hero, and Shaw may well be a killer. No one really believes him. Marco finds himself on a train, so drunk he can’t light his own cigarette. Marco rushes out between train cars, and Janet Leigh (Eugenie Rose Chaney) follows him. She lights his cigarette for him and they have the following conversation.
Eugenie Rose Chaney:
is a beautiful state. Maryland
Bennett Marco: This is
Eugenie Rose Chaney: I know, I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this straight.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: But, em... nonetheless,
is a beautiful state. So is Maryland for that matter. Ohio
Bennett Marco: I guess so,
is a tremendous football town. You in the railroad business? Columbus
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Not anymore. However if you will permit me to point out, when you ask that question, you really should say: Are you in the railroad line?
Bennett Marco: What's your name?
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Eugenie.
Bennett Marco: Pardon?
Eugenie Rose Chaney: No kidding, I really meant it. Crazy French pronunciation and all.
Bennett Marco: It's pretty.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Thank you.
Bennett Marco: I guess your friends call you Ginny.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Not yet they haven't, for which I am deeply grateful... but you may call me Ginny
Bennett Marco: What do your friends call you?
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Rosie.
Bennett Marco: Why?
Eugenie Rose Chaney: My full name is Eugenie Rose. Of the two names I've always favored Rose, 'cause it smells of brown soap and beer. Eugenie is somehow more fragile.
Bennett Marco: Still, when I asked you what your name was, you said it was Eugenie.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Quite possible I was feeling more or less fragile at that instant.
Bennett Marco: I could never figure out what that phrase meant, 'more or less'.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Are you Arabic?
Bennett Marco: No.
Eugenie Rose Chaney: Let me put it another way: are you married?
Can you imagine Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra having that conversation between two moving train cars? Totally bizarre, isn’t it? Immediately after this Eugenie sees her fiancé and breaks up with him to be with Marco forever. I mean, I know Frank Sinatra is a catch, but even by 1960s standards that’s pretty weird.
In the 2004 version all the mystery is taken out of it: everyone in that unit is brainwashed, including Marco. However, in the 1962 version, the only one demonstrably brain-washed is Raymond Shaw. And yet when as soon as Janet Leigh shows up I started to get suspicious. Nothing happens with her character at all. In fact, she really serves no purpose except to look stunning and the comic relief of scenes like the one above. And yet I think there is another layer there, for those who are willing to see it. I think that Marco was brain-washed too, and Eugenie is his “handler.” That we don’t see this play out makes it all the more chilling, as the movie ends like all movies in the ‘60s had to; the good guys win and evil is punished. But if you just stretch slightly, you see something much more sinister going on.
To me that elevates the 1962 version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE into truly exalted status. Both are good films, but the former is a work of art.