Purists do not much like the idea, but it is possible that certain film stories gain in power from being periodically remade.
That is certainly the case with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example: every new version speaks to an altered political context and thus takes on a different shade of meaning. And, against all expectation, I am starting to feel the same way about The Manchurian Candidate.
Director Jonathan Demme and his writers (Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris) certainly took on a tough job in daring to remake a certified classic. Moreover, it is hard to imagine the substance of John Frankenheimer's 1962 film, adapted from Richard Condon's novel, torn away from its own Cold War era of suspicion and paranoia. And it is near impossible, finally, to forgive Demme for the charmless mess he made of his Charade remake, The Truth About Charlie (2002).
However, in this case, Demme has made both a wise and sly choice. The classic status that The Manchurian Candidate enjoys, and its association with such a venerable showbiz figure as Frank Sinatra (who starred in the original and held the rights to it), grants a veneer of respectability that camouflages Demme's subversive political intent.
Like in his best and most spirited films of the '70s and '80s, Demme is here free to say anything he pleases. The result is an impressively anti-governmental melodrama often bordering on black comedy.
In the contemporary context of America between the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, Condon's story takes on a whole new life. Its frankly outrageous mind-control premise – peeled away layer by layer by Major Bennett (Denzel Washington) as his patriotism is disturbed by strange dreams and memory-flashes – chimes in well with the technological fears created by the computer age.
In Frankenheimer's original, the idea of a sinister matriarch pulling the strings of her son's political career came at the end of a decade of what one sociologist called American Momism – involving men's cowering acquiescence to smothering, castrating maternal domination. This exaggerated, psycho-sexual complex meshed well with the out-of-body nightmares stirred by Cold War rhetoric.
After the rise of feminism, Demme has a harder time making this crucial part of the plot work. But his actors, Meryl Streep as Senator Shaw and Liv Schreiber as Sergeant Raymond, go a long way towards making it compelling and believable.
On the level of filmmaking craft, this is unquestionably Demme's best work since The Silence of the Lambs (1991). He has a distinctive way with the conventions of the thriller genre. All the appropriate shocks and eerie, unsettling effects are where they should be, and the narrative drive is well maintained.
But Demme never loses his taste for tasty peripheral details and sidelong divertissements that enrich the texture and enhance the theme. The Manchurian Candidate is especially impressive for the way it can subtly but decisively alter the mood of a scene via a surprising change of camera angle or a shift in the ambience of the sound.
© Adrian Martin October 2004