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Thursday, December 18, 2003

Review: The Manchurian Candidate
directed by John Frankenheimer
starring Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, James Gregory

There's a remake of The Manchurian Candidate currently being made by Jonathan Demme. Why this is necessary, I don't know. The cast is interesting: Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role, Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw (originally played by Lawrence Harvey), Meryl Streep as Raymond's mother (played brilliantly by Angela Lansbury in the original) and Jon Voight as Senator Jordon. IMDb doesn't have a listing for McCarthy-inspired Senator Iselin. But good casting can't make up for the wrong-headedness of this idea.

This isn't as bad an idea as Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, but it's close. The original Manchurian Candidate (1962) is not only one of the best political thrillers made, it achieves the most difficult feat of any political film: it remains as relevant as ever, some forty years after its release. Also, like Psycho, this is a film that needs to be black and white. Just look at the lighting used on Lawrence Harvey's face throughout the film, or the wonderful composition of the final scene at Madison Square Garden and try to imagine it in color.

The film's tagline is: "If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won't know what it's all about! When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it." Unlike most films, The Manchurian Candidate actually lives up to the hype. The film's famous first five minutes show an American army patrol in Korea captured by an assemblage of Korean, Chinese and Soviet forces. Shortly thereafter in the film, through a wonderfully surreal flashback sequence, we learn that the patrol has been brainwashed and that one of the members, Raymond Shaw, remains under their control. The suspense builds form this point on, as it's unclear what Raymond's mission is or who exactly his controller is.

I already mentioned Angela Lansbury's performance, but Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco is deserving of mention as well. Rarely is Sinatra described as a great actor, often just playing himself in films, but here he gives a truly nuanced performance that is key to the success of the film.

The one complaint occasionally thrown at the film concerns Janet Leigh's character, Rosie, who meets Marco on a train and delivers some very unusual dialogue. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert raises an interesting theory about this that I tend to agree with -- that Marco is another sleeper assassin and Rosie is his controller, adding another layer of complexity to an already convoluted story.
:: posted by Donald Melanson, 12/18/2003

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