Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Episode 40 - The Manchurian Candidate: Old & New

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - During the Korean War, Sergeant First Class Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) saved his entire platoon from capture by the enemy, ensuring him a hero's welcome and the Congressional Medal of Honor upon his return home from the war. All but two of his fellow soldiers survived the attack, and they all have nothing but wonderful things to say about Raymond. However, although Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) may say repeatedly how great of a man Shaw is, he can't help but feel that he doesn't really mean it. That's when the nightmares begin. Marco has recurring dreams in which his platoon has been captured by the enemy during the war and brainwashed. In these dreams he watches, unable to do anything to help, as Raymond Shaw strangles one of their fellow soldiers and shoots another in the head at the mere request of an evil Korean doctor. After discussing these dreams with his superiors, Ben is sent on leave. He travels to New York by train to see Raymond, which is where he meets a beautiful young woman by the name of Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh). Arriving in New York, Marco meets with Shaw only to find out that another of their former teammates from the war has sent Raymond a letter describing the exact dreams that Ben has been having. This raises enough suspicion for the military to back Ben in an investigation into the cause of these dreams. Before long Ben discovers that Raymond has been brainwashed to follow the instructions of anyone who who knows how to trigger the latent memory blocks in his mind. But will Ben be able to uncover what Raymond has been brainwashed into doing, and will it have anything to do with his stepfather Senator John Iselin's (James Gregory) candidacy for Vice President of the United States of America? I enjoyed the original version of The Manchurian Candidate quite a bit more than I thought I would, though perhaps my favorite thing about the movie was Frank Sinatra's performance. I always knew that Sinatra did some acting, but I never thought he was in any starring roles like this, nor did I expect him to be so good at it. The film itself is a bit slow, which is perhaps why Sinatra's performance stuck out to me so much. He really mixed things up when he was onscreen. He had great presence. Laurence Harvey was a bit less impressive as Raymond Shaw. He needed to portray some odd emotions as he was under mind control for a considerable portion of the film, but I was never truly convinced that he was going through any kind of inner struggle. He didn't deliver very well on the different emotions in my opinion, and horribly over-acted any scenes in which he was supposed to be happy (thank goodness there weren't many of them). Another highlight of the film is Angela Lansbury's portrayal of Raymond's controlling mother Eleanor. She absolutely oozed evil and was one of those characters that you love to hate. For an older film, I was surprised by some of the choices that director John Frankenheimer made. Although, I guess it's those kind of decisions that earned him a place among the ranks of some of the best directors in film history. Of particular interest are the dreams that Marco has which are actually repressed memories of what really happened to his platoon in Korea. It is explained that the Korean doctor who brainwashed the troops has hypnotized them into believing that they are waiting out a rain storm in the lobby of a hotel where some old women are attending a floral show. In reality, however, the men are seated in front of an audience of vile people from around the world so that the doctor may demonstrate how much control he has over the Americans. In these scenes, Frankenheimer cuts back and forth between shots of the soldiers surrounded by Koreans and shots of them sitting among a group of elderly women. The doctor himself changes from a woman to a man and alternates speaking on the topics of flowers and brainwashing techniques. It is a masterfully directed scene that dwarfs the version in the remake of the film. Not only is this scene visually interesting, but along with the climax of the movie it is a very powerful one. When Shaw is forced to kill his own men and neither he nor his victims realize what he's doing or try to resist it, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was one of the better moments I've experienced in an older film. Another instance of this film's ability to be emotionally engaging is the scene in which Raymond's sweetheart Jocelyn (Lelsie Parrish) and her father Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) meet their end. This scene more than any other really gets across how evil the villains in this movie are.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) - The remake of The Manchurian Candidate is fairly similar to the original as far as the story is concerned. Replace the Korean War with the Gulf War and you've essentially got the same premise. The major difference to the general plot comes at the film's climax, but I can't very well talk about that, so I'll run over a few of the other aspects of the film that were different instead. First off, since the Gulf War has nothing to do with Manchuria, the filmmakers invented a fake corporation called Manchurian Global to take the reigns as the ones responsible for all the brainwashing. This is far less interesting than the original concept of American soldiers being taken over by foreign enemies, but the red scare ended some time ago, so that concept isn't quite as marketable these days, I suppose. Denzel Washington takes the place of Frank Sinatra as Major Ben Marco in this version of the film. Personally I preferred Frank Sinatra in the role as he seemed more like a regular guy than Denzel, who tends to be a very stone-faced individual onscreen. I'm not saying he's a bad actor, just that I didn't care for him too much in this role. On the other hand, I very much preferred Liev Schreiber's performance as Sergeant Raymond Shaw over Laurence Harvey's. Liev handled a much wider array of emotions than Harvey brought to the screen, and was a much more sympathetic individual, which the character really should be because of his situation. As I thought that Denzel was worse than Sinatra and Liev was better than Harvey, I found Meryl Streep's portrayal of Raymond's mother Eleanor to be equally as skin-crawlingly devious as Angela Lansbury's. Both women had a simple job, which was to make you hate them, and they both carried the weight of the role equally well. Janet Leigh was replaced by Kimberly Elise as Ben's love interest and was one of the few people in the film whose character was completely different from the original version's. I won't say why, as it's a bit of a shock when you realize why. I honestly felt that Rose was an unnecessary character in the original Manchurian Candidate, so I like the fact that they gave her a bit more to do in the remake, but I'm not a big fan of her new role in the story. Jon Voight and Vera Farmiga replace John McGiver and Leslie Parrish as Thomas and Jocelyn Jordan in this version of the film, but I don't feel that they left as much of an impact as their predecessors did. For one thing, the point at which they shed their mortal coils was, while more visceral, not as disturbing as the original interpretation of the scene. Second, the previous film's version of Jocelyn had a much more important role in Raymond's life, so that when she died it really meant something for his character. The same can't really be said for the remake. Based on the fact that this iteration of The Manchurian Candidate was concocted more than forty years after the original, there are bound to be some updates to the plot and storytelling that allow it to appeal more to today's audiences. Overall I felt that a lot of the changes made were unnecessary. For example, in this film Ben Marco has a friend who just so happens to be a computer genius/conspiracy theorist. It's a good thing, too, because in this new interpretation of the film Marco discovers that he and Shaw both have small tracing devices hidden under their skin. Not necessary, but also not a big deal. The thing that really bothered me about this film was the stereotypical way that they dealt with one of the other soldiers from Shaw and Marco's platoon, played by Jeffrey Wright. His response to having bad dreams is to scrawl strange drawings and random wacky scribbled phrases across the walls of his apartment and cut the eyes out of photographs. Is it just me, or is this the only way Hollywood can think of to convey on film that people are mentally unstable these days? Maybe it's just me, but I'm getting tired of seeing stuff like that. These may seem like minor points, but there are only two major changes that I can think of between this film and it's predecessor. One is the climax which, as I mentioned, I won't be disclosing here. The other is the means by which Raymond Shaw's hypnotism is triggered. In the original version of the film, the phrase "Why don't you pass the time by playing a game of solitaire?" would put him in a zombie-like state as he grabbed the first deck of cards he could find and began playing. When he came across the queen of hearts in the game he would pause and await his instructions. This method is a bit peculiar, but much more interesting than the one in the remake, which merely required the character's name to be spoken out loud three times in a row. Aside from those two things, both versions of The Manchurian Candidate are fairly similar, which makes it hard to decide which I liked better. It's a close call, but I think that I'd have to go with the original based on the fact that I preferred the main character more. Both are certainly worth a watch, though.

1 comment:

Rob Tornoe said...

You HAVE to like the original more, because one thing the new version didn't have- Frank Sinatra kung-foo!