Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Manchurian Candidates - both of 'em

Brilliant. Both of them were just fantastic.

I got to see the 1962 classic and the 2004 remake on one day, along with special features and commentaries - I love watching films!

So here's the story. In the 1950s Richard Condon writes a novel, The Manchurian Candidate. It doesn't really go anywhere, not a bestseller or anything.

In (I think) 1957, John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod read the book in one afternoon, loved it, and immediately purchased the film rights.

A key to the project's success was getting Frank Sinatra on board. Luckily for Frankenheimer and Axelrod, he loved the idea and was really looking forward to making it.

They made it, and in the process made a whole lot of firsts:
  • The first black actor to play a part that wasn't specifically a black character (Joe Adams, who played the army psychiatrist)
  • The first - or one of the first - karate fights on screen (in Western cinema, anyway!)
  • The first time cops arrived in a car and the camera is in the car watching them get out (looked very CSI to me!)
  • The first assassination scene of its kind - it's become cliched because it's been copied a lot ever since.
Also an absolutely useless piece of trivia: the bad guy, Yen Lo, is supposed to be Chinese but the actor was actually of Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese ancestry. And spoke with a New York accent - what conscientious evil Red Chinese scientist was say "woid" for "word"? (But he was good apart from the accent)

So yeah, they made the film, it was great. And Frank Sinatra eventually got the sole rights to it. When he died, his daughter Tina inherited it. And sometime in the last few years, Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme approached Tina Sinatra and said, "how about a remake?"

I watched the 1962 version first, then the 2004 remake. I was impressed by the first one, and interested to see how the new one would update the story.

Similarities: just about all the characters. Liev Schreiber even looks a lot like Lawrence Harvey.

** WARNING - Spoilers coming **

Differences - interesting to note these because they tell us something about the times we live in:
  • In the original, the candidate was Raymond's father. In the remake, Raymond himself was the candidate, and his father had died 20 years ago. Interesting statement there about the loss of fatherhood in our society, and also the youthful image of leadership now compared to the '60s.
  • In the original, the mother (Angela Lansbury) was a behind-the-scenes manipulator, pulling the strings for her dullard husband who was the senator. In the remake, the mother (Meryl Streep) is the senator. A big difference for the story, and one that was so well done by Streep.
  • In the original, the bad guys are communists from Russia and China. In the remake, it's a shady multinational corporation. 'Nuff said!
  • (SPOILER ALERT) In the original, Raymond pulls the trigger. In this one, it's Marco! And Rosie, instead of playing the spare wheel but quite sweet role she did in the first movie (portrayed by the beautiful Janet Leigh), is now in Sinatra's shoes, being the agent, rushing around the stadium and eventually shooting Marco. Which was, I must admit, quite a shock!
  • In the original, we wait a while before meeting Marco, our main protagonist. There's a lot more exposition up front. In the new film it's character first, and exposition comes later, as we see the characters in action.
Generally it was interesting to see how they in many ways started from scratch, to avoid comparison with well-known scenes from the original. Clever.

And where comparison was inevitable, like the assassination scene, they changed enough variables in the script to make it just as much a "what's going to happen?" moment as in the original.

Sorry if I'm rambling, but since reading the stuff I've been reading about scene analysis and story structure, I'm getting into this sort of nitpicking endlessly.

One thing about the remake that's copped a lot of flack from the comments on IMDb is the way Marco's mental state is portrayed. Sinatra in 1962 portrayed a slightly sad, sleepless character. Washington portrayed someone seriously struggling with long-term depression. Much of the camera work and editing is subjective, so we see things from his perspective.

I especially liked the scene where his German friend gives him electric shock therapy, and he remembers just a tiny bit, then wakes up in the park, days later, with Rosie saying "Did you blank out on me again?" Inspired!

In the original I did think the tide turned too soon for Sinatra's character. One little thing and all of a sudden he's in the army's good books. It was a relief, because you felt for the guy, but not so realistic.

Meanwhile, Washington's character struggled throughout, right up until the end. He embodied that classic picture of a character reaching, being slapped back by reality, then reaching further to try and restore the balance. Talk about 'opening the gap' - this was full of gaps opening up right underneath our protagonist.

Listening to the commentary was good, I love it when writers chime in on commentary. Yes, it's interesting to hear about what lenses or sound editing were used, but I need to hear about story. And there's a moment in the film where Marco is being interrogated, provoked rather, by an army guy who says, "You want to hit me? Hit me?" - and he does.

It's a great moment for the audience, because it's a welcome moment when we feel maybe our protagonist is back on top of things, in control again. But no... he ain't. It's just a moment of instant gratification. And very funny.

With this agonising build-up, it's absolutely inspiring to see Washington's acting as Marco appeals to Raymond. Sinatra's version of the same scene was powerful too. But while Sinatra's scene ended on a simple question mark, the Washington version went powerfully in the other direction, as Marco gets sucked into the whirlpool of the conspiracy.

It's also got an added poignancy to it, as Rosie, now revealed as an FBI agent, can't find Marco and now feels responsible... how could she let this happen? I guess the original Marco (Sinatra) feels this way after letting Raymond and Jocie have a honeymoon. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you've got to see both of these movies. I'm telling you, watch it.

One of the IMDb commenters criticises the remake for having an obligatory explain-it-all scene. I disagree. There's not much explaining going on, just some emotional closure. And the eerie words of Dr. Noyle dubbed on at the end are brilliant, a great example of words taking their meaning from a new context.

Manchurian Candidate is now one - or two - of my favourite movies.


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