Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate, Old and New
I like a lot of old late 50s and early 60s movies, my DVDs are stocked, but one of my all time favorites is the chilling 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, starring the evil Angela Lansbury as the secretly corrupt American political mother and a devastatingly handsome Lawrence Harvey, as the hypnotized, purple-heart winning, favorite American son. One of my favorite parts of the movie and this is odd, is the introductory music, which is like a musical lament for American innocence lost, and then the movie plunges us into 1962 political America which was horrible even then.
Another terrible attribute of the original movie is that it predicted a political assassination, one year before President Kennedy was shot. Perhaps as a result of this, the movie was banned in the United States for 25 years. Raymond Shaw becomes a tool of the Communist movement, disguised as all-American (at the time) McCarthyism, hypnotized by his own mother and an exacting team of Communist psychiatrists into murdering two of his fellow soldiers in the Korean War, a senator who suspects Raymond’s parents of not being really all American, the senator’s daughter (who unfortunately becomes Raymond’s wife), and eventually an involvement in a plot to murder a candidate for the President of the United States. One of Raymond’s fellow soldiers, Marco, suspects the worse, and is promoted upon his return home from Korea to Army Intelligence.
The beginning music of the new Manchurian Candidate, starring Denzel Washington as the original Frank Sinatra (Marco), and Meryl Streep as Angela Lansbury and a much weaker Liev Schrieber as Raymond Shaw and Lawrence Harvey, is disruptive – it jars our senses much as the first film’s music made us sad…we have nothing to hang on to, nothing to hope for, everything is war, paranoia, and glitzy media, quick surgery instead of hypnotism. Worse, as in the original, we cannot even hate a couple as the evil-doers who completely know their actions, but we are faced with a mother and son, Streep and Schreiber, as tormented all-American, wealthy, political relatives, and Schreiber, the tool and the action at the same time of America gone wrong.
The focus on a totally narcisstic media as manipulative tool in the new Manchurian Candidate is brilliant, Denzel Washington in his army-blacklisted, impoverished apartment watches it constantly, as does the manipulated but much better housed future vice presidential candidate, Liev Schreiber. We, as the audience, are glued to it, as if we, too are the victims of our own shallow selves.
Rosie, Marco’s career girlfriend in the original, is now an FBI agent, but redeemingly still in love with Marco, and Marco saves Raymond Shaw just as in the original, but Denzel Washington, in the new version, becomes the psychiatrically disturbed ultimate tool – in this film, Marco is the murderer and so is Raymond Shaw – there is nothing saving us, no side of the boat, no hero, to hang on to.
I would like to say when I left the movie, (and to give away its ending as in the original would be unfair), I was in shock, I was numb that any movie could give or predict such a terrible portrait of America, but the worst part about it, was what the original Manchurian Candidate predicted, and it did happen. If that movie predicted a loss of America ‘s innocence with the Korean War, political assassination, the advent of Communism and McCarthyism, this one says we now, as modern, media-glued, greedy, secretly racist, bitter, politically and psychiatrically manipulated Americans, are way past any hope at all.