Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
Manchurian Candidate...then and now

On its own merits, Jonathan Demme's new version of The Manchurian Candidate, now out on DVD, isn't a bad picture. A deliberate pace notwithstanding, it's an intelligently crafted, absorbing political thriller graced with Demme's characteristic, generously humane sensibility, and with very fine acting—by Meryl Streep, by Liev Schrieber and Denzel Washington, who gives quite probably his best performance since another Demme film, Philadelphia, more than a decade ago.

But the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer and also available on DVD, is one of my favorite movies, and I can't let an opportunity pass to sing its praises. Sadly, in this case it's at the expense of current version, or maybe of the current climate in the real world.

Either way, the new Candidate, worthy though it is, feels pretty dreary and downbeat by comparison.

Based on George Axelrod's adaptation of Richard Condon's novel, both films center on Raymond Shaw, a decorated war hero who, it turns out, is also a fabricated war hero. His exploits in Korea ('62 version) or Kuwait (new version) are a fiction provided to cover up the brainwashing that turns him into a robotic assassin when given post-hypnotic cues. A handsome rich kid with a power-brokering mother, the unhappy Raymond is an oblivious pawn in a plot to hijack an election.

His true nature is suspected only by fellow soldier Ben Marco, who's haunted by horrifying dreams of the brainwashing process.

There, except for a few scraps of dialogue, the similarities between the two films largely end. Frankenheimer's version is a Cold War fantasia, full of startling visual jokes and marvelously ripe, idiosyncratic performances—by Frank Sinatra, never more likable onscreen, as Ben; by Angela Lansbury, never more despicable nor more memorable, as Raymond's mother; and by Laurence Harvey, never funnier or more heartbreaking, as Raymond himself, as well as by a raft of vivid supporting players.

Frankenheimer used images of political pageantry, from Party conventions and masquerades to Communist iconography, to almost surreal effect, and he unforgettably linked the Queen of Diamonds—the visual on-switch for the killer version of Raymond—to the grotesque Oedipal subtext of Raymond's psychic bondage to his awful mother.

But despite its grim implications, the film has a persistent edge of antic comedy. The flavor is oddly affectionate, not just to the bumbling, well-meaning liberals trying to unravel the intrigue, but to the right-wing vipers and hypocritical Commies behind it, as well. Without endorsing them, the ’62 film seemed to recognize the schemers and spooks as an unshakable part of the American cast of characters, and to give them their due.

In Demme's dark, sober version, we don't even get the Queen of Diamonds—Raymond's cue is verbal, and disappointingly unpoetic.

The tone of the film is brooding and oppressive and humorless, lacking the original's political-cartoon liveliness that left you, despite the tragic ending, with a zap of amused optimism for America.

Even more deflatingly, though, the new film's core idea is simplistic. The jolt in the original is the premise that the McCarthy-esque right-wing power-mongers were secretly in cahoots with the Communists they decried—that to a totalitarian, blood was far thicker than ideology.

But the brainwashers in the new version are, for obvious reasons, not Communist but corporate vultures from a conglomerate called "Manchuria Global," who hope in Raymond to create "the first privately owned President of the United States." This turns the material into melodrama—to a contemporary audience, after all, drawing a line between mainstream politicians and corporate puppeteers hardly comes as a revelation.

The 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate seems quaint now, sad to say, only in its suggestion that such elaborately planned political theatre would be necessary to steal an American presidential election. But that's a naiveté it shares with its remake, and with the audience, too.

The DVDs: The disc of the '62 version features interviews with Sinatra, screenwriter Axelrod, and director Frankenheimer, as well as a commentary track by Frankenheimer and the tense vintage trailer.

The disc for last year's version features a commentary track with Demme and screenwriter Daniel Pyne, a behind-the-scenes documentary, a raft of deleted/extended scenes, Liev Schrieber's perfectly excellent screen test with Streep, and some staged TV interviews with Meryl Streep's character, including a very funny one by Al Franken. The original Manchurian Candidate is unrated. The remake is rightly rated "R." Unless your kids are prematurely jaded with American civics, they aren't likely to enjoy either version much.