The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, September 24, 2007


In which we consider how dissatisfying the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate was compared to the 1962 original, which was as quick, detailed and cunning as the remake is clunky, obvious and over-wrought. I was afraid this would be the case, and when it was released at the cinema I deliberately stifled my initial reaction to rush out and see it immediately. While I could think of many good political reasons to remake it, even with the application of thumbscrews I doubt I could come up with a good artistic one. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is simply the most finely-crafted film I think I've ever seen, even better than The Third Man. It works as a political thriller and as a psychological study; it uses every trick there is to tell its story and not one of them seems anything less than entirely right; it is, as Roger Ebert says, "inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience" - for which read, assumes the audience is intelligent, something you practically never see on film or TV - "and plays not like a 'classic' but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released." Quite. Why remake it?

Well, the road to hell, and all. Playing "overheard" audio or TV commentary as the transition between scenes is just the laziest, the most hackneyed, the most ham-fisted way of providing context, and when it's used to deliver a political message it becomes perfectly obnoxious - and I agreed with everything it was saying. Yeah, yeah - war on terror, undermining of civil liberties, America being destroyed from within, I geddit, I already goddit, and therein lies the problem. By taking elements which were floating around some hazy interzone of public consciousness, fitting them together and bringing them into sharp dramatic focus, the 1962 version was eery, disturbing, and as it turned out, in some measure prophetic. The 2004 version doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. It's playing catch-up.

The basis of the original film is that, in a brilliant inversion, communist spies are using the very forces of tub-thumping anti-communism (read, clearly, McCarthyism) to work their way to the White House and undermine American freedoms by riding a tidal wave of public fear and hysteria which will allow them to assume "powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy" - presumably with full public support. In a final twist to this plot, Angela Lansbury's character intends to turn against her communist backers. The message that comes through is that by this stage it won't really matter who is in power, or what they believe, which is why a film ostensibly about dirty commies continues to appeal to knee-jerk liberals. It also chimes nicely with Senator Vandenberg's comment to Truman that in order to continue public funding for the military at a wartime level, they were going to have to "scare hell out of the American people" - a trick which continues to work well. In fact the old film is more on the button than the new one, which for its part tells us - what? That politicians can be bought? Indeed they can, in which case why go to the intricate trouble of brainwashing one? There couldn't be a more compliant president than Bush, though in his defence it doesn't seem he has much of a brain to wash.

As a final note, it's essential to both plot and theme that all of this is to be achieved through what Neil Gunn called the breaking of the mind - the cracking open of a single individual so he can be remade to political ends. It's as potent a central idea as that of Life is Beautiful - the protection of the child in the midst of horror, in order to save humanity.


I'd find the disappointment of Candidate Mk#2 easier to bear if it wasn't the second time it had happened in a year. The State Within was similarly shaky, disappointing and redundant, like a cut-and-paste of news clippings. A few weeks after the final episode was broadcast we watched Defence of the Realm, which was simply chilling, and accurately reflected the occult (to use David Peace's word) quality of politics in Britain in the 1980s. Now it just seems sordid, and sad, not to mention enormously destructive if you're Iraqi.


The buying of politicians is nothing new, and is a central motif of 1876 by Gore Vidal, which I'm reading with easy pleasure. I tried it ten years ago and couldn't get anywhere with it, said so to a friend, was so non-plussed I was even considering flogging it back to the second-hand shop. The friend, with not-quite mock condescension, counselled me to put it by: "You know, one day you'll be looking for something to read and -" he pointed and winked sidelong "- that'll be it." And he was right.

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At 26 September 2007 at 11:30 , Blogger ricoeurian said...

Good post. I enjoyed the MC remake, but agree it wasn't a patch on the original - I've not met a remake that was, actually. GOB has written about the two (and the original script) quite a bit... see here

Glad you're enjoying the Vidal - I loved that Empire series.

At 28 September 2007 at 10:27 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Thank you. Will check link.

Have just finished 1876. Parallels with election in 2000 are shocking. V surprised I haven't seen anyone bringing them up before now in the press. Hugely tempted to tackle Burr straight away, but...sigh...backlog...

At 16 October 2007 at 22:30 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

On reflection, was a bit hard on MC#2. Denzel Washington watchable as ever, some nice touches here and there, particularly in the train scene, when Marco is intermittently but surely flipping out. Liev Schreiber was brilliant and may even have been better than Laurence Harvey. Streep was technically excellent - unfortunately, kept noticing the technique. But taken as a whole...


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