Film Studies: It was a paranoid fantasy that could never come true. And then it did

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Forty-two years ago, when Hollywood chose to explode Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate on the world (during the Cuban missile crisis), it was impossible not to feel that the alarming picture was also a caustic, desperate comedy. (Greil Marcus, in his admirable introduction to the film in the series of British Film Institute monographs, is very good on the poker-faced comedy.)

I'm not sure that screenwriter George Axelrod, director John Frankenheimer and the others making the film then knew it was a comedy. Sometimes the funniest films are those played straight: Sweet Smell of Success and Psycho all have a little of that genius. And I know people who reappraise most of film noir as comedy 30 years later.

Let's say, instead, that as Frankenheimer and company made the picture, aware of its craziness, its melodrama, its rabid bite, they worked so hard to hold the beast on its leash that the comedy came through unchecked.

Forty-two years later, in this battered nation - and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate opened in America the day after the Democratic party convention closed - we have too many healing wounds to laugh. One belly laugh and our stitches are gone.

Why or how is the first film funny? Well, let's count the ways. Consider "Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?". That, you may recall, is the first password into the brainwashed mind of Raymond Shaw, the cue that will have him pull the trigger at another party convention. And once Raymond is playing solitaire, it's the Queen of Diamonds that is the secondary release - in a black-and-white film, too! No, I suppose that's not flat-out hilarious. But then think of the way that, in a very brooding, inexplicably menacing story, the inadvertent use of the password and the random overheard remark, "Oh, go jump in the lake", has the ramrod, unsmiling Laurence Harvey walk into the lake in Central Park on a winter's day without so much as blinking or wincing. That is hilarious. (Look again, and you can see Harvey was bulky with winter underwear for the shot!)

So is the fact that the arch zombie, Raymond Shaw, is played by Laurence Harvey, an actor much remarked on for his supercilious, frozen manner and his inability with any character or scene requiring feeling. That tongue-in-cheek attitude to the casting went all through the picture: that's how we got sweety-pie Angela Lansbury as the very wicked mother, who drops a rich kiss full on her son's lips; gorgeous Janet Leigh as an eternally weird but endearing pick-up on the train; and Frank Sinatra, ring-a-ding-ding cool, as the officer whose nerves are in tatters from his Korean experiences (he was Raymond's commanding officer; Sinatra was also the clout that got the film made when every studio had been bewildered by it).

That will do for surface detail. But the major absurdist strategies are the magnificent conceit that has the brainwashing session rendered as a dream tangled with a ladies' gardening-club meeting. That coup came early in the original film, and every viewer had the jitters from that point on: this was a film where anything could happen and - almost as in a Bunuel film - your own granny might stick a knife into your stomach to see if you were well-fed.

There was more still. The outrageous paranoia of the film's concept - that programmed American soldiers will come back to carry out political assassinations - was ripe even for the most extreme McCarthyite assaults on reason. And, remember, The Manchurian Candidate was originally aimed and levelled at the soft American heart, and its softer mind, as a satire of that recent craze.

Another, tragic laugh came with the jokes: for what seemed cartoonish in 1962 was redeemed for fact and history a year later when an ex-Marine who had indeed lived in Russia shot a president. You don't quite buy that interpretation of 22 November, 1963? Very well, I never argue with paranoids. Still, the first Manchurian Candidate was two things that do not often go together: it was ahead of its times, and it was prophetic, and in the rueful underlining of the humour there was the beginning of nihilism.

The re-make is something many of us prayed might be deterred or forgotten. Now it's here, I'm bound to say it's not as dire as many feared.

It is a mess and, fatally, it lacks any trace of humour, but it does amount to a passable mystery film. There are virtues. Jonathan Demme, the new director, moves along pretty fast and he has a nice way of bringing in warning sub-texts in radio and TV commentary. Meryl Streep does a virtuoso turn in the Angela Lansbury role - there is even a moment where she contemplates the old incestuous kiss. Denzel Washington does his very best to hold the mess together. But Liev Schreiber is far too good an actor to muster the flatness that was so sublime in Laurence Harvey. As a result, Raymond now is played for sympathy - a wretched joke-spoiler.

The new Manchurian Candidate - set now - cannot get away with a Communist conspiracy aimed at the American constitution. That's a blessing, for it leaves the scriptwriters to realise that the greatest threat to the United States - as always - is likely to arise from within. This time it comes in the form of Manchurian Global, a vast international conglomerate (the unkindly minded may even think of Halliburton). And it is MG that seeks to put Raymond in charge of the country, to serve as the puppet of his mother. Instead of "brainwashing" and solitaire, we now get an awful lot of tedious explanation about implants, and there is the rather grisly moment when Denzel Washington bites an implant out of Liev Schreiber's back, to secure evidence.

Of course, the humour now is a joke even George W Bush would see. There's no need for implants and all that conspiratorial fuss. Thanks to our Supreme Court we do have such a sitting president, wired in to all the corporate globals you can think of. What the remake of The Manchurian Candidate really needed if its breathtaking black comedy was to be maintained would be for its "plot" to work - for Raymond to become president. At which point I was irresistibly reminded of that great moment in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the one where W is in the primary school, sitting there as the lesson goes on, trying to digest or forget the recent news that his and our nation is under attack.

"What is he thinking?" people ask as Fahrenheit 9/11 plays. I think the answer is clear now: he was into his little game of solitaire, just waiting for the Queen of Diamonds to turn up.

'The Manchurian Candidate' is released nationwide on 5 November