THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE: Jonathan Demme remakes a political thriller — and himself

When Jonathan Demme remade THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE — airing tonight at 10P — in 2004, many people were perplexed: Why remake a film that was such a perfect time capsule of Cold War pop culture? Indeed, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original, about a politician who has been brainwashed by the enemy, feels perfectly placed in history: It’s a film that both embraces Red Scare paranoia while satirizing McCarthyist histrionics. Demme probably felt that the post-9/11 political climate in the U.S., what with the enigmatic War on Terrorism and the controversial Patriot Act, warranted a revisitation of this premise. But the original was, in essence, a tight and effective suspense flick with political overtones — more Hitchcock than Sherwood Andersen. Demme’s politically pointed remake is darker, more modern and more despairing, with an A-List cast to match its ambitions, featuring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was one of two remakes Demme made of beloved 1960s thrillers. The other came right before: THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE, with Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, his 2002 remake of the 1963 Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic CHARADE. If THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is compellingly dark, THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE is obstinately lighthearted: It takes its tale of a woman discovering all the shady dealings her now-dead husband was involved in and turns it into a love letter to Paris, a reverie for the city and for the French New Wave that never takes itself too seriously.

For all their differences, both films offer examples of Demme’s generosity with characters, and his ability to create an atmosphere of uncertainty — one where, story-wise, anything seems possible. But the two films’ fates couldn’t have been more different: CHARLIE was shellacked by critics and flopped at the box office, whereas CANDIDATE was well-reviewed and became something of a hit. Over the years, however, CHARLIE’s reputation has improved, with some critics emerging as vocal champions. (Here’s Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich’s vigorous, touching defense of the movie.)

I like to see CHARLIE and CANDIDATE as two films that work in tandem, revealing the two sides of their creator’s soul. After all, Demme was known as a creator of boisterous, offbeat entertainments like MARRIED TO THE MOB and SOMETHING WILD before he shot to the top of the A-List with darker, more serious fare like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA. By the time he got to these films, maybe he was beginning to yearn for the free-spirited, independent days before he became an honest-to-goodness big shot. And, indeed, CANDIDATE was his last fiction feature to date: While he will surely return to them eventually, since then he has made small documentaries, seemingly content to follow his own muse and interests. It’s ironic, in that sense, that it took two big-budget remakes of acknowledged Hollywood classics to get him back to a more personal brand of filmmaking.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures