That Sly Ol' Fox

The anti-momist threat: Angela Lansbury in 'The Manchurian Candidate'

The anti-momist threat: Angela Lansbury in 'The Manchurian Candidate'

Mordantly hysterical, deadpan ghastly, boilerplate surreal, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was, as you may know, recently Fahrenheit 9/11. If Candidate screenwriter Richard Condon delivered a solid one-sentence concept--Joe McCarthy has a key in his back, put there by the Red Chinese--Michael Moore updated it for 2004: Osama owns the remote that makes George run. Okay, maybe Moore only came close to putting the Unnamable One in Bush's bed. But I think Moore would at least agree with me that the bin Laden brother who finances the Carlyle Group was the perfect choice for his other job as the co-funder of several Lars Von Trier movies.

Anyway, the '62 Candidate, screening at Oak Street on Wednesday and Thursday, has the fluorescent pizzazz of a bikini-clad baton twirler celebrating a supermarket opening: Its clammy cold sweats are pure Yankee pop. Frank Sinatra is Bennett Marco, a Korean War vet with bad dreams that take him back to an eerily dislikable brother in arms: Lt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a prissy, slight-taking, unpleasantly Hamletian son of privilege. Raymond's mother (Angela Lansbury) is an alternately doting and castrating harpy--the sick-joke inverse of what was known in '62 as "Momism." (For more info, look up some old Jules Feiffer cartoons.) Mrs. Shaw has a McCarthyite nitwit for a husband: Watch the fun that Frankenheimer has with this rube and a bottle of Heinz ketchup, getting more mileage out of that prop than any Washington Times cartoonist ever will. Mrs. Shaw has a grand design for Raymond's destiny, culminating in a single line--"How about a relaxing game of solitaire?"--that has earned more masochistic squeals of pleasure than any other I've ever heard.

Frankenheimer's Candidate trots from one jaw-dropping dada set piece to another without acknowledging its own audacity in the slightest. That may be why, as Pauline Kael noted, audiences failed to laugh at some of the director's visual wit--as when a murdered liberal senator drops a carton of milk beside his chest as if he's gushing Human Kindness. When a squadron of communist brainwashers deludes its American captives into thinking they're in a New Jersey tea party, we go inside the heads of the GIs, each of whom sees a party that's color-coded to suit his ethnicity. There has never been a meet-cute scene as nervy as the one in which Marco meets his opposite number (Janet Leigh) on a train: The ensuing volley of non sequitur innuendo suggests Tristan Tzara Mad-libbing his way through the script of Now, Voyager.

Jonathan Demme's official remake (still playing in multiplexes, but just barely) boasts a scratchy, uptight performance by Denzel Washington, who displays an admirable commitment to his character's insanity. And there's a remarkable exchange between Washington's Marco and the white, rich Raymond (Liev Schreiber): "I think of you as my friend, Major," quivers Raymond--whereupon Marco responds, with gentle correction, "We are connected." (If you want to take a Hollywood moment as a metaphor for Race in America Today, go ahead and grab that one.) But Demme's Candidate gets buried in a mound of hokum about microchips implanted in human brains by a thinly disguised Halliburton--as if the ol' boob tube ain't enough by itself. Some have suggested that this twist owes more to Paramount head Sherry Lansing than to the director of Melvin and Howard. But what explains a movie that flip-flops between the heavy-handed irony of Wyclef Jean's "Fortunate Son" cover and the transformation of Frankenheimer's mother-and-son duet into a yucky roman-à-clef, with Hillary Clinton mothering a terminally nuanced John Kerry?

Maybe the truest Candidate remake has come not from Jonathan Demme or Michael Moore, but Madison Square Garden. (Where better to buff neocon cred than the home of the ecumenical but kill-crazy Knicks?) In this four-part miniseries from Fox News (with a co-producing credit from MSRNC), George W. Bush played Raymond Shaw with pleading, hollow eyes that recalled Laurence Harvey more indelibly than Schreiber could: Attempting to project manhood, Bush suggested the soft terror of a child who has just been told there will never be dessert--no, never again. As Bennett Marco, John McCain exuded a tragic sense of his own futility in a way that was even more moving than Sinatra's. McCain, a career soldier and sufferer permanently indentured to loss-resistant rich folks, drew chills as his plea for a more civil public discourse gave way to a soul-sick whisper: "George Bush is the bravest, kindest, most wonderful man I have ever known." In a jolting cameo, Barbara Bush effortlessly topped Meryl Streep's death-dealing Mrs. Shaw--even without chewing an ice cube. And director Karl Rove, in a gutsy intertextual maneuver, revived a Strangelove character for his Candidate redux: Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper, played less successfully by Zell Miller as a sort of cracker-barrel Klaus Kinski.

You can imagine how Variety would assess the Fox production: "Long-term BO prospects are middling for this red-meat Manchurian, sold as a family drama for moderates but delivering as a Gibson-style actioner for wingers. Expect an autumn payday in Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas."