Paranoia Strikes Deep

As The Manchurian Candidate creeps back into our lives

Still, if Demme's version lacks the wallop of its predecessor, it is more likely to be popular with contemporary audiences, who will enjoy not only its labyrinthine twists but its stars' burnished professionalism. Although Washington can't rival Sinatra's jaded, nicotine-cured angst, he always relishes the chance to burst the mummy-tape of his physical perfection. As Major Marco, he gets to. He takes the trademark Denzel role (the genuinely righteous man), then has him walk the line between sanity and madness. When someone accidentally bumps him on the street, his ranting makes bystanders scurry away.

And yet he seems far saner than Raymond Shaw, the apparently emotionless hero-turned-politico who could all too easily become an unlikable cipher. That happened in the original, where he was played by dry-ice pretty boy Laurence Harvey. Shaw gets a better deal from Schreiber, whose bitter mien suggests inner torment and an elephant's memory for grievance. You can see why he shone as Hamlet. Playing Shaw as a welter of painful memories and bottled-up passions (Schreiber's small mouth accentuating his inability to express his real feelings), he brings nuance, even pathos, to a joyless man caged within the bars of himself.

He's been locked in there, of course, by his mother. When The Manchurian Candidate came out in the '60s, part of its iconoclasm lay in Angela Lansbury's garishly harsh portrait of star-spangled motherhood—apple pie laced with ground glass. Such domineering mothers have become a pop commonplace—reaching some sort of apotheosis in Nancy Marchand's Livia Soprano. No fool, Streep doesn't attempt to trump Lansbury's chilling turn as the maternal Queen of Hearts. Instead, she plays Eleanor Prentiss Shaw as an infinitely more cutthroat Liddy Dole or Hillary Clinton, a modern-day Lady Macbeth who schemes on behalf of the son she both idolizes and treats (to lift a line from Grace Paley) as the prize cut of beef in the meat locker of her heart. Although she spent much of her early career being asked to suffer in close-ups, Streep is an extraordinarily witty actress who can deliver a good line like a stiletto through the ribs. And her best lines capture what's always been fun about The Manchurian Candidate—our rollicking pleasure in its wickedness. There may be no more splendidly ruthless moment in a movie this year than when Senator Shaw explains the facts of life to her son. "The assassin always dies, baby," she says. "It's necessary for the national healing."

The Manchurian Candidate was directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Daniel Pyne and Dean

Georgaris, from the screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon; produced by Scott Rudin and Tina Sinatra; and stars Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep. Now playing countywide.

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