The Manchurian Candidate and Jonathan Demme’s Filmmaking Style

Thriller remake The Manchurian Candidate is a great showcase for director Jonathan Demme's use of the camera to evoke fear and empathy...

Iraq War veteran Ben Marco wakes up on a train with a jolt. For a second, he sees an apparition from the past sitting directly opposite him. Marco blinks, and the figure vanishes.

Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate is full of small yet jarring sequences like this: moments which take place in a familiar setting, but with something strange or somehow out of place thrown in. Not long after Marco wakes up on the train, he strikes up a begrudging conversation with a young woman, Rose (Kimberly Elise), who says she’s seen him around. Rose appears to have taken a shine to Marco – or could it be that she has some other agenda?

Demme underlines the paranoia and uncertainty in his movie with one of the trademark techniques from his bag of stylistic tricks: his characters will often stare out of the screen and straight back at us. The director uses this to subtle yet powerful effect in this same train sequence; as Marco wakes up, he blinks a few times, lets his eyes refocus, and then, quite unexpectedly, shifts his gaze straight to the camera lens. For just a fraction of a second, before our minds catch up with us, it’s as though this fictional character has looked up and noticed us sitting, watching him, and his gaze catches ours. 

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Many of Demme’s films from his successful run through the ’80s and ’90s feature similar shots. Michelle Pfeiffer often delivers her lines straight down the camera lens in Demme’s endearing comedy-thriller, Married To The Mob. In Silence Of The Lambs, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and captured serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) don’t just stare, unblinking, at each other during their verbal sparring matches, but also directly at us.

Demme invites us to study the faces of his characters, maybe hunting for signs of humanity or madness, weakness or cunning, innocence or pure evil. But there’s also the feeling that the characters are studying us, daring us to look away. Although Demme was by no means the first director to craft such shots – Hitchcock and Kubrick used fourth-wall-breaking looks to camera to powerful effect – their insistence and skilful deployment nevertheless makes them deeply unsettling.

The Manchurian Candidate, based on Richard Condon’s 1950s novel but more closely modelled on John Frankenheimer’s first adaptation from 1962, isn’t Demme’s best movie. It does, however, contain some of Demme and regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s most effective moments of suspense. No other film in the director’s body of work drips with quite so much clammy paranoia. 

The 2004 Candidate’s plot is much the same as the old one, at least at first. All-American politician Congressman Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is on the cusp of taking the position of Vice President, thanks in no small part to his tale of bravery from the Iraq War. During a surprise attack one night, Raymond single-handedly defended his fellow troops from enemy fire; on his return, he became one of a select group of soldiers to be handed the Medal of Honor.

The only trouble is, the recurring nightmares suffered by Raymond’s traumatized war buddy Ben Marco don’t quite line up with the official account; instead, his dreams are filled with strange experiments and horrific psychological torture. Marco’s superiors chalk it all up to a case of Gulf War Syndrome; Marco’s convinced something more sinister is going on.

Demme’s Candidate may be based on a ’50s book and a ’60s movie – which saw Frank Sinatra in the Ben Marco role – but his 21st century update is pure ’70s conspiracy thriller. His use of handheld cameras, canted angles, queasily saturated colors and intense sound design recall another remake, in fact: Philip Kaufman’s 1978 iteration of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Both films also happen to be about fear, distrust and the loss of the self – in Body Snatchers, by the incursion of alien spores from outer space, in the Manchurian Candidate, from a sinister global corporation. 

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The 2004 Manchurian Candidate cleverly updates the original story’s Cold War premise for the post-9/11, George W. Bush era, with a Communist plot to infiltrate America replaced by a firm called Manchuria Global. Pressed on by his domineering, power-hungry mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), Raymond’s about to be installed as a puppet – and thanks to the mind-control techniques of rogue scientist Dr Atticus Noyle (a terrifying Simon McBurney), Raymond himself is unaware of what’s happening to him.

In its evocation of post-war trauma as a kind of living nightmare, Demme’s film recalls Adrian Lyne’s underrated 1990 masterpiece, Jacob’s Ladder. Interestingly, Lyne’s film was also about soldiers unwittingly exposed to experimentation while serving for their country – in this instance, in Vietnam; both films feature a protagonist haunted by their nightmares, and both are filled with an air of paranoia and dread. Unlike Jacob’s Ladder, however, The Manchurian Candidate’s nightmarish quality ebbs rather than builds – but for the first hour or so, that air of paranoia remains positively electric.

A sequence where Raymond falls under his masters’ control through a triggering phone call displays a masterful use of framing and lighting. Raymond stands alone in a hotel room, talking to his mother on the telephone. He’s interrupted by another caller: the frosty, British tones of Dr Noyle. As Raymond’s mind capitulates, the light in the room begins to brighten; calmly stepping forward into his hotel bedroom, and then left into a corridor, the light grows brighter still. The view cuts from Raymond looking directly at us – in typical Demme style – to a shot from Raymond’s point of view. We see the interior of a walk-in closet, and as the camera approaches, the back wall is lifted away by a pair of masked soldiers. 

Once again, the effect is highly disconcerting – it’s as though we’ve cut to the reverse angle of a film set just in time to see a crewmember lift away a false wall. Like Demme’s fourth-wall breaking looks to camera, it gives the impression that the fabric of the movie has briefly snapped open, providing a view into an unfamiliar world beyond.

In the context of the movie, Raymond has entered a secret lab, apparently located right next to his hotel room. Dr. Noyle is here, looking like a Nazi ghost with his swept-over hair and white surgeon’s gown. In a sequence of shots, we watch as Noyle probes around in Raymond’s skull with his surgical instruments – a toe-curling scene which recalls the infamous dental sequence from the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man. But while all the drilling and brain probing might are viscerally effective, it’s arguably Raymond’s entry into the secret lab that’s more disturbing on a subconscious level.  

From a logical standpoint, it seems crazy that even a big corporation could get away with building a lab in a five-star hotel without anyone catching wind of it. Even in terms of architectural layout, the lab’s position doesn’t make much sense – as Raymond enters his hotel room, we can clearly see a series of elevators as he closes the door. Unless we’re greatly mistaken, Noyle’s lab would have to be situated in the same place as all those lifts. (Alternatively, we guess the evil doctor’s goons could have used the elevator shafts as a means of sneaking all that medical equipment in and out of the hotel building.) 

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In terms of pure, cinematic tension-building, the dream-logic of this sequence works to The Manchurian Candidates advantage. Demme and Fujimoto’s close-ups and jarring camera angles are used to keep the audience on edge; similarly, even those familiar with the book and the film will likely find themselves wrong-footed by the way the 2004 remake slyly plays around with a seemingly familiar narrative. Just when you think you know where The Manchurian Candidate’s going, it takes a 90-degree turn, a wall’s whisked away, and suddenly, you’re in entirely unfamiliar territory.

Demme’s longstanding ability to coax intimate, revealing performances from his actors is a major part of the film’s success. Again, this may be due to Demme’s use of the camera; David Cronenberg once said that actors like to feel as though their director’s watching them, and that they’ll give more of themselves if they feel that their effort’s being closely studied. Under Demme’s lens, Washington gives a strikingly dark, unpredictable performance; there’s a volatile, desperate quality to his performance that short-circuits his typical movie-star charisma. Liev Schreiber’s similarly compelling as Shaw; publically assured, yet privately blown about by his own trauma and the grotesque desires of his mother.

It’s worth noting here that Streep’s Senator Shaw’s one of the few main characters who doesn’t get one of Demme’s monologues to the camera. Whether by design or not, the result leaves Streep strangely apart from the rest of the movie; her performance, although as imposing as you’d expect, is broader, less nuanced than Washington’s; indeed, it’s less chillingly underplayed than Angela Lansbury’s stunning turn in the 1962 film. Her voice lowered an octave, her lips thin, eyes unblinking, Lansbury’s almost unrecognizable; little wonder she was nominated for an Oscar.

Such minor complaints aside, The Manchurian Candidate remains a superb, underrated showcase for Demme’s talent as a director of suspense. Although the movie wasn’t a huge hit in 2004, it’s nevertheless aged remarkably well, and as well as being an intense and nightmarish thriller, Demme’s Candidate also provides a timely reminder of how those in power can use our fears to heap up more wealth and control for themselves.

The late, great Roger Ebert once said that movies are “machines for empathy” in that they help us identify and relate to people we’ve never met and, more often than not, don’t even exist. This is, I think, the reason why Demme’s subjective style of filmmaking is so effective. Through his movies, we’re invited to look directly into another person’s eyes and see the suffering, the hope, the resolve or the violence lurking behind them.

When these moments are cut together, as in Jacob Swinney’s video below, we can see the range of emotions Demme’s faces can express. Every shot is, to paraphrase Ebert, a machine for empathy – and what powerful and beautiful machines they are.