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For the novel by Richard Condon, see The Manchurian Candidate. For the 2004 film, see The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate is a Cold War political thriller film starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury and featuring Henry Silva, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish and John McGiver. It was directed by John Frankenheimer from an adaption by George Axelrod of Richard Condon's 1959 novel.

The central concept of the film is that the son of a prominent, right-wing political family has been brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy. The Manchurian Candidate was nationally released on Wednesday, October 24, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.


During the Korean War, the Sovietsmarker capture an American platoon and take them to Manchuria in Communist Chinamarker. There, communists implant false memories in the soldiers' minds. Brainwashed, the soldiers are covertly returned to action, unaware of their ordeal, and under the belief that one of their own, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), saved their lives in combat. Upon the recommendation of the platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor for his supposed actions. In addition, when asked to describe him, Marco and the other soldiers automatically respond, "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." Deep down, however, they know that Shaw is a cold, sad, unsociable loner. As Marco puts it: "It isn't as if Raymond is hard to like. He's impossible to like!"

After the war, Marco — who has since been promoted to Major — suffers from the same recurring nightmare, in which a hypnotized Shaw kills two of his fellow soldiers before assembled Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean brass during a practical demonstration of the communists' brainwashing technique. Marco wants to investigate, but receives no support from his superior officers at Army Intelligence, because he has no proof. This changes when he learns that another soldier from the platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards), has been experiencing the same nightmare, which is interspersed with scenes from a women's gardening club meeting, the venue which the soldiers were brainwashed into believing they were witnessing. Deciding that this is too much of a coincidence, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco set up a task force to investigate.

It is gradually revealed that Shaw was conditioned in Manchuria to be an unwitting assassin whose actions are triggered by a Queen of Diamonds playing card. When he sees it, he will obey the next suggestion or order given to him by anyone. When given instructions to kill selected targets he must also kill any witnesses (a pivotal point later in the film) and never remember his actions, making him the perfect assassin.

Shaw's mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is the driving force behind her husband, Shaw's step-father, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), a bombastic demagogue in the style of Joseph McCarthy, who is dismissed by many people as a fool. Shaw hates them both, especially his domineering mother. Senator Iselin's political stature is established when (per his wife's orders) he interrupts a televised Congressional briefing of the Secretary of Defense and accuses him of knowing that some 207 Defense Department employees are "card carrying" Communists. This provokes the expected chaos and chagrin among journalists and an enraged reaction from the Secretary.

However, the Iselins are actually Communist agents, unknown to Shaw or anyone else, with a plan devised to carry them to power in the upcoming presidential elections. His mother is revealed in the penultimate scene to be Shaw's American "operative" for whom Shaw is to effect the operation's final step.

Shaw briefly finds happiness when he rekindles a youthful romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), one of his step-father's political rivals. Raymond Shaw had previously courted Jocelyn in order to get at his parents in a Romeo and Juliet-style romance, but they then genuinely fell in love, both she and her father being the nearest thing Raymond has ever had to having friends. Mrs. Iselin broke up the relationship for obvious political reasons, but now facilitates the couple's reunion as part of her scheme to garner the support of Senator Jordan for her husband's own sudden vice presidential bid. Jocelyn, wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume outfit inadvertently hypnotizes Shaw at an elite costume party thrown by the Iselins and the couple elopes. Senator Jordan, although he later accepts Shaw as his son-in-law, informs Mrs. Iselin, at the same party, that he will move for Senator Iselin's impeachment if he makes any attempt to seek the vice-presidential nomination. Shaw is triggered to assassinate Jordan, which he does. Jocelyn happens upon the scene and is also shot dead as a witness to the event. Shaw has no knowledge of his actions and is genuinely grief-stricken when he learns of the murders.In the course of Marco's investigation, he discovers the role of the Queen of Diamonds card in putting Shaw into the hypnotic state for his assignments. Marco meets Raymond and, using a trick deck composed entirely of such cards, gets the full story and orders Shaw to break the links between the card and obeying any further subsequent orders. Unaware of this, Mrs. Iselin tells her son the whole story and her role is fully revealed. His next (and presumably final) task is to assassinate their party's presidential candidate at the nomination convention so that Senator Iselin, as the vice-presidential candidate, will become the presidential candidate by default and give an inflammatory anti-communist speech (written by the communists themselves). This will cause mass hysteria that will get Iselin, "the Manchurian candidate", elected and justify such emergency powers that, in Mrs. Iselin's words, "will make martial law seem like anarchy". Mrs. Iselin asserts that she did not know that it was her son who was to be selected by the Communists, who apparently chose him to be the assassin because they believed it would solidify their own hold and control over her. Furious, she vows that once in power she will "grind them into the dirt". She proceeds to give her "hypnotized" son a decidedly non-maternal kiss.

Marco's attempt to free Shaw appears to have failed. Shaw enters the convention hall disguised as a Catholic priest and takes up a position to carry out the assassination as he was instructed. Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), arrive at the convention to stop him. As the Presidential nominee (Robert Riordan) makes his speech, Shaw, an expert shot, shoots his stepfather and mother dead. He then commits suicide in front of Marco, while wearing his Medal of Honor.



  • For the role of Mrs. Iselin, Sinatra had considered Lucille Ball, but Frankenheimer, who had worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down, suggested her for the part and insisted that Sinatra watch the film before making any decisions. (Although Lansbury played Raymond Shaw's mother, she was in fact only three years older than actor Laurence Harvey.)

  • An early scene where Raymond, recently decorated with the Medal of Honor, argues with his parents was filmed in Sinatra's own private plane.

  • Janet Leigh plays Marco's love interest. A bizarre conversation on a train between her character and Marco has been interpreted by some — notably film critic Roger Ebert — as implying that Leigh's character, Eugenie Rose Chaney, is working for the Communists to activate Marco's brainwashing, much as the Queen of Diamonds activates Shaw's. It is a rather strange conversation between people who have only just met, and almost appears to be an exchange of passwords. Frankenheimer himself admits that he had no idea whether or not "Rosie" was supposed to be an agent of any sort; he merely lifted the train conversation straight from the Condon novel, in which there is no such implication. The rest of the film does not elaborate on Rosie's part and latter scenes suggest that she is simply a romantic foil for Marco. The 2004 film version character is an FBImarker agent. Leigh had first read the original book on an airliner while she was on her way to appear at President Kennedy's inauguration.

  • On the DVD audio commentary of the film, the director stated his belief that it contained the first-ever karate fight in an American motion picture. This is true inasmuch as this was the first fight scene in an American film in which a karateka faced off against a karateka, however the 1955 MGM film Bad Day at Black Rockmarker featured a fight scene between a conventional fighter, played by Ernest Borgnine, and a karate expert, played by Spencer Tracy.

  • During the fight scene between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva, Sinatra broke his hand during a movement where he smashed through a table. This resulted in problems with his hand/fingers for several years and is said to be one of the reasons why he pulled out of a starring role in Dirty Harry, having to undertake surgery to alleviate pains.

  • The interrogation sequence where Raymond and Marco confront each other in the hotel room opposite the convention are the rough cuts. When first filmed Sinatra was out of focus and when they tried to re-shoot the scene he was simply not as effective as he had been in the first take (a common factor in Sinatra's film performances). Frustrated, Frankenheimer decided in the end to simply use the original out-of-focus takes. Critics praised him for showing Marco from Raymond's distorted point-of-view.

  • For the scene in the convention hall prior to the assassination, Frankenheimer was at a loss as to how Marco would pinpoint Raymond Shaw's sniper's nest. Eventually he decided on a method similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (made in 1940). Frankenheimer notes that what would be plagiarism in the 1960s would now be looked upon as an homage.

  • For the DVD release, the film's rating was changed from PG to PG-13, by the MPAA.

The Kennedy assassination

Only recently has it been established that, in late 1962, Lee Harvey Oswald almost daily walked and rode a bus past a downtown Dallas movie theater where the film played for four straight weeks, from November 14 to December 12, 1962 (see Oswald's Trigger Films, pp. 8–9). In January 1963, he planned to assassinate General Edwin Walker, which he then attempted, unsuccessfully, using a rifle, in April 1963.

Hollywood rumor holds that Sinatra removed the film from distribution after the John F. Kennedy assassinationmarker on November 22, 1963. Strictly speaking, the film was not removed from distribution, as can be confirmed from Time magazine's archives section online. Certainly the film was rarely shown in the decades after 1963, but it did appear as part of the Thursday Night Movies series on CBS on September 16, 1965 and again later that season. It was also shown twice on NBC, once in the spring of 1974 and again in the summer of 1975. It has been said that Sinatra did not acquire distribution rights to The Manchurian Candidate until the late 1970s. He was involved in a theatrical re-release of the film in 1988. In recent years, the film has aired occasionally on the Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics cable networks.

Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue, maintains that the film's apparent withdrawal was unrelated to the Kennedy assassination. He says that the film was "simply played out" by 1963, and that MGM did not re-release it theatrically until 1988 due to disagreements with Sinatra's attorneys over the terms of the film's licensing. Similar questions surround the film Suddenly in which Sinatra himself starred as a presidential assassin.

Awards and honors

Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, and Ferris Webster was nominated for Best Film Editing. In addition, Lansbury was named Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review and won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

The film was No. 67 on the AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies" when that list was compiled in 1998, but in 2007 a new version of that list was made which excluded The Manchurian Candidate. It was also No. 17 on AFI's "100 Years...100 Thrills" lists. In 1994, The Manchurian Candidate was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

It has received a rare 100 percent rating from the Rotten Tomatoes website. Film critic Roger Ebert ranked The Manchurian Candidate as an exemplary "Great Film", declaring that it is "inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a 'classic' but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released".

In April 2007, Angela Lansbury's character was selected by Newsweek as one of the ten greatest villains in cinema history.

American Film Institute recognition

2004 film version

Jonathan Demme directed an up-to-date version of The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, starring Denzel Washington as Major Marco, Liev Schreiber as Congressman Raymond Shaw, and Meryl Streep as Senator Eleanor Shaw. There is no stepfather character. This contemporary adaptation made substantial changes to the source material by dropping the Cold War background for an anti-corporation story of private and business control of the U.S. government. The American soldiers are also shown being captured in Kuwaitmarker during the Gulf War between Iraqimarker and UN forces.

In this version Raymond Shaw is "the Manchurian candidate" and Marco the brainwashed assassin. The novel explicitly depicts incest between Raymond Shaw and his mother, but while the social conventions of 1962 limited Frankenheimer's depiction of the unhealthy mother-son relationship to a salacious adult kiss, Demme's was slightly more explicit. Demme's version of The Manchurian Candidate received mixed critical reviews.

See also


  1. Leigh, Janet & Nickens, Christopher. Psycho: Behind the Scenes of a Classic Thriller (1995)
  2. Director John Frankenheimer's audio commentary, available on The Manchurian Candidate DVD

External links

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