The Manchurian Candidate

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The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Howard W. Koch
George Axelrod
John Frankenheimer
Written by Richard Condon (novel)
George Axelrod (script)
Starring Frank Sinatra
Laurence Harvey
Janet Leigh
Music by David Amram
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Editing by Ferris Webster
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) October 24, 1962
Running time 126 min
Country USA
Language English

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 Hollywood film based on the idea that hypnosis could produce a man involuntarily programmed to commit murder, an idea popular at the time but now thoroughly discredited. (As is now well known, no one can be hypnotized against his will, and hypnosis cannot make anyone violate his conscience.) The plot is about a Chinese conspiracy to "brainwash" an American POW into becoming an unwitting assassin of a candidate for President of the United States and thus allowing a villain to become President. The film, based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon and directed by John Frankenheimer, gained an almost cult-like following. It represented a new psychological twist in spy movies, playing upon widespread fears at the time that American POWs in Korea were being systematically brainwashed.[1] It is considered by many to be the best political thriller ever made.


  • Frank Sinatra as Captain (later Major) Bennett Marco, USA, veteran of the Korean War and attached to Army G-2.
    • Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose "Rosie" Cheney, a girl who takes an interest in Major Marco.
  • Laurence Harvey as former Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, USA, the war hero brainwashed by the enemy.
    • James Gregory as Senator John Irkes Iselin of New York State; Shaw's stepfather and seeker of the nomination for Vice President.[2]
    • Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Iselin, Raymond Shaw's mother and Senator Iselin's wife.[3]
    • Henry Silva as Chunjin, a Korean interpreter (and Communist spy).
  • John McGiver as Senator Thomas Jordan, of New York, a political rival of Senator Iselin. He and Iselin despise one another.
    • Leslie Parrish as Jocelyn "Jocie" Jordan; Senator Jordan's daughter, in love with Shaw.
  • Khigh Dhiegh as Dr. Yen Lo, chief consulting psychiatrist, Pavlov Institute, Moscow
  • James Edwards as Corporal Alan Melvin, USA, another veteran of Korea.


Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information


On a dark night in Korea, Captain Bennett Marco and his patrol are ambushed, beaten senseless, and airlifted to a secret Sino-Soviet base in Manchuria, after their interpreter leads them into a trap. Three days later, the patrol reports in, except for two men who were killed. Captain Marco tells an incredible story of how his leading sergeant, Staff Sergeant Shaw, almost singlehandedly attacked an enemy machine-gun position and in the process killed an entire company of the enemy, and then led the patrol to safety. For this, Sgt. Shaw receives the Medal of Honor.

Return from Korea

Upon his return from Korea, Shaw is horrified and disgusted to see that his mother and stepfather have organized a welcoming committee that behaves like a "disgusting three-ring circus." In fact, his stepfather, whom Shaw has always detested, is up for re-election and has used the Medal of Honor ceremony as political theater.

Captain Marco, freshly promoted to the rank of Major, is assigned to Army G-2 (i.e., Intelligence). But soon he is plagued by a chilling recurring dream: that not only was his story of Sgt. Shaw's heroism a lie, but in fact the patrol had been subject to brainwashing, and that at a demonstration before several senior Soviet and Chinese officers, Shaw strangled one member of the patrol and shot another—which is to say, he personally murdered the very two men whom Marco would later list as killed in action.

The Army G-2 discounts his story and assigns him to the Public Relations Corps. This appointment proves disastrous, as Marco's assignment, the Secretary of Defense, loses his temper in a confrontation with Senator Iselin (who is a thinly-disguised parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, or rather the now-traditional liberal caricature of that real-life politician). Marco is reassigned to the G-2, who orders him to go away on leave. In his travels, he meets his eventual wife Rosie, who reaches out to him even though at first he tries to run away.

Marco is not the only member of the patrol to be plagued by a strange dream. Corporal Alan Melvin also dreams of sitting in a room full of Soviet and Chinese senior officers and other officials, and watching as Shaw strangles one of his buddies and shoots another at point-blank range. Melvin's wife encourages him to write to Shaw, which he does. Independently of one another, each man, when asked how he feels about Shaw, says in a monotone that Shaw is a wonderful person. The truth, however, is vastly different: Raymond Shaw, far from being attractive, is personally repulsive.

Marco traces Shaw to New York City, where Shaw at first was the confidential assistant to well-known newspaper columnist Holborn Gaines (probably suggested by Walter Lippmann), and now writes the column himself after Mr. Gaines has been found murdered in his bed. When Marco finally comes to Shaw's apartment, he is horrified to confront Chunjin, the former interpreter to the patrol who was also present in the interrogation session that Marco recalls in his recurring dream. He lashes out at Chunjin and repeatedly roars questions at him about Raymond's obsessive behavior with his hands before he committed the murders, and why Chunjin himself was present, not as a captive, but as a captor. He is arrested, but the G-2 vouches for him, and Rosie comes to take him home.

Marco then calls on Shaw to apologize for his behavior and explain his tortured dream. Shaw shocks him by saying that he had had a letter from another member of the patrol who was having similar dreams. Because this is the first person other than Marco to be reporting strange dreams, Marco rushes to Washington at once. There the G-2 convenes a meeting of his staff and questions Marco more closely. Marco identifies two known Soviet and Chinese officials from his dream, and the G-2 announces that he believes Marco's story and has formed a joint CIA/DIA/FBI team to investigate Raymond Shaw. Marco is assigned to this team as military liaison.

The investigation

Marco concentrates on Shaw and even encourages Shaw to tell him a sad story: he had once met a lovely and kind young woman, the daughter of Senator Jordan (the other Senator from New York State), and his mother had written an offensive letter in Shaw's name and forced Shaw to sign it. The next day, Marco meets Shaw in a bar and finds Shaw playing a game of solitaire. Marco barely hears the bartender tell another customer a story of how he had encouraged his brother-in-law to take a taxicab to Central Park and jump in the lake. And then Marco is stupefied when Shaw does exactly that. Marco follows Shaw and arrives in time to see Shaw jump in the lake, but Shaw has no memory of having done this. Nevertheless, Marco now remembers that Raymond had been playing with an imaginary—or perhaps not imaginary—deck of cards during the high-level Sino-Soviet briefing that Marco recalls in his dreams.

Marco asks the other members of the special task force about this, and they conclude that Raymond Shaw is acting under an elaborate series of suggestions implanted in his mind through hypnotism. They also identify the likely trigger: the queen of diamonds, a symbol of his mother.

What neither Marco nor even Shaw himself realizes is that Shaw's own mother is his "American operator" who gives him his orders. His mother first arranges for him to meet Senator Jordan's daughter Jocelyn again and even to marry her. But when this fails to create any fellow-feeling between Senators Jordan and Iselin, Shaw's mother then gives Shaw an order to kill Senator Jordan, and to kill Jocelyn as well.

The unraveling

Shaw retains no memory of any of his "assignments." Such is the nature of his programming that he will kill on order and then forget that he has done so, so that he will have no guilty conscience. But the sudden death of Jocelyn Jordan upsets him greatly, even though he does not yet realize that he was responsible for her death. He is so upset that he now is plagued with his own recurring dreams of the Manchurian interrogation session. In desperation he calls Marco, who meets Shaw at his hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention is taking place, and Senator Iselin has just won the Vice-Presidential nomination. Marco brings with him a "forced deck" containing fifty-two queens of diamonds. Marco uses these to induce Shaw to confess to the following:

  1. The night action for which Shaw received the Medal of Honor never took place as reported.
  2. In fact, the entire patrol had been abducted and taken to a secret base, where specialists from the Pavlov Institute in Moscow hypnotized them all, but especially Shaw.
  3. Shaw murdered the two men whom Marco would later report as killed in action.
  4. Shaw then killed his columnist boss, purely as a test of his conditioning.
  5. Shaw did indeed jump in the lake at Central Park, after the bartender accidentally triggered his post-hypnotic suggestion.
  6. Shaw then killed Senator Jordan and the young woman whom he had married only twenty-four hours before.
  7. All of the above are part of a larger plan, though Shaw does not know the details.

Marco then takes a gamble: he displays all fifty-two queens of diamonds and then, in his command voice, tells Shaw that his days as a programmed assassin are over.

The final action

Marco orders Shaw to talk to his American operator, learn the details of the operation (which is connected with that same convention where John Iselin has become a candidate for Vice President), and report back to Marco. Instead of reporting, Shaw gives every outward sign of continuing with his programmed assignment: to take a gun into a projection room and from that vantage point to shoot the Presidential nominee in the middle of his speech. His mother has arranged this so that Senator Iselin, can step forward and accept the Presidential nomination by default.

Marco, on the convention floor, spots the light from the projection room and races to that room as fast as he can get there. He arrives in time to see Shaw shoot, not the Presidential nominee, but Senator Iselin and his own mother. Shaw then puts on his Medal of Honor, and tells Marco that no one could possibly have stopped Senator Iselin and his mother, and that he had to do the job himself. Then, guilt-ridden over the shootings and all the other murders he has committed, Shaw puts the muzzle of his high-powered rifle to his own forehead and pulls the trigger.

Memorable quotations

When asked how he feels about Raymond Shaw as a person, Marco and Corporal Melvin both say:

Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever met in my life.

When Marco lashes out at Chunjin, he roars out these questions:

What was Raymond doing with his hands? How did the old ladies turn into Russians? What were you doing there?

The trigger phrase for the hypnotic suggestions:

Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?

The Presidential nominee says these words before Shaw fires the fatal shots:

Nor would I ask of any fellow American, in defense of his freedom, that which I would not gladly give myself: my life before my liberty.

After Raymond's death, Marco, now engaged to Rosie, composes a revised Medal of Honor citation for Shaw, one more appropriate to his situation:

Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here, by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul, he freed himself at last, and in the end heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country.


Contrivance or "Dramatic License"

Senator and Mrs. Iselin greet Sergeant Shaw with a banner reading "Johnny Iselin's Boy!" and spread it over his head for a photo-op. That would likely never have been allowed to happen. In real life, no civilian, even the mother and stepfather of a Medal of Honor recipient, would have been allowed to get that close to an honoree, and certainly not to spread a venal-looking banner over his head and take an unauthorized photograph, not only of the honoree, but also of a general officer of the Army.

Factual errors

Cover for the recently released DVD edition
  1. When Senator Iselin announces on the floor of the Senate that "there are exactly fifty-seven card-carrying Communists in the Defense Department," and then rises to a point of order, he addresses the presiding officer as "Mister Speaker" by mistake. The correct title in the Senate is "Mister President."
  2. When Senator Jordan threatens Senator Iselin with expulsion from the Senate if he tries to secure the Vice Presidential nomination, he incorrectly describes the sanction as an impeachment. Senator Iselin then makes the identical mistake when threatening Senator Jordan in turn. Impeachment is an accusation against the President, Vice President, or other "civil officer" in the executive or judicial branches, and is always brought in the House and then tried in the Senate. The Senate is the sole judge of the qualifications of his own members, and a motion to expel a Senator would be called just that: a motion to expel. The Senate, and only the Senate, would then debate and vote on it. (Expulsion, like conviction in an impeachment proceeding, requires a two-thirds vote.)

Faulty set-dressing

When Major Marco fights with Chunjin, he chops a slice out of a table with a karate stroke. This table was supposed to be a breakaway table. It was not. Frank Sinatra chopped a chunk out of a real table and injured himself very badly in so doing.[4]

Spoilers end here.

Themes and Receptions


Main Article: Brainwashing

The 1950s was a time of intense interest in accounts of mind control, and the term "brainwashing" was coined in 1950. At a time of high Cold War tension, the book I Was Stalin's Prisoner (1952), a first-person account of US executive Robert A. Vogeler's experiences with mind control as a political prisoner in Hungary, produced derivative fiction. Brain-Washing in Red China (1951) and other writings by Edward Hunter proclaimed the danger and potentially devastating possibilities of brainwashing. Inaccurate reports to the effect that numerous American POW's had defected to the Chinese in Korea caused alarm; in fact there were only a few. Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959), the basis for this film tapped into public fascination and concern over mind-control techniques. Novels by William Burroughs, A. E. van Vogt, and Francis Pollini all incorporate brainwashing themes. By the time of Walter Wager's Telefon (1975), the subject of brainwashing techniques had become passé.[5]

Some scholars have concluded there was no such brainwashing but it was a potent fear at the time. The film picks up and elaborates on this fear, and suggests that a "part light-induced, part drug-induced" technique would be effective. The 1954 film "Prisoner of War" starring Ronald Reagan portrays brainwashing POW's in Korea.

At the time of its release in 1962, the film defied plot analysis or genre categorization, but the film's subject of US soldiers brainwashed by Chinese forces during the Korean War found particular resonance in US popular culture. Beginning in 1952, popular journalists frightened and titillated their readers with sometimes dubious tales of Communist mind-control techniques.

Some critics who analyzed the film in 1962-63, however, saw the film as a leftist commentary on McCarthyism - the character of Senator John Irkes Iselin, the stepfather of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, bears striking resemblances to Joseph McCarthy, if only as parody and burlesque. The film's real target was "Mom-ism," since it was the supposedly invasive upbringing of Raymond Shaw by his mother that made him a good candidate for brainwashing according to some, and viewed by others as a subtle attempt to help break down the nuclear family by liberals.[6]

A key premise of the movie was that it was possible to brainwash or hypnotize an unsuspecting prisoner into committing murder. This was a widespread fear in the 1950s, and Ronald Reagan had starred in another film about brainwashing of American POWs in Korea.

... a tall, bald Communist Chinese/Korean doctor-spylord Yen Lo ... introduces the captured, passive and impotent men, all drugged and hypnotized for a public demonstration of the powers of hypnotism.

Although the film was not a major hit, and its conspiracy plot was considered far-fetched, it anticipated the American obsession with conspiracy theories after Kennedy's assassination.

One year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the creative rights to the film reverted to Frank Sinatra. He was unable to come to financial terms with the production company (United Artists), so Sinatra shelved the film. At the time, some suspected that Frank Sinatra had the film pulled from circulation after the Kennedy assassination, in the fear that his film had provoked Lee Harvey Oswald to commit this act.[7] However, Ben Mankiewicz now says that that was "a Hollywood version of an urban myth," and that Sinatra's real reason for shelving the picture, after the rights reverted to him, was the failure of United Artists to come to satisfactory terms with him with regard to royalties. The estate of Frank Sinatra finally settled the royalty issue in or about 2005.[8]

Manipulation of fact

Eleanor Iselin engages in an interesting scheme of manipulation, and frankly avows that to her husband when he complains that she never tells him to give the same number twice of Communists in the Defense Department. By way of explanation, she says this:

What are the newspapers of America writing about, and what are they saying? Are they saying, "Are there any Communists in the Defense Department?" Of course not! They're asking, "How many Communists are there in the Defense Department"!

In short, by keeping the news organs and their readers and viewers guessing, Mrs. Iselin invites people to accept a priori that the Defense Department has Communists in it, although an objective observer ought to have noticed that when a man cannot tell the same story twice in succession, he is usually lying.

Manipulation of popular emotion

The primary purpose of Mrs. Iselin's plan is to manipulate the emotions of the people into accepting dictatorship in the belief that the country is under a dire threat. Mrs. Iselin avows as much to her son when she gives him his final assignment, not realizing that Major Marco has already "unconditioned" him. In fact, she predicts that the assassination of the named Presidential candidate will cause the American electorate

to sweep us into the White House with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy.

The facts of the matter are far more complex. In the film, the Communist threat does exist. But the person behind the campaign to popularize that threat is herself an agent of that threat. Or so she pretends, at least in her dealings with Soviet and Chinese agents that actually induce them to recruit and train an assassin and place that assassin at her disposal. What she actually intends is to seize power in America and then launch a war of revenge against her very helpers. That Mrs. Iselin would conceive that such a plan could actually work, only shows the profound megalomania that afflicts this character.

(Of course, Mrs. Iselin, having accused the Soviets of underestimating her, is herself guilty of underestimating her son. Once Raymond Shaw realizes that his mother is "the American operator," he holds her responsible for the death of his wife and proves himself quite capable of taking the ultimate revenge.)

Other themes

The movie featured a riveting performance by Angela Lansbury[9] as the brilliant, controlling mother who manipulated both her husband and her son to realize her dream of a communist takeover of the United States. Her husband was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Frank Sinatra had initially suggested to Director John Frankenheimer that he cast Lucille Ball as Mrs. Iselin. But Frankenheimer, who had previously cast and worked with Lansbury in another film, All Fall Down, showed Sinatra a "rough cut" of a key scene in which Lansbury appeared, and Sinatra agreed that Angela Lansbury would be a better choice.[10]

Recent Remake

The movie was remade with Denzel Washington in the Sinatra role and Liev Schreiber as a the assassin controlled by a microchip brain implant. The villains in the remake are not communists, but simply people with a vague political agenda.[11] Critics and fans panned the remake.

Colloquial Usage

In modern-day usage, to describe a political candidate as a "Manchurian Candidate" is to say that they are hiding their real beliefs in hope of being elected, and afterwords able to advance their hidden agenda. Barack Obama is frequently accused of being a Muslim Manchurian Candidate, by WorldNetDaily and other sources.

Further reading

  • Carruthers, Susan L. "Redeeming The Captives: Hollywood and the Brainwashing of America's Prisoners of War in Korea." Film History 1998 10(3): 275-294. 0892-2160
  • Carruthers, Susan L. "The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the Cold War Brainwashing Scare." Historical Journal of Film, Radio And Television 1998 18(1): 75-94. 0143-9685
  • Condon, Richard. The Manchurian Candidate‎ (1959); 320 pages; the original novel excerpts and text search
  • Marks, John D. The search for the "Manchurian candidate": the CIA and mind control‎ (1979) 242 pages; scholarly study of brainwashing
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye, and Gaspar González. What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (2006) 288pp; full-scale scholarly interpretation of the film excerpt and text search
  • Seed, David. Brainwashing: the fictions of mind control : a study of novels and films (2004) ch 5. excerpt and text search

See also


  1. It was later realized that sort of brainwashing depicted in the film was impossible. The Communist abused prisoners but made no attempt to control them once freed. On the fears see Susan L. Carruthers, "Redeeming The Captives: Hollywood and the Brainwashing of America's Prisoners of War in Korea." Film History 1998 10(3): 275-294
  2. The identification of Senators Iselin and Jordan as Republicans is tentative. It is based on Raymond Shaw's identification of his first civilian employer, Holborn Gaines, as a Republican, an identification that he offers to his mother as proof that Mr. Gaines is not a Communist. Senators Iselin and Jordan constitute the New York delegation to the Senate because they clearly both reside in New York.
  3. The full name of Eleanor Iselin was never given in the film, but it did appear in the novel from which this film is adapted.
  4. Interview by Mr. Ben Mankiewicz (nephew of noted Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz) with Nancy and Tina Sinatra, daughters of the late Actor Frank Sinatra, in 2009, on the occasion of the long-delayed television airing of this film on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
  5. David Seed, "Brainwashing And Cold War Demonology." Prospects 1997 22: 535-573.
  6. Susan L. Carruthers, "The Manchurian Candidate (1962) And The Cold War Brainwashing Scare." Historical Journal of Film, Radio And Television 1998 18(1): 75-94. 0143-9685
  7. Osborne, Robert. End-of-film commentary on The Manchurian Candidate.
  8. Mankiewicz, Ben. Introduction to The Manchurian Candidate.
  9. IMDB website
  10. Osborne, Robert. Introduction to The Manchurian Candidate.
  11. 'Rotten Tomatoes' Plot Summary