The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 American neo noir psychological political thriller film about the Cold War and sleeper agents.
It was directed and produced by John Frankenheimer. The screenplay was written by George Axelrod and was based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel The Manchurian Candidate.
The film’s leading actors are Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh, with Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva and James Gregory in supporting roles.
The plot centres on the Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw, the progeny of a prominent political family. Shaw was a prisoner of war during the conflict in Korea and while being held was brainwashed by his captors. After his discharge back into civilian life, he becomes an unwitting assassin involved in an international communist conspiracy. Officials from China and the Soviet Union employ Shaw as a sleeper agent in an attempt to subvert and take over the United States government.
Another film based on the 1959 novel was released in 2004.
During the Korean War, the Soviets and Chinese capture a US Army platoon and take the men to Manchuria in communist China. Three days later, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) return to UN lines. Upon Marco’s recommendation, Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honour for saving their lives in combat. Shaw returns to the United States to a hero’s welcome where he is exploited by his ambitious mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), to further her husband’s (Shaw’s stepfather) US Senator John Yerkes Iselin’s (James Gregory) political career. When asked to describe him, Marco and the other soldiers automatically respond that, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” In fact, Shaw is a cold, sad, unsympathetic loner.
In the following years, Marco, since promoted to major and assigned to Army Intelligence, suffers from a recurring nightmare. In it, a hypnotised Shaw blithely and brutally murders the two missing soldiers before an assembly of military leaders from the communist nations, during a practical demonstration of a revolutionary brainwashing technique. Marco is compelled to investigate, but with no solid evidence to back his claims, fails to receive his superiors’ support. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards), has had the same nightmare. When Melvin and Marco separately identify photos of the same two men from their dreams who are leading figures in communist governments, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate.
Meanwhile, Eleanor drives the ascension of Iselin, a McCarthy-like demagogue stirring domestic turmoil and climbing the political ladder based on claims that constantly varying numbers of communists work within the Department of Defence. Shaw, who broke with his mother and step-father immediately upon his return to America, is gradually revealed to have been programmed by Russian and Chinese communists as a sleeper agent who will blindly obey orders without any memory of his actions. His heroism was a false memory implanted in the platoon during their brainwashing in Manchuria. His programming is triggered by seeing the Queen of Diamonds card while playing solitaire after being induced by his handlers.
Several years pass before Shaw finds happiness when he rekindles a youthful romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of liberal Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), one of his stepfather’s political rivals. Mrs. Iselin had previously broken up the relationship, but now facilitates the couple’s reunion to garner Jordan’s support for Iselin’s bid for the Vice Presidency. Although pleased with the match, Jordan states he will block all of Iselin’s to seek their party’s nomination. Jocelyn, wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume at a party for her thrown by the Iselins, inadvertently triggers Shaw’s programming and elopes with him. In response to the senator’s rebuff, Mrs. Iselin, who is revealed to be Shaw’s American handler, triggers him to kill Jordan at his home, shooting Jocelyn as well when she enters the scene. Afterwards, Shaw has no knowledge of his actions and is grief-stricken upon learning of the murders.
Eventually discovering the card’s role in Shaw’s conditioning, Marco uses a forced deck in an attempt to deprogram him and reveal his next assignment, which appears imminent. Mrs. Iselin primes her son to assassinate their party’s presidential nominee at the height of the ongoing political convention so that Senator Iselin, as the vice-presidential candidate, will become the nominee by default. In the uproar, he will immediately seek emergency powers that when elected will, in Mrs. Iselin’s words, “make martial law seem like anarchy”. Mrs. Iselin tells Shaw that while she had requested a programmed assassin for the task, she never knew it would be her own son, who was selected by the communists in order to bind her more closely to their cause. Kissing Shaw on the lips, she vows that once in power she will exact revenge for her son’s selection as an assassin.
Shaw enters the convention hall disguised as a priest and takes up a sniper’s position high in its farthest reaches. Alarmed by Shaw’s failure to call by the appointed time, Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), race to the hall to find and stop him. When the moment to shoot comes, Shaw instead kills his mother and Senator Iselin. When Marco arrives an instant later, Shaw tells him he failed to call to prevent anyone from interfering with his change in plans. Shaw then fatally turns the rifle on himself.
In an epilogue, Marco and Eugénie privately mourn Shaw’s death. Marco reads citations for two Medal of Honor winners, and composes his own:
“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: Raymond Shaw.”
- Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco.
- Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw.
- Janet Leigh as Eugénie Rose Chaney.
- Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin.
- James Gregory as Senator John Yerkes Iselin.
- Henry Silva as Chunjin.
- Leslie Parrish as Jocelyn Jordan.
- John McGiver as Senator Thomas Jordan.
- Khigh Dhiegh as Doctor Yen Lo.
- James Edwards as Corporal Allen Melvin.
- Douglas Henderson as Colonel Milt.
- Albert Paulsen as Zilkov.
- Barry Kelley as Secretary of Defence.
- Lloyd Corrigan as Holborn Gaines.
- Madame Spivy as Female Berezovo.
- Reggie Nalder as Dmitri.
Production & Filming Details
- Narrator(s): Paul Frees.
- Director(s): John Frankenheimer.
- Producer(s): George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer.
- Writer(s): George Axelrod.
- Music: David Amram.
- Cinematography: Lionel Lindon.
- Editor(s): Ferris Webster.
- Production: M.C. Productions.
- Distributor(s): United Artists.
- Release Date: 24 October 1962.
- Running Time: 126 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.