The Manchurian Candidate (1962 film)

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The Manchurian Candidate
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Screenplay byGeorge Axelrod
Based onThe Manchurian Candidate
1959 novel
by Richard Condon
Produced by
  • George Axelrod
  • John Frankenheimer
Narrated byPaul Frees[1]
CinematographyLionel Lindon
Edited byFerris Webster
Music byDavid Amram
Color processBlack and white
M.C. Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 24, 1962 (1962-10-24)
Running time
126 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.2 million[2]
Box office$7.7 million[3] or $3.3 million (US/Canada)[4]
The film's trailer

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 American neo-noir psychological political thriller film directed and produced by John Frankenheimer. The screenplay is by George Axelrod, based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel The Manchurian Candidate. The film's leading actors are Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury, with co-stars Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, and James Gregory.[5]

The plot centers on Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw, part of a prominent political family. Shaw is brainwashed by communists after his Army platoon is captured. He returns to civilian life in the United States, where he becomes an unwitting assassin in an international communist conspiracy. The group, which includes representatives of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, plans to assassinate the presidential nominee of an American political party, with the death leading to the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The film was released in the United States on October 24, 1962, at the height of U.S.–Soviet hostility during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was widely acclaimed by Western critics and was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury) and Best Editing. It was selected in 1994 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[6][7]


Soviet and Chinese soldiers capture a U.S. Army platoon during the Korean War, taking them to communist China. Three days later, Sergeant Raymond Shaw and Captain Bennett "Ben" Marco return to UN lines. Upon Marco's recommendation, Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his soldiers' lives in combat, though two men were killed. Shaw returns to the U.S., where his mother, Eleanor Iselin, exploits his heroism to further the political career of her husband, Senator John Iselin. When asked to describe Shaw, two soldiers in his unit uniformly respond that he is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they have ever known. In fact, Shaw is a strict, cold, unsympathetic loner hated by his men.

After Marco is promoted to major and assigned to Army Intelligence, he has a recurring nightmare: a hypnotized Shaw blithely murders two soldiers from his platoon before an assembly of communist military leaders to demonstrate their revolutionary brainwashing technique. Marco learns that Allen Melvin, a fellow soldier, has the same nightmare. When Melvin and Marco separately identify identical photos of the two male communist leaders from their dreams, Army Intelligence agrees to investigate.

Shaw with Major Marco after jumping into a lake in Central Park when his programming was accidentally triggered

During captivity, Shaw was programmed as a sleeper agent, who obeys orders to kill and immediately forgets having done so. His heroism is a false memory implanted during the brainwashing. Agents trigger Shaw by suggesting he play solitaire; the queen of diamonds activates him. Meanwhile, Eleanor is masterminding John's political ascent with his baseless claims that communists work at the Defense Department. To spite his mother and stepfather, Shaw takes a job at a newspaper published by Holborn Gaines, Iselin's harshest critic. Communist agents later have Shaw murder Gaines to confirm that his brainwashing still works.

Chunjin, a Korean agent who posed as a guide for Shaw's platoon, arrives at Shaw's apartment asking for work. The unsuspecting Shaw hires him as a valet and cook. Marco recognizes Chunjin when he visits Shaw; he violently attacks him and demands to know what happened during the platoon's captivity. After Marco is arrested for assault, Eugenie "Rosie" Cheyney, an attractive young woman he met on the train, posts his bail.

Shaw rekindles a romance with Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of liberal Senator Thomas Jordan, the Iselins' chief political foe. Eleanor wants to garner Senator Jordan's support for Iselin's vice-presidential bid. Unswayed, Jordan insists he will oppose the nomination. After Jocelyn inadvertently triggers Shaw's programming by wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume at the Iselins' party, they elope. Furious at Senator Jordan's rebuff, Eleanor—who is Shaw's American "operator" (handler)—sends him to kill Senator Jordan at his home. Shaw also kills Jocelyn when she inadvertently happens upon the murder scene. Having no memory of the killing, Shaw is grief-stricken upon learning they are dead.

After discovering the queen of diamonds card's role in Shaw's conditioning, Marco uses a forced deck to deprogram him, hoping to learn Shaw's next assignment. Eleanor primes Shaw to assassinate their party's presidential nominee during the convention so that Iselin, as the vice-presidential candidate, will become the nominee by default. In the uproar, he will seek emergency powers to establish a strict authoritarian regime. Eleanor tells Shaw that she had requested a programmed assassin, never knowing it would be her own son. When taking power, she vows revenge upon her superiors for choosing him.

Disguised as a priest, Shaw enters Madison Square Garden, taking a sniper's position in a vacant overhead spotlight booth. Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt, race to the convention to stop Shaw. At the last moment, Shaw aims away from the presidential nominee and instead kills Senator Iselin and Eleanor. When Marco bursts into the booth, Shaw, wearing the Medal of Honor, says he was the only one who could stop his mother and stepfather, then kills himself. Later that evening with Rosie, Marco mourns Shaw's death.



Sinatra suggested Lucille Ball for the role of Eleanor Iselin, but Frankenheimer, who had worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down,[8] insisted that Sinatra watch her performance in that film before a final choice was made. Although Lansbury played Raymond Shaw's mother, she was, in fact, only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played Shaw. An early scene in which Shaw, recently decorated with the Medal of Honor, argues with his parents was filmed in Sinatra's own private plane.[8]

Janet Leigh plays Marco's love interest. In a short biography of Leigh broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, her daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, reveals that Leigh had been served divorce papers on behalf of her father, actor Tony Curtis, the morning that the scene where Marco and her character first meet on a train was filmed.

In the scene where Marco attempts to deprogram Shaw in a hotel room opposite the convention, Sinatra is at times slightly out of focus. It was a first take, and Sinatra failed to be as effective in subsequent retakes, a common factor in his film performances.[9] In the end, Frankenheimer elected to use the out-of-focus take. Critics subsequently praised him for showing Marco from Shaw's distorted point of view.[8][9]

In the novel, Eleanor Iselin's father had sexually abused her as a child. Before the dramatic climax, she uses her son's brainwashing to have sex with him. Concerned with the reaction to even a reference to a taboo topic like incest in a mainstream film at that time, the filmmakers instead had Eleanor kiss Shaw on the lips to imply her incestuous attraction to him.[8]

Nearly half the film's $2.2 million production budget went to Sinatra's salary for his performance.[10]

Cold War[edit]

Known as one of the most "iconic" films of the cold war period,[11] The Manchurian Candidate stemmed from stories of anti-communist paranoia like that of the twenty-one American prisoners of war deciding to move to China instead of back to the United States after the Korean War in 1953.[11] The film was also a product of the Kennedy Administration. Like President John F. Kennedy, it "warns against both right-wing hysteria and bureaucratic complacency".[12] The film itself was supposed to re-start cold war politics and “reanimate” anti-communist ideas, especially since there had been no cold war films since Jet Pilot in 1957.[12]

The Manchurian Candidate encapsulates Cold War sentiments regarding communism. In the film, communism is depicted as a monolithic international conspiracy originating in countries like the USSR and China.[13] It conveys the popular myth that China was brainwashing US soldiers for communist purposes of creating their "Manchurian Candidate", or perfect robotic-like soldier, during the Korean War.[14] Like the Richard Condon novel that it was based on, the film represents everything that US citizens were fearful of during the cold war.[15]

Depiction of communists[edit]

In the Garden Scene, pictures of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin are hung on the wall with a Soviet star in between them and the head of the Manchurian candidates standing beneath the star. This insinuates a collaboration between China and Russia with the goal to manipulate the US for communist world domination.[16] During their demonstration, the communist leaders refer to Raymond as "the mechanism" and "the weapon", which affirms the idea that communist's only see people as gadgets that can be thrown away after their use.[16] The film depicts communists as eager to give up their lives, which are expendable in their eyes anyway, for the cause of universal communism, which is a "less than essential end".[16]  

In The Manchurian Candidate, communists are not peers, but instead relate to each other within the hierarchy of communist leaders. For example, there are rows of communist leaders who all look down upon the Manchurian Candidates in the Garden Scene.[16] In addition, Raymond Shaw’s mother only uses those around her, like her son and husband, as pawns in her communist ploy to gain a powerful position through her husband’s candidacy for Vice President of the US.[12] This is juxtaposed with the loving, trusting, and open relationships like those between Shaw and Jocelyn Jordan, and Marco and Janet Leigh.[16]

Conspiracy theories and US mind control[edit]

The Manchurian Candidate uses "science, the conditioned subject, and the moving image" to create a realistic framework for the existence of mind control.[17] Specifically, it plays on the idea of a "covert sphere" of communism within the US, mixing real life events with those out of science fiction.[18] This theme added to the growing suspicion of the US government, redirecting concerns of possible brainwashing toward the homefront.[12] Janja Lalich, a counter-cult sociologist, notes that the term "brainwashing" used by this counterculture movement was first made popular by The Manchurian Candidate.[19] The ever growing fear that anyone, even a decorated soldier like Raymond Shaw, could be coerced unwittingly by communists contributed to the United States’ expansion of their own mind control experiments.[15] In 1975, a little over ten years after the release of The Manchurian Candidate, the fear of a US-funded mind control scheme would come true with the reveal of Project MKUltra, in which the CIA looked to control human behavior through trauma programming and psychoactive drugs starting in the early 1950s and ending in 1973.[20] According to the CIA, "historians have asserted that creating a 'Manchurian Candidate' subject through 'mind control' techniques was a goal of MK-ULTRA and related CIA projects."[21]


Critical response[edit]

Film critic Roger Ebert listed The Manchurian Candidate on his "Great Movies" list, 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".[22]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, The Manchurian Candidate holds an approval rating of 97% rating based on 60 reviews, with an average rating of 8.70/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A classic blend of satire and political thriller that was uncomfortably prescient in its own time, The Manchurian Candidate remains distressingly relevant today."[23] On Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, the film has a score of 94 out of 100, based on 20 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[24]

Academic response[edit]

Scholars have used The Manchurian Candidate as a window into Cold War paranoia. Professor Catherine Canino claimed that the film fulfilled the prophecies of "the imagined loss of cherished American autonomy and free will".[25] Political scientist Michael Rogin concluded that The Manchurian Candidate "aims to reawaken a lethargic nation to a communist menace".[12] Humanities Center director [Timothy Melley] argued that "The Manchurian Candidate's deepest worry is neither communism nor anticommunism but embattled human autonomy."[18]

Awards and honours[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[26] Best Supporting Actress Angela Lansbury Nominated
Best Film Editing Ferris Webster Nominated
British Academy Film Awards[27] Best Film from any Source Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards[28] Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures John Frankenheimer Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[29] Best Director – Motion Picture John Frankenheimer Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Angela Lansbury Won
Laurel Awards Top Action Drama Nominated
Top Action Performance Frank Sinatra Nominated
Top Female Supporting Performance Angela Lansbury Nominated
National Board of Review Awards[30] Best Supporting Actress Angela Lansbury (Also for All Fall Down) Won
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
Producers Guild of America Awards PGA Hall of Fame – Motion Pictures Won

In 1994, The Manchurian Candidate was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[31] The film ranked 67th on the "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" when that list was first compiled in 1998, but a 2007 revised version excluded it. It was 17th on AFI's "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" lists. In April 2007, Lansbury's character was selected by Time as one of the 25 greatest villains in cinema history.[32]


According to a false rumor, Sinatra removed the film from distribution after John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963. Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue by MGM/UA, has helped debunk the rumor. According to him, the film was never removed, and public interest in it was minor before the shootings of Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.[33] The autumn 1962 release had run its course. Box-office successes in the United States in November 1963, immediately before the shootings in Dallas, were comedies, notably It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Movie distributors avoided reviving a thriller with a bleak ending that millions of people had seen barely a year earlier.[33] The aftermath of the Dallas shootings reduced demand for the movie from low to minuscule. Newspaper display ads indicate that after the assassination, The Manchurian Candidate was rereleased less frequently or widely than other 1962 movies, but it was indeed revived and never banned. The movie played at a Brooklyn cinema in January 1964, and that same month in White Plains, New York,[34] and Jersey City, New Jersey.[35] It was televised nationwide on CBS Thursday Night Movie on September 16, 1965.

Sinatra's representatives acquired rights to the film in 1972 after the initial contract with United Artists expired.[33] The film was rebroadcast on nationwide television in April 1974 on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies.[36] After a showing at the New York Film Festival in 1987 increased public interest in the film, the studio reacquired the rights and it became again available for theater and video releases.[33][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jordan, Darran (2015). Green Lantern History: An Unauthorised Guide to the DC Comic Book Series Green Lantern. Sydney, Australia: Eclectica Press. ISBN 978-1-326-13987-2. Archived from the original on April 3, 2017. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  2. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate Still Shocks After All These Years". Archived from the original on 2018-03-19. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  3. ^ Box Office Information for The Manchurian Candidate. Archived January 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine The Numbers. Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  4. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1962". Variety. 9 Jan 1963. p. 13. Please note these are rentals and not gross figures
  5. ^ Macek, Carl; McGarry, Eileen (1996). Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth (eds.). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. New York City, Woodstock, NY & London: Overlook Press. pp. 183–84.
  6. ^ "25 Films Added to National Registry (Published 1994)". The New York Times. November 15, 1994. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on March 8, 2021. Retrieved December 11, 2020.
  7. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d Director John Frankenheimer's audio commentary, available on The Manchurian Candidate DVD
  9. ^ a b Lovell, Glen (May 28, 1998). "'Manchurian' revolt: Frankenheimer offers Sinatra revelations on DVD". Archived from the original on April 17, 2021. Retrieved April 17, 2021.
  10. ^ Mann, Roderick (February 12, 1988). "The Return of 'The Manchurian Candidate': Classic Re-Released After Long Disputes". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on April 10, 2021. Retrieved April 11, 2021.
  11. ^ a b Marks, Sarah; Pick, Daniel (2017). "Lessons on Mind Control from the 1950s". The World Today. 73 (1): 12–17. JSTOR 45180792. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  12. ^ a b c d e Rogin, Michael (1984). "Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood, and Cold War Movies". Representations (6): 1–36. doi:10.2307/2928536. ISSN 0734-6018. JSTOR 2928536.
  13. ^ Cuordileone, K. A. (2000). ""Politics in an Age of Anxiety": Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949-1960". The Journal of American History. 87 (2): 515–545. doi:10.2307/2568762. ISSN 0021-8723. JSTOR 2568762.
  14. ^ Hampton, Howard (March 15, 2016). "The Manchurian Candidate: Dread Center". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  15. ^ a b Grant, Brittanny (2015). "Was It All Just A Hallucination? The CIA's Secret LSD Experiments". ScholarWorks@Arcadia.
  16. ^ a b c d e Coates, Ivan (1993). "Enforcing the Cold War Consensus: Mccarthyism, Liberalism and the "Manchurian Candidate"". Australasian Journal of American Studies. 12 (1): 47–64. ISSN 1838-9554. JSTOR 41053668.
  17. ^ Killen, Andreas (2011). "Homo pavlovius: Cinema, Conditioning, and the Cold War Subject". Grey Room. 45 (45): 42–59. doi:10.1162/GREY_a_00049. ISSN 1526-3819. JSTOR 41342502. S2CID 57562839.
  18. ^ a b Melley, Timothy (2008). "Brainwashed! Conspiracy Theory and Ideology in the Postwar United States". New German Critique. 35 (103): 145–164. doi:10.1215/0094033X-2007-023. ISSN 0094-033X. JSTOR 27669224.
  19. ^ Laycock, Joseph (2013). "Where Do They Get These Ideas? Changing Ideas of Cults in the Mirror of Popular Culture". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 81 (1): 80–106. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfs091. ISSN 0002-7189. JSTOR 23357877.
  20. ^ Andriopoulos, Stefan (2011). "The Sleeper Effect: Hypnotism, Mind Control, Terrorism". Grey Room. 45 (45): 88–105. doi:10.1162/GREY_a_00051. ISSN 1526-3819. JSTOR 41342504. S2CID 57570519.
  21. ^ CIA (December 2018). "Project MK-ULTRA" (PDF). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 7, 2003). "Great Movie: The Manchurian Candidate". Archived from the original on April 27, 2017. Retrieved April 3, 2017.
  23. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate (1962)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on December 12, 2016. Retrieved January 12, 2021.
  24. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate Reviews". Metacritic (CBS Interactive). Archived from the original on April 17, 2018. Retrieved May 9, 2020.
  25. ^ Kim, Swan (2010). "The Color of Brainwashing: The Manchurian Candidate and the Cultural Logic of Cold War Paranoia". 미국학. 33 (1): 167–195. doi:10.18078/amstin.2010.33.1.006. ISSN 1229-4381.
  26. ^ "The 35th Academy Awards (1963) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-23.
  27. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1963". BAFTA. 1963. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  28. ^ "15th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  29. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  30. ^ "1962 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  31. ^ The Manchurian Candidate, One of 25 Films Added to National Registry. Archived March 26, 2018, at the Wayback Machine The New York Times. Retrieved August 28, 2012.
  32. ^ Corliss, Richard (April 25, 2007). "Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin". Time. Archived from the original on June 22, 2018. Retrieved May 19, 2018.
  33. ^ a b c d Schlesinger, Michael (2008-01-27). "A 'Manchurian' myth". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on January 9, 2010. Retrieved January 28, 2008.
  34. ^ "Movie Timetable." Tarrytown (NY) Daily News, 16 January 1964.
  35. ^ "Movie Time Table [sic]." Summit (NJ) Herald, 16 January 1964.
  36. ^ "Prime-time network TV listings for Saturday April 27, 1974". Archived from the original on March 27, 2018. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  37. ^ Santopietro, Tom (2009). Sinatra in Hollywood. Macmillan. pp. 324–326. ISBN 9781429964746. Archived from the original on July 6, 2014. Retrieved March 16, 2016.

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