The Manchurian Candidate (1962 film)

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The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate 1962 movie.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by
Screenplay by George Axelrod
Based on The Manchurian Candidate
by Richard Condon
Narrated by Paul Frees[1]
Music by David Amram
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Edited by Ferris Webster
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • October 24, 1962 (1962-10-24)
Running time
126 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2.2 million[2]
Box office $7.7 million[3]

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 American suspense 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 among the performers cast in the supporting roles.[4]

The plot centers 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.

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 well-received by critics and was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (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."


During the Korean War, the Soviets capture a U.S. platoon and take it to Manchuria in communist China. Three days later, all but two of the soldiers return to the U.S. lines and Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is credited by the survivors with saving their lives in combat. Upon recommendation of the platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor. He returns stateside to a hero's welcome, exploited by his mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), on behalf of the political career of her husband and Shaw's stepfather, United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory). 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.", even though Shaw is a cold, sad, unsympathetic loner.

In the years to follow, Marco, who has since been promoted to major and assigned to Army Intelligence, suffers from a recurring nightmare. In it, a hypnotized 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 support from his uplines. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards), has had the same nightmare. When Melvin and Marco separately identify the identical two men from their dreams as leading figures in communist governments, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate.

Shaw (Harvey, left) with Major Marco (Sinatra) after having jumped into a lake in New York City's Central Park when his programming was accidentally triggered

Meanwhile, Eleanor drives the ascension of Iselin, a McCarthy-like demagogue stirring domestic turmoil and rising the political ladder based on claims that varying numbers of communists work within the Department of Defense. Shaw, who broke with the couple immediately upon his return to America, is gradually revealed to have had been programmed by Russian and Chinese communists to be 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 in order to garner Jordan's support for Iselin's bid for Vice President. Although pleased with the match, Jordan makes it clear that he will block any effort 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 happens upon the scene. Afterwards, Shaw has no knowledge of his actions and is grief-stricken when he learns 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 in a hint at the novel's incestuous relationship, she vows that once in power she will exact revenge for her son's selection as 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 Senator Iselin and his mother. 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.



For the role of Mrs. Iselin, Sinatra suggested Lucille Ball, but Frankenheimer, who had worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down, countered with her,[5] insisting Sinatra watch her in that film before a final choice was made. Although Lansbury played Raymond Shaw's mother, played by Laurence Harvey, she was in fact only three years older than Harvey. 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.[5]

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

In a 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.[citation needed] In the end, Frankenheimer elected to use the original. Critics subsequently praised him for showing Marco from Shaw's distorted point of view.[5]

In the novel Mrs. Iselin had been sexually abused by her father as a child. Before the dramatic climax, she uses her son's brainwashing to have sex with him. Concerned with blowback over even a reference to such a taboo topic as incest in a mainstream motion picture of the time, the filmmakers instead opted for Mrs. Iselin to simply kiss Shaw on the lips to imply her incestuous attraction to him.[5]

Nearly half of the film's production budget of $2.2 million went on Sinatra's salary for his performance.[citation needed]


Critical response[edit]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, The Manchurian Candidate holds an approval rating of 98% rating based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 8.7/10. The website's critical consensus states, "A classic blend of satire and political thriller that was uncomfortably prescient in its own time, The Manchurian Candidate remains distressingly relevant today."[6] On Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, the film has a normalized score of 94 out of 100, based on 14 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[7]

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".[8]

Awards and honors[edit]

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.

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".[9] The film ranked at No. 67 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 also No. 17 on AFI's "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" lists. In April 2007, Angela Lansbury's character was selected by Time as one of the 25 greatest villains in cinema history.[10]

American Film Institute recognition[edit]


A rumor arose in the decades following the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963 that Sinatra had the film removed from distribution because of the plot's similarity to some of the fringe theories regarding the assassination that began to circulate. The rumor contradicted the fact that the public never lost access to rental of the film, a fact noted in a January 27, 2008 Los Angeles Times piece by Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for its 1988 reissue by MGM/UA.[11]

According to Schlesinger, the film's "disappearance" was not due to the assassination but a result of the movie's initial distribution running its course by November 1963. At that time, it could take a film several months to play across the United States.[12] After all the initial screenings were over, a successful American film could resurface more than a year later in drive-ins and other cinemas that booked films that many would-be customers had already seen. Movie listings in The New York Times from January 1964 indicate The Manchurian Candidate was revived at a cinema in Brooklyn, New York at the time, which was two months after the assassination.

The film became the premiere offering of The CBS Thursday Night Movie on the night of September 16, 1965. Though The New York Times was suspended from publication at the time due to a labor strike, hundreds of other daily newspapers throughout the United States ran ads for that night's CBS Thursday Night Movie.[citation needed]

Sinatra's representatives reacquired the rights to The Manchurian Candidate in 1972 after the initial ten-year contract with United Artists expired. Subsequently, it was telecast on April 27, 1974 on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies,[13] verified by that day's editions of many newspapers.[citation needed]

Two successful showings at the New York Film Festival in 1987 renewed public interest in the film and introduced it to a younger audience. MGM then reacquired the rights and it became available for re-release to domestic theaters and cinemas internationally, as well as the home video market.[12][14]

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. Retrieved April 2, 2017. 
  2. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate Still Shocks After All These Years". 
  3. ^ Box Office Information for The Manchurian Candidate. The Numbers. Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ a b c d Director John Frankenheimer's audio commentary, available on The Manchurian Candidate DVD
  6. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate (1962)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved March 1, 2018. 
  7. ^ "The Manchurian Candidate Reviews". Metacritic (CBS Interactive). Retrieved March 18, 2018. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 7, 2003). "Great Movie: The Manchurian Candidate". 
  9. ^ The Manchurian Candidate, One of 25 Films Added to National Registry. The New York Times. Retrieved August 28, 2012.
  10. ^ Corliss, Richard (April 25, 2007). "Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin". Time. Retrieved May 19, 2018. 
  11. ^ "A Manchurian myth". Retrieved 2018-04-25. 
  12. ^ a b Schlesinger, Michael (2008-01-27). "A 'Manchurian' myth". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2008-01-28. 
  13. ^ "Prime-time network TV listings for Saturday April 27, 1974". Retrieved April 2, 2017. 
  14. ^ Santopietro, Tom (2009). Sinatra in Hollywood. Macmillan. pp. 324–326. ISBN 9781429964746. 

External links[edit]