Manchurian Candidate, The (1962): Frankenheimer’s Vibrant Political Thriller, Starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh (LGBTQ, Gay Subtext)

John Frankenheimer produced and directed The Manchurian Candidate a fascinating neo-noir, psychological-political thriller about the Cold War.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)


The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate (1962 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

The sharp screenplay is by George Axelrod, based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel, “The Manchurian Candidate.”

The film stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury, all in top form, with supporting turns from Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, and James Gregory.

The film was released in the U.S. on October 24, 1962, at the height of U.S.–Soviet hostility during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The protagonist is a Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a member of a prominent political family. Shaw is brainwashed by communists after his Army platoon is captured.

He returns to civilian life, 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 leading to the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Critical Status:

The most politically vibrant movie of the entire decade, the movie was widely acclaimed by all critics.

It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Lansbury) and Best Editing.

In 1994, it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Narrative Structure

Soviet and Chinese soldiers capture a U.S. Army platoon during the Korean War, taking the men to Manchuria in communist China.

Three days later, Sergeant Raymond Shaw and Captain Bennett Marco return to U.N. lines. Upon Marco’s recommendation, Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his soldiers’ lives in combat, though two men were killed in action.

Shaw returns to the U.S., where his heroism is exploited by his politically motivated mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury). he ruthlessly ambitious woman plans to further the career of her husband, Senator John Iselin.

Asked to describe Shaw, the other soldiers in his unit say, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” However, in reality he comes across as a cold, distanced, sad, unsympathetic loner.

After Marco is promoted to major and assigned to Army Intelligence, he has a recurring nightmare: a hypnotized Shaw blithely murders the two soldiers from his own platoon in front of communist military leaders in order to demonstrate their revolutionary brainwashing technique.

Marco then learns that another soldier from the platoon, Allen Melvin, has the same nightmare. When Marco and Melvin separately identify photos of the same two men (figures in communist governments) from their dreams, the Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco conduct an investigation.

It turns out that during captivity, Shaw was programmed as a sleeper agent, blindly obeying orders to kill without any memory of his crimes. His battle heroism was a false memory implanted during the brainwashing. Agents trigger Shaw by suggesting he play solitaire; the queen of diamonds activates him.

Meanwhile, Eleanor masterminds the ascent of John, a Joseph McCarthy-like demagogue who makes baseless claims that communists dominate the Defense Department.

Shaw repudiates his mother and stepfather by taking a job at a newspaper published by their critic, Holborn Gaines. Communist agents then have Shaw murder Gaines to confirm that his brainwashing still works.

Chunjin, a Korean agent who posed as a guide for Shaw’s platoon, comes to Shaw’s apartment asking him for work. The unsuspecting Shaw hires him as a valet and cook.

Marco recognizes Chunjin when he visits Shaw’s apartment; he violently attacks him and demands to know what happened during the platoon’s captivity. After Marco is arrested for assault, Eugenie Cheyney (Janet Leigh) a woman he met on a train, posts his bail and breaks her engagement to date him.

Shaw rekindles a romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of liberal Senator Thomas Jordan, the Iselins’ chief political foe. Eleanor arranges their reunion to garner Senator Jordan’s support for John’s vice-presidential bid. Unswayed, Jordan insists he will block Iselin’s attempts to seek the party’s nomination. After Jocelyn inadvertently triggers Shaw’s programming by wearing a queen of diamonds costume at a party for her thrown by the Iselins, they elope. Furious at Senator Jordan’s rebuff, Eleanor—who is Shaw’s American handler—sends him to kill Jordan at his home. Shaw also kills Jocelyn when she stumbles upon the murder scene. Afterward, he has no memory of the killing and is grief-stricken upon learning they are dead.

After discovering the card’s role in Shaw’s conditioning, Marco uses a forced deck to deprogram him, hoping he will reveal his next assignment. Eleanor primes Shaw to assassinate their party’s presidential nominee at the height of its 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 requested a programmed assassin, never knowing he would be her own son. She vows that, when she takes power, she will exact revenge on the communists for selecting him.

Shaw enters Madison Square Garden disguised as a priest, taking up a sniper’s position in an empty spotlight booth high above. Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt, race to the convention to stop him. At the last moment, Shaw aims away from the presidential nominee and instead kills Senator Iselin and Eleanor. When Marco arrives inside the lighting booth, Shaw tells him that not even the Army could have stopped them, so he had to. Then Shaw, wearing the Medal of Honor around his neck, immediately commits suicide. Later that evening, Marco, speaking to Eugenie privately, mourns Shaw’s death.

Gay Subtext

Shaw is cast with the handsome actor Laurence Harvey, who plays him as a prissy intelligent man, displaying slightly effeminate manners, which may suggest a troubled sexuality.

Shaw’s intimate attachment to his mother has been interpreted by Freudian critics as demonstration to the theory that male homosexuality is often caused by unresolved feelings toward a domineering mother.

The revelation, years later, that Harvey was latently gay (or bisexual), despite hetero marriages, has certainly influenced gay readings of the film’s mother-son relationship.

Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco
Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw
Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose “Rosie” Cheyney
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Iselin
James Gregory as Sen. John Yerkes Iselin
Henry Silva as Chunjin
Leslie Parrish as Jocelyn Jordan
John McGiver as Sen. Thomas Jordan
Khigh Dhiegh as Dr. Yen Lo
James Edwards as Cpl. Allen Melvin
Douglas Henderson as Col. Milt
Albert Paulsen as Zilkov
Barry Kelley as Secretary of Defense
Lloyd Corrigan as Holborn Gaines
Madame Spivy as Female Berezovo
Reggie Nalder as Dmitri
Joe Adams as Psychiatrist
Helen Kleeb as Ladies’ Garden Club Speaker (uncredited)
Robert Riordan as Benjamin K. Arthur (uncredited)
Whit Bissell as Medical Officer (uncredited)


Directed by John Frankenheimer
Screenplay by George Axelrod, Based on The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
Produced by George Axelrod, Frankenheimer
Narrated by Paul Frees
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Edited by Ferris Webster
Music by David Amram
Production company: M.C. Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date: October 24, 1962
Running time 126 minutes
Budget $2.2 million
Box office $7.7 million