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Literature: The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1959 Conspiracy Thriller novel by Richard Condon, about the son of a prominent political family who has been brainwashed into being an unwitting assassin for the Communist Party. The novel has been adapted for the screen twice - once in 1962 and once in 2004.

During the Korean War, Captain Bennett Marco and Sergeant Raymond Shaw were part of a platoon that was captured in 1952. They are taken to Manchuria, and are brainwashed to believe that Sgt. Shaw saved their lives in combat for which the Army awards him the Medal of Honor.

Years later Marco, now an intelligence officer, starts suffering from a recurring nightmare about Shaw murdering two of his comrades, all observed by Chinese and Russian officers. When Marco learns that another soldier from the platoon also has been suffering the same nightmare, he sets to uncovering the mystery - and makes a terrifying discovery. Shaw is being used as a sleeper agent for the Communists, programmed as a guiltless assassin, subconsciously activated with a particular trigger - the Queen of Diamonds in a deck of cards. Thus, he is activated, kills the target, and immediately forgets. Shaw's controller is his own mother, who is working with the Communists in order to quietly overthrow the United States government with her Manchurian Candidate. His programming is eventually broken by Marco using a deck of cards entirely composed of the Queen of Diamonds.

The first movie adaptation (directed by John Frankenheimer) stars Frank Sinatra as Marco and Laurence Harvey as Shaw. Angela Lansbury plays Shaw's mother Eleanor Iselin. It is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, with much of the dialogue taken straight from the book.

The 2004 remake updates the setting to Operation Desert Storm, makes the bad guys an evil corporation instead of communists, and stars Denzel Washington as Ben Marco and Liev Schrieber as Raymond Shaw. Meryl Streep plays Shaw's mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw. It also adds a twist.


This novel and its adaptations contain examples of:

  • Abraham Lincoln: A motif of the 1962 film. Count the Lincoln portraits, Lincoln busts, Sen. Iselin's costume...
  • Affably Evil: Yen Lo, a Chinese scientist. A consummate gentleman and scholar, it seems in any other genre he'd play the role of a wise old mentor. In this story, he creates sleeper assassins.
  • Artifact Title: The 2004 movie doesn't have anything to do with Manchuria, although the writers justify the title by involving a corporation called "Manchurian Global" in the plot.
  • Bad Habits: The sleeper agent dresses as a priest to assassinate the presumptive President of the United States.
  • Big Applesauce: Most of the story takes place in New York.
  • Billing Displacement: Janet Leigh over Angela Lansbury, who plays a much more important role.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the film versions.
    • In the original, Marco manages to undo some Shaw's of brainwashing, which allows him to shoot his mother and Senator Iselin instead of the nominee, thereby foiling the communist plot. But the victory comes at the cost of Shaw's will to live, now being unable to live with the knowledge of the things he did when he was "activated."
    • In the remake, the plot is also foiled, with Raymond having Marco assassinate him along with his mother. But the film leaves it ambiguous whether Marco will ever fully recover from the entire ordeal.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy
    Dr. Yen Lo: "His brain has not only been washed, as they say... It has been dry cleaned."
  • Camera Tricks: The rule of thirds is dramatically averted in the first shot of Janet Leigh. She is presented right in the middle of the frame. It's a bit startling.
  • The Casanova: Marco is said to have at least two women every night, and Raymond's pretty good at with women as well. Raymond was originally shy around women, but Dr. Yen Lo "removed" Raymond's sexual timidity during his brainwashing.
  • Catapult Nightmare: 1962 film.
  • Catch Phrase: "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."
    • "Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Marco tries to light a cigarette on a train, but is so nervous and wound-up that he keeps fumbling the matches.
  • Conspiracy Thriller
  • Contrived Coincidence: Raymond's mind control trigger is a queen of diamonds playing card. Guess what his Love Interest Jocie Jordan dresses as for the costume party?
    • Oddly enough, though the costume's appearance is contrived in the script and the book, the particular costume that was used was in fact a coincidence: it had been created for a TV production of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Raymond's mother is a Communist spy pulling strings to get her husband (and thus, herself) into the White House.
  • Denied Parody: Meryl Streep denied that her portrayal of Eleanor Shaw in the 2004 movie was based on Hillary Clinton, Power Hair notwithstanding. She also reports that many British viewers assumed that her take on Eleanor Shaw was based on Margaret Thatcher.
  • Dies Wide Open: 1962 film.
  • Dirty Communists: The ones who do the brainwashing in the novel and first film.
  • Downer Ending: "Hell... hell..."
  • Dramatic Irony: "I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he's doing now." His wife is.
    • Reality Subtext: In an introduction to a later edition of the novel, Richard Condon said he remembered reading an editorial which read something to the effect of, "If Joe McCarthy were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he's doing now," and started to wonder, "What if he really *was*?"
  • Dreaming The Truth: Marco has very realistic dreams about the brainwashing sessions, and they happen so often that they take a toll on his health. But he's smart enough to take notes on them.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Raymond's mom's name is Eleanor Iselin, but the narration only calls her "Raymond's mother". The Communist agent who keeps tabs on Raymond in America is only called "Raymond's operator". They're the same person.
  • Evil Inc.: 2004 film.
  • Evil Matriarch: Keep reading, and you'll learn all you need to know about Raymond's mom.
  • Expy: Senator John Iselin in the original novel is clearly an Expy of Joe McCarthy.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Neither Marco nor Shaw liked one and other at first. It's one of the few things that tips Marco off that something isn't right when he mentions the phrase "Raymond Shaw is the most kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life." However eventually they do become good friends as aside from Jocie, Marco is the only person that he's ever expressed a side opposite of his usual Jerkass persona. However judging by the brainwashing scene, it was implied that from the start, Raymond did respect Marco and said he hated him the least.
  • 555: The prefix for Rosie's phone number, "ELdorado 5", was at the time a phone company test number that gave a busy signal.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: A complex example in the 2004 movie.
  • Gulf War: In the remake, Marco and Raymond were buddies during this period, and it was in this time that the brainwashing took place. The meat of the story, meanwhile, is set Twenty Minutes into the Future during the War On Terror.
  • Henpecked Husband / Parenting the Husband: The Manchurian Candidate in the novel is Mrs. Iselin's husband, John. She fusses over him day and night...after all, world domination is at stake!
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In the remake, Shaw and Marco are both able to partially overcome their programing and Shaw gets Marco to shoot him and his mother to stop the plot.
  • Hollywood Silencer: 1962 film. On a revolver, no less.
  • Hypno Fool: In the novel and the 1962 film, Shaw obeys a suggestion not even meant for him: "Why don't you go and take yourself a cab and go up to Central Park and go jump in the lake?" This helps him realize that something may be wrong with him.
    • Somewhat averted in the remake. Word of God says they intended to portray the brainwashed state as a state of heightened awareness rather than a zombielike trance. How easily this comes across is debateable, though.
  • IKEA Weaponry: The 1962 film is possibly the Trope Codifier, coming out just a year before From Russia with Love.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: but you probably couldn't get away with a heated fight scene in a modern thriller wherein the hero continually screams "HOW DID THE OLD LADIES TURN INTO RUSSIANS?"
  • Jerkass Fašade: Raymond is a top tier douchebag. He's rude, haughty,and he doesn't care about you. He developed this personality to cope with his vicious mother and loutish stepdad. The only people who have seen his vulnerable side are Major Marco and Jocie.
  • Karma Houdini: The Iselins are the only bad guys in the original who receive any kind of Laser-Guided Karma at all. The Dirty Communists in charge of Raymond's brainwashing, notably Yen-Lo, all get off scott-free.
  • The Korean War: The opening scene of both the novel and the 1962 film.
  • Manchurian Agent: The Trope Namer.
  • Mercy Kill: In the book, Marco orders a brainwashed Raymond to shoot his mother and stepfather, then shoot himself. He remarks, "No electric chair for a Medal of Honor man.
  • Mood Whiplash: Part of the charm of this book. It jumps from campy political farce to bleak character study to suspenseful thriller and back. A lot. (This is less of a problem in the 2004 version.)
  • The Mole
  • Motive Rant: Angela Lansbury gets off a real corker of a speech.
  • My Beloved Smother: Mrs. Iselin Serial Escalation.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Iselin is an obvious parody of Joe McCarthy.
  • No Party Given: In the 2004 remake the political party responsible for all this is never named, even during a strategy session involving the electoral map.
    • Only in the 1962 film is the Republican Party specifically named. (Raymond's mother's party is also not named in the book.) Reinforced by all of the Lincoln imagery the Iselins surround themselves with.
    • In the 2004 version, it's implied that they are Democrats, what with the mention of being denied the White House another four years and their strength being with the northeast, west, blacks, and college students. It nevertheless comes off as a little forced when even after Sen. Jordan's assassination newsreaders only ever refer to "his party".
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Brit Laurence Harvey in the 1962 film. It helps that his accent kind of works as an FDR-style New York blueblood accent.
  • Parental Incest: Part of Ellie Iselin's Freudian Excuse is that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Late in the story, she has sex with Raymond while he's brainwashed (though this is only implied in the film versions).
  • Playing Gertrude: Angela Lansbury was only 37 years old (three years older than Laurence Harvey) at the time. Averted in the remake, where Meryl Streep (55) plays the mother of Liev Schreiber (37).
  • Power Hair: Shaw's mother in both movies.
  • Red China: The 1962 film.
  • The Remake: The 2004 film shares the basic plot of its predecessors, but many things are changed.
  • Satellite Character / Satellite Love Interest: In the novel and 1962 film Rosie pops up out of nowhere, helps calm Marco down at a point where the nightmares are really getting to Marco, and then does absolutely nothing else except fill out some sweaters nicely in the movie. The singularly bizarre nature of Rosie's first two conversations with Marco, and the general pointlessness of her character, have led some to speculate that she is a Deep Cover Agent deliberately sent after Sinatra. (See Roger Ebert's review.) In the remake this is made explicit.
  • Spy Speak: The strange rhythms of Marco's conversations with Rosie (see above) led some fans to theorize that they are elaborate codes. (And then you start wondering whether Marco is aware of this...)
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Teased at in the remake. Marco is talking with his... let's say practical psychologist about his dreams, when the doctor abruptly asks "What if this is all a dream and you are really still back in Kuwait?". Given the setting and tone of the movie, and some of the later events (including how the aforementioned psychologist simply vanishes not long after), there's really no reason to totally discount this theory.
    • Well, Delp doesn't exactly "vanish" — judging by the look of his stripped-bare laboratory when Ben goes back to it, Delp has been quite deliberately removed by someone, most likely someone in the pay of Manchurian Global. But, yes: in the DVD commentary Jonathan Demme remarks that at any point in the course of the film it would be totally plausible to cut to Ben waking up.
  • Trigger Phrase: The original movie has both a Trigger Phrase ("Why don't you pass the time by playing solitaire?") and a Trigger Card: The Queen of Diamonds. The remake has a more personalized Trigger Phrase, in the form of their names and old ranks, recited in a certain specific way.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Featured prominently.
  • Up to Eleven: Mrs. Iselin's obsession with getting her husband into the White House and overthrowing the government, even if it means having her own son turned into a brainwashed killing machine to help speed things up.
  • What We Now Know to Be True: Apparently, it's an "old wives' tale" that hypnotized people can't be forced to do things that are against their natures.
  • Yellow Peril: Dr. Yen Lo, the sinister brainwasher in the 1962 film. Dr. Lo was played by Khigh Dhiegh (born Kenneth Dickerson), a American actor of North African ancestry, who specialized in playing sinister Asian villains, most notably Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O.


Now, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?
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Man on FireFilms of 2000 - 2004 Mean Girls
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The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceRoger Ebert Great Movies ListManhattan
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alternative title(s): The Manchurian Candidate; The Manchurian Candidate
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