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Literature / The Manchurian Candidate

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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 was adapted for the screen in 1962 and again 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 1962 film, 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, directed by Jonathan Demme, 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 Schreiber 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:

  • Abusive Parents: Eleanor is demeaning and controlling to her son, using him as a prop to build up her husband's political career and forcing him to break up with the woman he loves. When it's revealed she's also his hypnotic controller, she even orders him to kill the woman he loves, and in the book has sex with him while he's under a trance.
  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Eleanor was only 17 when she gave birth to Raymond.
  • Affably Evil: Yen Lo, a Chinese scientist. A consummate gentleman and scholar, in any other film he'd play the role of a wise old mentor. In this story, he creates sleeper assassins.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Bennett Marco is of partially Spanish extraction and is described as looking like an Aztec crossed with an Eskimo with "copper colored" skin and straight black hair with an "aboriginal look." He's played by Frank Sinatra in the 1962 film and Denzel Washington in the 2004 film.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The very end of the novel has two possible situations for what happens when Marco goes into the booth where Raymond has just shot his mother and stepfather: Raymond either shot himself of his own free will after Marco freed him from the brainwashing completely after Marco told him he killed Jocie himself, or Marco ordered him to shoot himself using the card deck and decided to Let Them Die Happy by never letting him realize the truth of what he did to Jocie. It's never clarified exactly which occurred.
  • Antagonist Title: Downplayed. The titular Manchurian Candidate is Senator Iselin, who is working for the Russians, but he isn't nearly as much of an antagonist as his wife.
  • 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.
  • Berserk Button: Downplayed; Johnny doesn't fly off the handle when someone calls Sen. Iselin his father. He will let you know his extreme displeasure though.
  • Big Applesauce: Most of the story takes place in New York.
  • Big Bad: In the book and the original film, it's both Mrs. and Senator Iselin while in the 2004 film it's just Mrs. Iselin, who is a Senator in this version to combine both characters into one.
    • Bigger Bad: In the end the Big Bad is a puppet of the communist conspiracy and of Dr. Lo in particular. Eleanor, while an abusive parent and communist spy, was genuinely horrified when she found out what they'd done to her son.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the film versions.
    • In the original, Marco manages to undo some of Shaw's 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.
  • Black Comedy: The 1962 film plays up the novel's absurd elements, adding a lot of dialogue and imagery that skews it towards comedy.
  • 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 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."
    • In the remake, "Sargent Shaw? Sargent Raymond Shaw? Raymond Prentiss Shaw?"
    • "Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"
    • Raymond is quick to remind just about everyone he meets that Johnny Iselin is his stepfather.
  • 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.
  • Complexity Addiction: The Evil Plan involves capturing one particular American soldier alive (along with his unit) from all the soldiers fighting in Korea, brainwashing them into believing his heroism so Shaw will get the Medal of Honor, arranging for additional agents in the United States to keep an eye on them all... for a plot that doesn't require any of this. If Shaw is captured he just looks like a war veteran who went insane, which defeats the entire purpose to bring about an anti-communist fervor that will sweep Iselin to power. They just need an accurate shooter and a patsy with known communist sympathies to be the fall guy...umm...
  • 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.
  • Corporate Conspiracy: The 2004 version replaces the Dirty Commies from the book with Manchurian Global, a multinational corporation that creates a Brainwashed Manchurian Agent to serve as their mole in the White House and another to serve as an assassin to get said mole elected as President.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The corporate board of Manchurian Global in the remake. What else can you label a bunch of people who create a Manchurian Agent for the sake of taking over the White House, with murders galore?
  • Deep Cover Agent: Raymond's mother is a Communist spy pulling strings to get her husband (and thus, herself) into the White House.
  • Dies Wide Open: 1962 film.
  • Dirty Communists: The ones who do the brainwashing in the novel and first film.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Implied to be Eleanor's next goal once she has taken power through her husband, in revenge for her communist associates having brainwashed her son into an assassin and forced her to be his controller.
  • 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." The woman he's saying this to is that Soviet agent.
    • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the 1962 movie, Raymond makes the conscious decision to shoot himself, possibly because Ben's hypnotic suggestion to forget what he had done to his father-in-law and his wife had worn off. "Oh God, Ben!"
  • Emergency Authority: The conspirators' plan is to assassinate the leading presidential candidate, to provoke a reaction that, as Eleanor Iselin boasts, "They'll sweep us into the White House with powers that'll make martial law look like anarchy". That sentence is also the page quote.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Eleanor does show a twisted love for her son when she expresses anger over how he's been selected as the killer, and swears vengeance on those who did this to him once she comes into power.
  • 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.: Manchurian Global in the 2004 film. They are not working for any government — the whole plot is being made for their own monetary interests (whichever they are).
  • Evil Matriarch: Keep reading, and you'll learn all you need to know about Raymond's mom.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Neither Marco nor Shaw liked one another 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 kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I have ever known in my life." Eventually they do become good friends as, aside from Jocie, Marco is the only person that's ever seen a side of him besides 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.
  • Generation Xerox: Played darkly, since Eleanor's father had an incestuous sexual relationship with her when she was a child, and Eleanor herself eventually has sex with Raymond.
  • Gender-Neutral Writing: Descriptions of Raymond's operator, his own mother are very careful to avoid any gendered pronouns to disguise their identity.
  • Gilligan Cut: In the 1962 movie, Senator Iselin asks his wife if they can finally decide on exactly how many communists are in the Department of Defense, since he keeps changing the number every time he repeats the claim. As he says this, he pours some Heinz 57 sauce on his steak. Cut to the floor of the Senate the next day, where Iselin claims that there are exactly 57 card-carrying communists in the Department of Defense ...
  • The Grinch: While listening to a record of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in the 1962 movie, Raymond remarks "One day of Christmas is loathsome enough!"
  • 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 20 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. In Shaw's case this is also an example of Taking You with Me.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: 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.
  • 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 debatable, though.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Raymond's reason for keeping Ben in the dark at the end of the 1962 film version.
    You couldn't have stopped them; the army couldn't have stopped them. So I had to. That's why I didn't call. (Beat) Oh God, Ben!
  • IKEA Weaponry: The 1962 film is possibly the Trope Codifier, coming out just a year before From Russia with Love.
  • Informed Kindness: Subverted with Raymond Shaw. The novel repeatedly states "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life." Keep in mind that this is because his squad has been brainwashed into saying this anytime they're asked about him. In point of fact, he's something of a cold jerk and No Hero to His Valet. As Ben says in the 1962 film, "It's not that he's hard to like; he's impossible to like."
  • It Makes Sense in Context: 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?"
  • 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 scot-free.
  • Laughably Evil: Yen Lo is disarmingly quippy.
  • 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."
  • A Million Is a Statistic: A subtle example, on the newspaper that shows the headline of Thomas Jordan and his daughter's murder in the 1962 film version, there is a subheader of twenty people being killed in a hurricane. Twenty normal people dead is less important than one politician and his daughter.
  • 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: Shaw and Marco, pretty unwillingly. Mrs. Iselin, very willingly.
  • 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 Joseph McCarthy.
    • Shaw's mother was based on Roy Cohn, McCarthy's lawyer at the time (and later a mentor of sorts to one Donald Trump).
  • 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. 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."
    • 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. At one point, Mrs. Iselin also mocks Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat's 1956 Presidential candidate.
      • What makes the 1962 version a bit more confusing is that, while the Iselins are most likely Republicans (what with all the busts of Abraham Lincoln, Sen. Iselin being based on Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, and all the anti-Communist rhetoric), Senator Jordan, a political enemy of the Iselins who they once accused of being a Communist publicly, is in the SAME PARTY if his influence at the Convention is anything to go by. Does that make the Iselins conservative Democrats, even though they're northerners and it's the late fifties/early sixties? Or does it make Jordan a liberal New Deal Republican a'la Fiorello La Guardia or Thomas E. Dewey?
  • 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.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: When Raymond wakes up in the hospital after a hit-and-run accident (not really) he finds his mother at his bedside, clearly having been crying. He's startled by how disheveled she looks, and while he accuses her of putting on an act it's implied that this is her mask genuinely slipping as a result of realizing that's she's to be the operator for her own son as an assassin.
  • 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.
  • Present Company Excluded: In the 2004 film, Raymond says this to Marco.
    Raymond: Who would I ask? My old Army "buddies," who love and adore me for saving their pathetically unimportant — present company excluded — asses?
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Sgt. Raymond Prentiss Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing his platoon. Perhaps a case of It Was His Sled, but the action never happened, they were kidnapped and brainwashed, and Captain Marco was brainwashed into nominating him for the Medal.
  • Red China: The 1962 film.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Raymond's mother only instigates having sex with him after she sees him smile and is reminded of her own long-dead father, with whom she had a sexual relationship when she was a child.
  • The Remake: The 2004 film shares the basic plot of its predecessors, but many things are changed.
  • 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 dresses nicely in the movie.note 
  • Spanner in the Works: In the 1962 movie, unlike the book, Ben's attempts to break Raymond out of the Communists' hypnosis not only succeed; they also enable Raymond to resist his suggestions, and to realize that neither he, Ben, nor the army could put an end to the Communists' plot. So instead of calling Ben as Ben instructed, Raymond goes undercover and stops them on his own.
  • 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...)
  • Take Our Word for It: The speech that Senator Iselin was supposed to read after the assassination. We never hear it. It's described as:
    Mrs. Iselin: The speech is short. But it's the most rousing speech I've ever read. It's been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years. I shall force someone to take the body away from him and Johnny will really hit those microphones and those cameras with blood all over him, fighting off anyone who tries to help him, defending America even if it means his own death, rallying a nation of television viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.
  • 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 afternote ), there's really no reason to totally discount this theory. 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Senator Jordan, upon seeing his son-in-law pointing a gun at him, decides to ask him "What is that you're holding? Is that a silencer?" instead of, you know, running. It probably wouldn't have worked, but still.
  • 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.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Besides the fact that she was already using her sexuality to manipulate men as a preteen as a result of her father's abuse, Ellie mentions an incident when she nailed her cocker spaniel's feet to the floor after the dog wouldn't obey a "stay" command.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Featured prominently. The soldiers of Shaw's and Marco's platoon that were killed but didn't die in the initial ambush were slaughtered by their own brainwashed brothers to test that such a thing was possible once they were activated. And then there's also Shaw killing his mother (Marco killing Shaw and Mrs. Iselin in the remake).
  • Villainous Mother-Son Duo: Perhaps the most iconic and horrifying example of this. Manipulative Bitch extraordinaire, Senator Eleanor Iselin has her son brainwashed into becoming an assassin by Chinese Communists so that she can use him to kill all of her husband's rivals for the presidency. Her husband's of the henpecked variety so if he were President, she'd still presumably be the one wearing the trousers and therefore President in all but name, making Eleanor an example of Lady Macbeth as well. Fortunately her son, Raymond Shaw is ultimately able to break free of her mind-control. There's a definite Incest Subtext between them which is made very obvious in the films and outright confirmed in the book. Eleanor was sexually abused by her own father, making her an arguable Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It makes sense, since his role in the conspiracy is over with, but it still feels odd when the mastermind behind the programming, Dr. Yen Lo, completely disappears from the movie midway through.
  • 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. While it doesn't initially stop him, the act of killing Jocelyn visibly does a number on Raymond and contributes to his overcoming his conditioning later on.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Raymond is finally reunited with Jocie, his First Love from when he was a teenager, and elopes with her on a terrific honeymoon. He then shoots her while brainwashed after she walks in on him killing her father.
  • Yellow Peril: Dr. Yen Lo, the sinister brainwasher in the 1962 film. Dr. Lo was played by Khigh Dhiegh (born Kenneth Dickerson, pronounced to rhyme with "Friday"), a American actor of North African ancestry, who specialized in playing sinister Asian villains, most notably Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Raymond's mother Mrs. Iselin always calls anyone who disagrees with her political views, or even her overall views in general, a Communist. Which makes her role as Raymond's controller more ironic.

Now, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?

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