The film, which includes an unlikable character from the Soviet Union who is visiting New York to participate in the brainwashing of Harvey's character, 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 and was nominated for two Academy Awards. In 1962 it was seen by far fewer people, however, than other classic films released that year such as Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita and The Miracle Worker. The Manchurian Candidate 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 them to Manchuria in Communist China. Some days later, all but two of the soldiers return to the U.S. lines and Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is credited with saving their lives in combat by his fellow platoon members. Upon the recommendation of the platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Raymond is awarded the Medal of Honor. 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." Deep down, however, they know that Shaw is a cold, sad, unsympathetic loner.
Following his return to America, Marco, who has since been promoted to major, suffers from a recurring nightmare in which a hypnotized Shaw blithely and brutally murders the two missing soldiers before an assembly of military brass from the Communist nations, during a practical demonstration of a revolutionary brainwashing technique. Marco wants to investigate, but has no solid evidence to back his claims and thus receives no support from Army Intelligence. However, Marco learns that another soldier from the platoon, Allen Melvin (James Edwards), has had the same nightmare. When Melvin and Marco separately identify some of the men in the dream as leading figures in communist governments, Army Intelligence agrees to help Marco investigate.
Meanwhile, Shaw's mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), drives the political career of her husband and Shaw's stepfather, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), a McCarthy-like demagogue who is widely dismissed as a fool. Senator Iselin raises his political profile when he claims that varying numbers of communists work within the Department of Defense. However, unknown to Raymond, Mrs. Iselin herself is actually a Communist agent with a plan intended to secure the presidency under Communist influence.
Mrs. Iselin is the American operator responsible for controlling Raymond, who was "brainwashed" in Manchuria to be an unwitting assassin whose programming is triggered by a Queen of Diamonds playing card. When he sees it, he will blindly obey the next suggestion or order given to him and never have any memories of those actions. It is revealed that Shaw's heroism was a "false memory" implanted in the platoon during their brainwashing, and that the actions for which Shaw was awarded his Medal of Honor never took place. Shaw's conditioning is reinforced by Chunjin (Henry Silva), a North Korean agent who supervises him under the guise of his cook and houseboy. When Marco visits Shaw's apartment, he becomes suspicious of the Korean and they engage in a fight using karate techniques.
Raymond briefly finds happiness when he rekindles a youthful romance with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of 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 as part of her scheme to garner Jordan's support for her husband's bid for Vice President. Jocelyn, wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume, inadvertently triggers Raymond's programming at a costume party and elopes with him. Although pleased with the match, Jordan makes it clear that he will block Senator Iselin's nomination. Mrs. Iselin triggers Raymond and sends him to kill Jordan; he also shoots Jocelyn when she happens upon the scene. Afterwards, Raymond has no knowledge of his actions and is grief-stricken when he learns of the murders.
After discovering the card's role in Raymond's conditioning, Marco uses a forced deck to get the full story. He then verbally drills into Raymond the suggestion or affirmation that the Queen of Diamonds no longer has any power over him. Mrs. Iselin primes her son to assassinate their party's presidential nominee at the nomination convention so that Senator Iselin, as the vice-presidential candidate, will become the nominee by default and be elected with emergency powers that, in Mrs. Iselin's words, "will make martial law seem like anarchy." Mrs. Iselin tells Raymond that she did not know that he was to be selected by the Communists, but vows that once in power she will "grind them into the dirt" in revenge.
Marco's attempt to free Raymond from his brainwashing appears to have failed, and Raymond enters Madison Square Garden disguised as a priest and takes position to carry out the assassination. Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), arrive at the convention to stop him. As the nominee makes his speech, Raymond, instead of assassinating him, shoots his stepfather and then his mother with the sniper rifle she gave him. Marco, arriving too late to stop Raymond, witnesses him committing suicide while wearing his Medal of Honor.
Marco reads the Medal of Honor citations of Daniel R. Edwards and Nelson M. Holderman, before voicing a putative citation for Raymond's genuine act of heroism in stopping the Iselins.Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennett Marco
Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin
Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney
Henry Silva as Chunjin
James Gregory as Sen. John Yerkes Iselin
Leslie Parrish as Jocelyn Jordan
John McGiver as Sen. Thomas Jordan
Khigh Dheigh 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
For the role of Mrs. Iselin, Sinatra had considered Lucille Ball, but Frankenheimer, who had worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down, suggested her for the part and insisted that Sinatra watch the film before making any decisions. (Although Lansbury played Raymond Shaw's mother, she was in fact only three years older than actor Laurence Harvey.)
An early scene in which Raymond, recently decorated with the Medal of Honor, argues with his parents was filmed in Sinatra's own private plane.
Janet Leigh plays Marco's love interest. A bizarre conversation on a train between her character and Marco has been interpreted by some, notably film critic Roger Ebert, as implying that Leigh's character, Eugenie Rose Chaney, is working for the Communists to activate Marco's brainwashing, much as the Queen of Diamonds activates Shaw's. It is a jarring, fascinating and strange conversation between people who have only just met, which some people, including Ebert, suspect may be an exchange of passwords. Others saw it as pick-up banter between two intelligent and sexy people. During their conversation, Leigh's character provides Sinatra with her address in Manhattan, 53 West 54th Street, Apartment 3B, and her telephone number, Eldorado 5-9970 (in the book, her telephone number is Eldorado 9-2632). Frankenheimer himself maintained that he had no idea whether or not "Rosie" was supposed to be an agent of any sort; he merely lifted the train conversation straight from the Condon novel, in which there is no such implication. The rest of the film does not elaborate on Rosie's part, and later scenes suggest that she is simply a romantic foil for Marco, hence a MacGuffin.
In a short biographical commercial of her mother Janet Leigh filmed for Turner Classic Movies, Jamie Lee Curtis has stated that Leigh's then husband Tony Curtis served her with divorce papers the morning before the train scene was filmed.
During the fight scene between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva, Sinatra broke his hand during a movement where he smashed through a table. This resulted in problems with his hand/fingers for several years and is said to be one of the reasons why he pulled out of a starring role in Dirty Harry, having to undertake surgery to alleviate pains.
The interrogation sequence in which Raymond and Marco confront each other in the hotel room opposite the convention is from an out-take (which was also the first take). When first filmed, Sinatra was out-of-focus, and when they tried to re-shoot the scene he was simply not as effective as he had been in the first take, a common factor in Sinatra's film performances. Frustrated, Frankenheimer decided in the end to simply use the original out-of-focus take. Critics praised him for showing Marco from Raymond's distorted point of view.
In the novel Mrs. Iselin uses her son's brainwashing to have sex with him before the dramatic climax. Concerned that censors would not allow even a reference to such a taboo subject in a mainstream motion picture of the time, the filmmakers instead opted for Mrs. Iselin to simply kiss Raymond on the lips to imply her incestuous attraction to him.
For the scene in the convention hall prior to the assassination, Frankenheimer was at a loss as to how Marco would pinpoint Raymond Shaw's sniper's nest. Eventually, he decided on a method similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). Frankenheimer noted that what would be plagiarism in the 1960s would now be looked upon as an homage.
Frankenheimer also acknowledged the climax's connection with Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) by naming the Presidential candidate "Benjamin Arthur". Arthur Benjamin was the composer of the Storm Clouds Cantata used in both versions of Hitchcock's film.
Ben Stiller used the main story outline for the 2001 comedy film Zoolander.
According to rumor, Sinatra removed the film from distribution after the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue by MGM/UA, denies the rumor, which is disproved by microfilmed editions of The New York Times and other American newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Schlesinger, the film's disappearance, or what was claimed to be its disappearance, was not due to the assassination but was a result of the movie's initial distribution running its course by November 1963. In those days it could take a film several months to play across the United States. 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 seen already. 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.
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, verified by that day's editions of many newspapers.
After two successful showings at the New York Film Festival in 1987 renewed public interest in the film and introduced it to Generation X, the studio reacquired the rights and it became available for re-release to cinemas and for the home video market.
The Manchurian Candidate has a 98% rating at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 49 reviews, which summarizes it as "a classic blend of satire and political thriller that was uncomfortably prescient in its own time". Film critic Roger Ebert added The Manchurian Candidate to 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".
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.
The film was No. 67 on the "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" when that list was compiled in 1998, but in 2007 a new version of that list was made which excluded The Manchurian Candidate. It was also No. 17 on AFI's "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" lists. 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".
In April 2007 Angela Lansbury's character was selected by Newsweek as one of the ten greatest villains in cinema history.AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies—No. 67
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills—No. 17
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
Mrs. Eleanor Iselin—No. 21 Villain
On the DVD audio commentary, the director stated his belief that it contained the first-ever karate fight in an American motion picture.