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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • A former prisoner of war is brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy.

  • Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He served valiantly as a captain in the Korean war and his Sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), even won the Medal of Honor. Marco has a major problem however: he has a recurring nightmare, one where two members of his squad are killed by Shaw. He's put on indefinite sick leave and visits Shaw in New York. Shaw for his part has established himself well, despite the misgivings of his domineering mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury). She is a red-baiter, accusing anyone who disagrees with her right-wing reactionary views of being a Communist. Raymond hates her, not only for how she's treated him but equally because of his step-father, the ineffectual U.S. Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), who is intent on seeking higher office. When Marco learns that others in his Korean War unit have had nightmares similar to his own, he realizes that something happened to all of them in Korea and that Raymond Shaw is the focal point.

  • Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw is only one of seventy-seven US military men who arrive back from the Korean War awarded the Medal of Honor. Raymond's controlling and ambitious mother, Eleanor Iselin, wants to capitalize on Raymond's name in the reelection bid of her husband/Raymond's stepfather, Republican Senator Johnny Iselin, which does not sit well with Raymond who despises both of them. Despite Johnny being largely seen as being a buffoon, he has garnered a modicum of political success largely due to his anti-Communist rhetoric. The Medal of Honor was the result of Raymond saving nine members of his army battalion, including his commanding officer Major Bennett Marco, in what was a multi-day battle behind enemy lines. After the war, Raymond leaves the army to start a job in New York as the confidential assistant to well-respected political journalist Holborn Gaines, who has never written a nice thing about the Iselins. Ben Marco (now reassigned to a post in Washington D.C.), who himself nominated Raymond for the award, suffers from a recurring nightmare, where he, the nine other men plus two who never made it out of the battle are attending what is on the surface an innocuous New Jersey women's gardening club meeting, but which he can feel has sinister undertones related to Raymond. What makes the nightmare more disturbing is that in reality he is compelled to say only the nicest things about Raymond whenever asked, which he knows he doesn't truly believe. If asked in return, Raymond would corroborate that he did not get along with any of the men, including Ben, who all disliked him. Raymond would in fact admit that he is an unlovable person, he only having loved and been loved once in his life, to Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of Democratic Senator Thomas Jordan. It was a relationship that Eleanor Iselin forced her son to break off, as she could not tolerate Raymond being with the daughter of a man whom she considered a Communist. What Ben is unaware of is that at least one of the other eight survivors, who he has not kept in contact with after returning to the States, has a similar version of the same nightmare. Ben eventually decides that the one person who can best help him figure out the source of the nightmare is Raymond himself. After witnessing some unusual behavior in Raymond, Ben Marco knows that something is not right and discovers an unprecedented conspiracy against the United States.

  • After Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns from the Korean War as a decorated hero, the surviving members of his platoon can't really remember the actions he is credited with having done in order to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Two of the soldiers start having recurring nightmares, and one of them decides to investigate Raymonds current activities. What dark and sinister secrets are being withheld by or from the Government and the Army?

  • Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is an insufferable man, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for saving the lives of the men in his unit while in Korea. When he returns he distances himself from his domineering mother. His C.O. Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) has been having nightmares that lead him to believe that the circumstances that led to Raymond getting the medal are not true. While his superiors don't think he knows what he is talking about, they decide to is send him on leave. And when he goes to visit Raymond, he is greeted by Raymond's new valet who opens the door and whom he instinctively attacks. The valet had served with them but Marco instinctively believes that he actually was a fifth columnist plant who betrayed the platoon in Korea. A brutal fight between the two men breaks out, which Marco ultimately wins. Marco is arrested but the brass help get him released as the valet obviously has no intention of pressing charges. Marco goes to see Raymond, who tells him that another man from their unit, Allen Melvin, wrote to him describing the same nightmare Marco has been having. Marco has the man checked out and both of their recollections are so similar that Marco's superiors agree something is wrong and give Marco the resources to investigate on his own.

  • In Korea in 1952, a US Army patrol is ambushed by Communist soldiers. A year later the squad, having escaped, returns to the US, where Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is to receive the Medal of Honor for single-handedly saving the lives of the squad. Shaw is the son of Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), wife of US Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory). Mrs. Iselin turns Raymond's return into a triumphant political rally that brings out building hostility between son and mother over her own ambitions and those of her husband, Raymond's despised and detested stepfather, Senator Iselin. But there is more involved, for Shaw is not what everyone says he is. The nightmares of a US Army officer, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Shaw's wartime superior, lead to an investigation that unlocks a stunning political conspiracy that sweeps up everyone, and which only Marco can stop.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • During the Korean War, the Soviets capture an American platoon and take them to Manchuria in Communist China. After the war, the soldiers return to the United States, and Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is credited with saving their lives in combat. Upon the recommendation of the platoon's commander, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Shaw is awarded the Medal of Honor for his supposed actions. In addition, 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 something is wrong. As Marco puts it: "It isn't as if Raymond is hard to like. He's impossible to like!"

    Marco who has since been promoted to Major suffers from a recurring nightmare in which a hypnotized Shaw strangles one of his fellow soldiers, and shoots another, killing both before the assembled military brass of communist nations, during a practical demonstration of a brainwashing technique. (Raymond and his platoon have been hypnotized into believing that the Korean military brass are a bunch of harmless old American ladies from a garden club.)

    Marco wants to investigate, but receives no support from Army Intelligence as he has no proof. 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 decides that this is too much of a coincidence and agrees to help Marco investigate.

    Shaw's mother, Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), is the driving force behind her husband, Shaw's step-father, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), a bombastic demagogue in the style of Joseph McCarthy, who is dismissed by most people as a fool. Shaw hates them both, especially his domineering mother. Senator Iselin's political stature is established when (per his wife's orders) he interrupts a televised press conference given by the Secretary of Defense, accusing him of knowing that some 207 Defense Department employees are "card carrying" Communists. This provokes the expected chaos and shock among journalists and an enraged reaction from the Secretary.

    Unknown to everyone including Raymond, the Iselins (or possibly only Mrs. Iselin) are actually Stalinist agents with a plan intended to take them all the way to the White House. His mother is actually the American "operative" for whom Raymond is to effect the operation's final step. Raymond was conditioned in Manchuria to be an unwitting assassin whose actions are triggered by a Queen of Diamonds playing card. When he sees it, he will obey the next suggestion or order given to him by anyone. When given instructions to kill selected targets, he must also kill any witnesses and never remember his actions, making him the perfect assassin as he can never feel fear or guilt. It is revealed that Shaw's heroism was a false memory implanted in the platoon by the Communists in Manchuria, and that they were covertly returned to the American lines only after their conditioning was completed. The actions for which Shaw was awarded his Medal of Honor never took place.

    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. Raymond had previously courted Jocelyn in order to get at his parents in a Romeo and Juliet-style romance, but they then genuinely fell in love, both she and her father being the nearest thing Raymond has ever had to having friends. Mrs. Iselin broke up the relationship for obvious political reasons, but now facilitates the couple's reunion as part of her scheme to garner the support of Senator Jordan for her husband's own sudden vice presidential bid.

    Jocelyn, wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume outfit, inadvertently hypnotizes Raymond at a costume party thrown by the Iselins at their Long Island home and the couple elopes. Although tolerant of the match, Senator Jordan makes it clear to Mrs. Iselin that he will move for her husband's impeachment if he makes any attempt to seek the vice-presidential nomination. Raymond's conditioning is then triggered by his mother and he is sent to assassinate Jordan. Jocelyn happens upon the scene and is also shot dead as a witness to the event. Raymond has no knowledge of his actions and is genuinely grief-stricken when he learns of the murders.

    In the course of Marco's investigation, he discovers the role of the Queen of Diamonds card in putting Raymond into the hypnotic state for his assignments. Marco meets Raymond and, using a deck composed entirely of Queen of Diamonds, gets the full story and orders Raymond to break the linkages between himself and the card forever and to disobey any further subsequent orders from his controllers. Unaware of this, Mrs. Iselin primes her son to assassinate their party's presidential candidate at the nomination convention so that Senator Iselin, as the vice-presidential candidate, will become the presidential candidate by default and give an inflammatory anti-Communist speech (actually written by the Communists themselves). This will cause mass hysteria that will get Iselin, the real "Manchurian candidate", elected and justify such emergency powers that, in Mrs. Iselin's words, "will make martial law seem like anarchy". She condescendingly tells her son that, although he may never fully understand, she did not know it would be her son whom the Communists selected as the assassin, apparently because they believed it would solidify their own hold over her. Furious, she vows that once in power she will "grind them into the dirt". She proceeds to give the ostensibly "hypnotized" Raymond a decidedly non-maternal kiss.

    Marco's attempt to free Raymond appears to have failed. Raymond enters the convention hall disguised as a Catholic priest and takes up a position to carry out the assassination as he was instructed, using a rifle with a scope. Marco and his supervisor, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), arrive at the convention to stop him. As the Presidential nominee (Robert Riordan) makes his speech, Raymond instead shoots his stepfather and mother dead. He then commits suicide in front of Marco while wearing his undeserved Medal of Honor.

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