The Existentialist Motifs and Film Noir Conventions of The Manchurian Candidate

            If Touch of Evil signaled the close of the film noir period in 1958, director John Frankenheimer was about three years too late with The Manchurian Candidate. Despite Frankenheimer’s lack of consideration for the formal closing of the film noir period, and regardless of its characterization of “political thriller”, The Manchurian Candidate is a valid representation of the existential motifs of film noir as outlined in Robert G. Porfirio’s article, “No Way Out”. The film includes an alienated hero, Raymond Shaw, a depiction of existential choice, an addition of “meaningless, purposeless and the absurd”, and an insertion of “chaos, violence, and paranoia” as well as “sanctuary, ritual and order”. In this essay, I will use these motifs (as suggested by Porfirio) to assert The Manchurian Candidate’s legitimacy as an existential noir. 

            Film theory was just beginning to formalize a definition of “film noir” by The Manchurian Candidate’s opening in October of 1962. Before theorists had a working definition of what constituted a “noir” film, they often categorized the films as being a “psychological melodrama (or thriller)” [1] . This is the most appropriate categorization for a film like The Manchurian Candidate because it has a “psychological dimension” (soldiers are brainwashed while serving their country in Korea) and “some aspect of crime” (Shaw kills seven people before he takes his own life). Since The Manchurian Candidate employs both of these characteristics, its relation to other film noir is apparent.

            The Manchurian Candidate also utilized narrative and stylistic techniques that were due to Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, which is said to have been the introduction to the “style of film noir” [2] . Like Kane, The Manchurian Candidate incorporates a “morally ambiguous hero, a convoluted time structure and the use of flashback – all of which became film noir conventions” [3] . In The Manchurian Candidate, the flashbacks help the audience piece together the hypnosis sessions and understand Raymond Shaw’s confusing nature. That confusing nature explains Shaw’s morally ambiguous attitude about assassinating people. In addition to the techniques mentioned by Porfirio, The Manchurian Candidate has several shots that incorporate deep focus, a technique perfected by Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on Kane.

            Along with the techniques appropriated from Kane, The Manchurian Candidate also dwells on the “underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapist fare many were originally intended to be” [4] . When Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) announces Raymond Shaw’s true accomplishments (killing seven people, being a pawn in a Cold War struggle, and taking his own life) and laments his death, the movie ends without resorting to the conventional “happy ending”. This plays well into the “noir” convention of the film being “black” in more that one sense of the word.

            In fact, these existenialist natures “gained a foothold” mainly through a rising “fear of Communism” [5] . The movie exploited a timely fear of Russian infiltration of the government, assassination of the country’s power players, and the general greed of certain individuals bent on ruining the great United States of America. The fact that The Manchurian Candidate was pulled from circulation for several years out of “sensitivity” to the Kennedy assassination and the attempt to solidify a peaceful relationship with the former Russia illustrates how the audience interpreted this film as projecting reality. Existentialist motifs were gaining popularity because of the general public’s fear.

            The Manchurian Candidate certainly embodies many of the characteristics of the formal definition of existentialism. Existentialism is “an outlook which begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept. It places its emphasis on man’s contingency in a world where there are no transcendental value or moral absolutes, a world devoid of any meaning but the one man himself creates” [6] . The plot for The Manchurian Candidate could be plugged into this definition. Raymond Shaw is the disorientated individual following his hypnosis by Chinese and Russia agents in Manchuria. Raymond’s world becomes confused as instructions are given to him under hypnosis to assassinate several people. Raymond’s lack of understanding of his actions does not allow him to accept the resulting effects of each killing. For example, Raymond is instructed to kill his wife, Jocie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), and her father (John McGiver) under instructions from his mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury). When he reads of the killing in paper the next day, he wishes to find the killer of his wife, not understanding that he is, in essence, looking for himself. Certainly Raymond’s world lacks moral absolutes because he is not contrite for his work as assassin. The world becomes devoid of meaning until Raymond reasserts control on his life (with help from Bennett) and assassinates his mother and stepfather before ending his own life. Camus would have been disappointed with Raymond’s suicide, but it was orchestrated much in the same fashion as Cornell from I Wake Up Screaming as the protagonist “yields to the temptation of suicide but remains a pathetic figure capable of engaging our sympathies” [7] .          

            The next section of this paper is devoted to comparing Porfirio’s guidelines for an existentialist hero in film noir and the characterization of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate.

            The first category that Porfirio suggests is that of the “non-heroic hero”. The non-heroic hero is “devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero. He had been wrenched from familiar moorings” [8] . Certainly, Raymond Shaw’s post-war condition finds him wrenched from his familiar moorings. He is the pet of Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who is a Pavlovian student who is keeping Raymond under hypnosis. Through his signal, the queen of diamonds, Dr. Lo is able to feed instructions to Raymond whenever he wishes. This places Raymond in many unfamiliar situations, including one where an accidental mention of solitaire by a bartender finds Raymond unconsciously following instructions to “drive to Central Park and park [himself] in the lake”. At the same time, this hypnotic control has left Raymond devoid of a “moral framework” as explained before. Porfirio’s assessment of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon can also be used for Shaw: “He is what Albert Camus calls ‘a man without a memory’, free of the burden of the past. He is capable of any action, without regard to conventional morality, and thus is apparently as amoral as his antagonists. […] The price he pays for his power is to be cut off behind his own self-imposed masks, in an isolation that no criminal, in a community of crime, has to face” [9] . Raymond’s memories have been erased so he is free from the burden of the past in which he strangled Ed Mavole and shot Bobby Lembeck while under hypnotic suggestion. His actions can certainly be compared to the immorality of his antagonists, but the main difference is that his antagonists are amoral out of their own free will. The price that Raymond pays is that he is cut off from the community; he shoots his fiancée Jocie while under hypnotic suggestion which cuts his ties to anyone except his antagonists. Porfirio emphasized the vulnerability and a sense of loss in a character; the viewer of The Manchurian Candidate only has to look at Laurence Harvey’s eyes to see that vulnerability expressed. As Roger Ebert points out, “so many different people have used so many different strategies on Harvey's overtaxed brain that he is almost literally a zombie, unable to know what to believe, incapable of telling who can be trusted” [10] . Raymond also moves “in and out of shadows so dark as at times to obscure him completely” [11] . The best example of this that The Manchurian Candidate provides is the flashback sequence in which a veiled Shaw recounts his mother’s meddling in his courtship of Jocie Jordan. As Shaw continues to drink and continues his story, the shadows envelop his body until his head is placed in the darkness and only a disembodied head rests in the light.

            Porfirio’s second motif deals with “alienation and loneliness”, in which “man stands alone, alienated from any social or intellectual order, and is therefore totally self-dependent” [12] . Before his first hypnotic episode, Shaw admits that “everyone in the unit” hated him. Even before his actions separate him from the social order, his attitude has already placed him among the ranks of “nobody’s friend” [13] . Even attempts by Al Melvin (James Edwards) and Bennett Marco to rectify Raymond’s situation are met by his coarse attitude, one that reflects that he does not “care what people thought of [him]. [He] despised them” [14] .

This alienation and loneliness continues as any emotional attachment to Jocie is cut off twice. The first time his mother composes a letter to Jocie on his behalf, and the second time he slays her to protect his identity as the killer of her father. Thus, Raymond again stands alone as an alienated man because of his actions against the social community and a lonely man as the killer of his emotional attachment, Jocie Jordan.

            Porfirio’s third category is that of “existential choice”, in which there is a “heavy emphasis on man’s freedom, the meaningless of existence [and] man as his own arbiter, [one who] literally creates good and evil” [15] . The movie’s narrative shifts after the hypnosis of the American soldiers so that Bennett Marco can uncover clues that will “free” Raymond Shaw from the “links” that are oppressing him. In the end, it is Raymond’s burning need to be free of his mother that turns the gun’s sight onto her and not the President-elect (as had been planned). Bennett helps Raymond break his “links” and “bust up” the hypnotic chains, but he also makes Raymond come to grips with his multiple assassinations. After Raymond’s stand to free himself from his mother’s hold, he realizes the meaningless of his own life and the turn it will certainly take if the police apprehend him. He kills himself after realizing that meaninglessness. Since the first hypnotic session, Raymond had created his own universe of good and evil. Now freed from that universe, he kills himself to finally be completely free.

            Porfirio’s fourth heading is “man under sentence of death”, which I do not believe The Manchurian Candidate utilizes. The use of hypnosis as justification has not allowed the usual existential motif of “every acts and attitude of man to be considered a choice” to be realized. Instead, Raymond’s act are not chosen, but part of a growing number of personal wishes from his “operators”. In addition, Raymond does not talk of his understanding of “imminent death”. Unlike an Al Roberts character, Raymond Shaw does not know death is facing him until he shoots himself in the last five minutes of the movie. It is important to include “man under a sentence of death” in discussion because it highlights that The Manchurian Candidate was able to associate most, but not all, of the existential motifs in its picture.

            The fifth motif is that of “meaninglessness, purposelessness, and the absurd”. Existentialism emphasizes “individual consciousness and its key denial of any sort of cosmic design or moral purpose. For Camus it involved a recognition of the ‘benign indifference’ of the world and ultimately a reclamation of a measure of dignity through the sheer persistence of living on despite life’s absurdity” [16] . Certainly Raymond is trying to reclaim his dignity when he guns down his mother who has been responsible for suppressing his nature even before she learned how to operate him hypnotically with the queen of diamonds. The Manchurian Candidate also stresses the “blind chance” of picking Raymond Shaw out of all the soldiers. Dr. Lo’s intention was not to single out the son of his “American operator” (i.e. Ms. Iselin); it just happened that way (as it tends to do in many film noirs).

            Porfirio’s sixth idea is that of “chaos, violence and paranoia”. The Manchurian Candidate follows the guide of Welles in employing deep focus, which “permitted the cinema more nearly to approximate the ‘real’ world by allowing the spectator to pick and choose from a wealth of stimuli. Deep focus helped to create a cinematic world which in its own way embodies those very qualities – decadence, corpulence, viscosity – that Sartre found so disgusting in the physical world” [17] . One example of deep focus is found when Mrs. Iselin instructs Raymond to shoot the President. In the foreground and to the right is Raymond, in the middle ground and to the left is Ms. Iselin, and in the background center is the discarded queen of diamonds costume that Jocie had worn to the ball. The scene introduces Ms. Iselin’s incestuous desire for Raymond and also reminds the viewer of Jocie’s recent slaying. It all depends on which stimuli the audience chooses to look at.

            The last motif of the Porfirio existentialist hero is that of “sanctuary, ritual and order”. The hero attempts “to create some order out of chaos, to make some sense of his world. [This is done] with an equal sense of urgency by the amnesiac or the innocent victim. The attempt is seldom totally successful. Such ceremonies as smoking or drinking take on sacramental overtones” [18] . Raymond Shaw is without a physical location in which he can shield himself from the chaos that has enveloped him. However, the movie does point out this characteristic in Bennett. While the soldiers were under hypnosis, there were given “yak dung” and told it was a cigarette. His inability to light a cigarette for himself is a conditioned response to that taste of “yak dung”. Thus, it is Rosie (Janet Leigh) who courts him by simply lighting a cigarette for him and handing it to him. She attempts to restore order to the chaos that infects Bennett’s dreams of the Korean War. In a way, Bennett becomes an existentialist hero himself, although he is not the main protagonist.

            The Manchurian Candidate incorporates most of the conventions of film noir. Besides its existentialist hero, it incorporates a femme fatale into its narrative structure. The femme fatale turns out to be Ms. Iselin (Angela Lansbury), whose work as a Russian double agent and “American operator” of Raymond the assassin causes Raymond’s downfall. The movie also employs a non-linear style to its narrative, as clues about the hypnosis sessions are uncovered through the dreams of Bennett Marco and Al Melvin and the flashback sequences of Raymond Shaw. The last narrative technique that The Manchurian Candidate employs that is similar to noir is that of “free will versus fate”. Raymond’s free will is taken away after hypnotic therapy suggests he kill Ed, Bobby, Bobo, and the Jordans. However, with the help of Bennett Marco, he is able to reclaim his free will and shoot his mother and step-father as an act of defiance of their will (they wished for him to shoot the president).

In addition to its narrative similarities to noir, The Manchurian Candidate also employs several stylistic techniques. It uses deep focus for several important scenes, stressing the “excessiveness” of the moment [19] . In addition to deep focus, there are several choker shots and scenes of confined framing. Director John Frankenheimer was very fascinated with the placement of characters in relation to each other. Often he would employ deep focus and a confined framing to accentuate an individual or something the viewer should be taking notice of. For instance, before the American soldiers are hijacked, their traitorous guide appears screen left and in the foreground. The soldiers move from the background to the middle ground and “choke” his frame by occupying the middle and left thirds of the screen. This shot foreshadows his later encounter with Bennett in which the same close-up is used before Bennett fights with the guide-turned-Shaw’s houseboy.

Certainly The Manchurian Candidate has to be considered a film noir based on its narrative and stylistic techniques. In addition, a closer examination of the Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) character using Robert Porfirio’s article “No Way Out” demonstrates that Raymond is an existentialist hero, whose place in the noir existentialist hero world is somewhere between Sam Spade and Al Roberts. The Manchurian Candidate may have come three years after the formal closing of the “film noir period”, but that should not prevent its inclusion into the canon of films regularly referred to as “the black film”.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. "The Manchurian Candidate." Chicago Sun-Times (03/11/88): 1.

Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir”. Film Noir

Reader, 1976. p. 78



[1] Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir”. Film Noir Reader, 1976. p. 78

[2] Ibid, 78.

[3] Ibid, 80.

[4] Ibid, 80.

[5] Ibid, 80.

[6] Ibid, 81.

[7] Ibid, 81.

[8] Ibid, 83.

[9] Ibid, 84.

[10] Ebert, Roger. "The Manchurian Candidate." Chicago Sun-Times (03/11/88): 1.

[11] Porfirio, Robert. “No Way Out”, 85.

[12] Ibid, 85.

[13] Ibid, 86.

[14] Ibid, 86.

[15] Ibid, 87.

[16] Ibid, 89.

[17] Ibid, 90.

[18] Ibid, 92.

[19] Ibid, 90.

© Jude Seymour 04.25.01