“Do you realize, comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?”
Upon his return from the Korean War, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is awarded a medal of honor and referred to by his men — including Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) — as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being” they’ve ever known. But Marco is plagued by disturbing dreams about Shaw, and soon learns that Shaw is part of an elaborate Communist brainwashing conspiracy involving his scheming mother (Angela Lansbury) and her politician-husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Angela Lansbury Films
- Cold War
- Frank Sinatra Films
- Janet Leigh Films
- John Frankenheimer Films
- Laurence Harvey Films
- Mind Control and Hypnosis
- Political Conspiracy
John Frankenheimer’s suspenseful political thriller — based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, and remade by Jonathan Demme in 2004 — was considered a flop at the time of its release, and remained mysteriously out of circulation for 20 years, but has since become a cult classic. Lansbury’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Mrs. Iselin — one of cinema’s most memorable sociopath mothers — is truly chilling, as is the lengthy, creatively filmed Manchurian “garden party”/brainwashing sequence, which effectively puts the audience on edge from the get-go. George Axelrod’s screenplay (hewing fairly closely to the novel) is at times perplexing, but likely intentionally so: I believe we’re not meant to fully understand what’s happening at times (is what we’re seeing flashback or dream?), and instead simply remain caught up in the suspense of the narrative as it unfolds.
With that said, the screenplay isn’t without flaws. My least favorite characters are Lansbury’s political rival (John McGiver) and his gorgeous daughter (Leslie Parrish), who Harvey is immediately smitten with; I can’t quite get a read on how they’re meant to be viewed, though they clearly serve an integral function in the storyline. Meanwhile, Janet Leigh as Sinatra’s love interest is oddly opaque: she approaches the distressed Sinatra with motherly compassion, speaking in what can only be interpreted as some sort of mysterious code — “I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this train.” — then becomes simply a mother-figure Sinatra can lean on for unconditional support during a time of crisis. However, it’s likely she serves a more important function than appearances would indicate (see DVD Savant’s review for an outline of various theories about her character).
The film is quite dark — at times satirically so (as in the depiction of Gregory as a spineless political puppet), and at times much more violently (i.e., the disturbing finale to the brainwashing flashbacks, as well as the cold-blooded assassination scenes). This shifting between tones — along with the continuous edits back and forth in time and between perspectives — add to the overall sense of paranoia and unease. Also instrumental to the film’s success are atmospheric cinematography and strategic direction, including good use of extreme close-ups and deep focus to exaggerate the surrealism of the nightmarish situation. Sinatra’s real-life friendship with the Kennedy family simply adds to its historical intrigue.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Many genuinely creepy, nightmarish moments
- The “garden party” scene
- Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin
- Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco
- Lionel Lindon’s cinematography
Yes, as a well-made cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book. Selected in 1994 for preservation in the National Film Registry.