The most celebrated of the conspiracy thrillers and rightly so. But I’m not going to start with the Korean brainwashing, extraordinary cinematic sequence that that is, but with the scene on the train, the pickup scene as it might be known in those days, meet-cute now. There is little cute about this picture which stretches the bounds of normality. And I guess I was already so unsettled, and perhaps settling into film noir mode when an easily available woman was always to be distrusted, and thought that the sudden appearance of Eugenie (Janet Leigh) was a plant.
But that wasn’t in itself what lodged that scene in the caboose so firmly in my mind. But the superlative acting of Frank Sinatra as the investigative Major Marco. Sure, we’ve seen good, sometimes great acting before from Sinatra, generally under-rated due to the myth that nobody could seriously give a good performance after just one take, as if stage actors do not do this every night of the week. But this is above and beyond.
What makes this so outstanding is the depth. Whatever he is saying, that’s not what he’s thinking. He is so dislocated his mind is elsewhere.
Now you give an actor punchy dialog and that’s the way he’s going to treat it, like a punchball, zing zing zing, but that’s not the case here. You can see from his expression that while he is responding well enough to this apparently sympathetic dame that his mind is not completely gone, but that he is barely holding himself together. Another actor would have shown greater signs of mental collapse, signs of a tear perhaps or using an artefact for support, a glass to crush in his hands. But not here. It’s all in the face.
He’s helped of course that the dialog is all about identity. Who is Eugenie? Not as in, who is she really, which would be a good question to ask at this point in the proceedings, but how does someone cope with a name like Eugenie and so the dialog rambles around the various shortenings of her name, while at the same time, recognising he desperately needs a port in a storm, she ensures she knows her address.
The way this movie is going that could be code, too, or a trigger, or that when he turns up at her apartment he’s going to encounter some obstacle, but it doesn’t turn out that way either, even though this is a movie where no one is what he or she seems. Insanely ambitious politician’s wife Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) double crosses her country, the Koreans double cross her by turning her son (rather than any old grunt) into an assassin, and in the end the son, the rather effete Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), turns on the mother in the most murderous way imaginable. Much as she loves her son, she is willing to sacrifice him for the chance of becoming the President’s wife and when she does will exert her revenge on the Koreans.
I’ve gone on before about the beauty of the single-take movie (Grenfell, 2023) but here I’m in raptures at the single scene, how a movie pivots on superb acting. I could have used the brainwashing as an example, but that’s not about acting, but about directing, about perception, about how the audience as much as the participants is being led around by the nose by director John Frankenheimer, who would return to questions of identity and voluntary brainwashing in Seconds (1966).
But back to the brainwashing. This hits the mother lode. A troop of captured U.S. soldiers face an audience with a ringmaster demonstrating just how much they are under his command and can be hypnotised into carrying out any order, even cold-blooded murder. But each of the soldiers sees a different audience. That’s the cinematic coup. I would have loved to have been part of the original audience back in the day, brought up on war movies or thrillers that followed a straightforward narrative arc. Even critics singing the praises of the French New Wave would have never seen anything like this.
Anyway, it soon occurs to Major Marco that his ongoing nightmares are part of a deeper problem especially as his memory of Shaw does not tally with what he finds himself saying about his troop leader.
We follow two parallel stories, Marco trying to get to the truth before he fries his brain, and the audience being let in on much of the truth by tracking Shaw, who, to spite his hated mother, has taken a job with, effectively, the opposition and has fallen in love again with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of one of her husband’s most implacable foes.
You couldn’t get a more twisty movie, set against the backdrop of the Communist witch hunt, when a politician could garner headlines just by pretending to name Communists in high office. The political element is just as cynical as the same year’s Advise and Consent and savage as the ineffectual Senator Iselin (James Gregory) is, he’s not much worse than the clowns in the Preminger picture. So it all rings true.
There’s scarcely a moment wasted as the movie screams towards a terrifying climax. The built-in control trigger I didn’t see coming, and Shaw’s transformation from strict man-in-charge to bumbling romantic fool is a joy.
Frank Sinatra (The Detective, 1968) gives the performance of his life, Laurence Harvey (Life at the Top, 1965) proof of the power of love, Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), the mother from Hell, are all outstanding. The support cast includes Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960), Henry Silva (The Secret Invasion, 1964) and John McGiver (Breakfast at Tiffanys, 1961).
Frankenheimer directs with elan from the script by George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffanys) based on the Richard Condon (The Happy Thieves, 1961) bestseller.
An absolute must.