By Carter B. Horsley
This thriller about a brainwashed assassin
is a spectacular movie that is full of surprises, suspense and
great sophistication. Based on Richard Condon's book of the same
title, it is a devastating attack on the politics of the Cold
War and the McCarthy era.
The movie has fantastic acting performances
especially by Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra.
For conspiracy theorists, it is worth noting
that the year after this chilling film was released President
Kennedy was assassinated and this film was subsequently withdrawn
from circulation for about 25 years.
In the Korean War, an American platoon is ambushed
and captured and eventually released. The movie starts with the
ambush and then shows the return of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw,
played by Harvey, as a war hero who has been awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor. He is greeted by his mother, played by Lansbury,
and her husband and his stepfather, Senator John Iselin, played
by James Gregory.
Harvey clearly detests his stepfather and contemptuous
of his mother and her right-wing beliefs. He plans to become a
Another member of the captured platoon, Bennett
Marco, played by Sinatra, has nightmares in which the platoon
attends a meeting of a women's garden club. So disturbing are
his nightmares that he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown
and is reassigned to public relations duty. He senses that something
is wrong when he knows that Sgt. Shaw is not very likable despite
the fact that he testified that he was the kindest and most wonderful
person when his award was being considered. As a public relations
specialist, Marco is present at a Congressional hearing at which
Senator Iselin charges that there are Communists in the government.
At one point, the Senator tells his wife he has trouble remembering
how many Communists to mention in his speeches and the camera
shows her looking at a ketchup bottle on the table and the next
scene the Senator says there are exactly "57" Communists,
clearly based on the varieties promoted by the ketchup manufacturer.
The Senator, we soon learn, is about to get the Republican nomination
for vice president in the forthcoming Presidential election.
When another member of the platoon, played
by James Edwards, reports similar nightmares to Army intelligence,
Marco is assigned to check up on Shaw. It is interesting that
in his nightmares, Edwards, who is black, sees similar women at
the garden club but they are black.
Marco reconstructs his nightmare as he begins
to remember more details that include seeing Shaw kill cold-bloodedly
two members of his platoons on the orders of the some Soviet or
Manchurian leader and that the members of the "garden club"
included members of the Central Committee and military personnel.
Meanwhile, Khigh Diegh, who was one of the
lead interrogators during the brainwashing of the platoon, is
sent to the United States to turn over control of Shaw to the
head of the Communist operations for the East Coast, who insists
that Shaw, who has been brainwashed to be an assassin who will
have no memory of his triggered actions, be put to the test. Diegh,
who was a prominent radio personality on the subject of parapsychology
in real life, agrees and Shaw calmly kills his editor at the journal
where he has been working.
Shaw hires a Korean member of his former platoon
as a cook and servant and when Marco visits Shaw he runs into
him and remembers his role in entrapping the platoon and they
have a formidable karate fight. Subsequently, Marco revisits Shaw
who is quite contemptuous of him and a snob, but he explains that
he was once was "lovable" when he fell in love with
the daughter, played with pleasant charm by Leslie Parrish, of
Senator Thomas Jordan, played nicely by John McGiver, after she
rescues him after he is bitten by a snake. Senator Jordan, a liberal,
is an arch enemy of the Iselins and successfully had sued Shaw's
mother for libel. When Shaw decides to marry Senator Jordan's
daughter, his mother agrees to give a costume ball and invite
them. At the ball, she confronts Senator Jordan and asks whether
he will support her husband's nomination for vice president at
the forthcoming national political convention. Senator Jordan
not only declines but promises to wage a fight against his nomination.
The brainwashing scheme for Shaw involved his
playing a card game of solitaire until he turned up the Queen
of Diamonds at which point he was "triggered" to respond
to commands. At one point, Shaw goes to the bar at Jilly's, a
New York restaurant that was popular with Sinatra in real life,
and the bartender is telling a story to some other bar patrons
about someone who should play solitaire rather than poker. Shaw
orders a deck of cards. The bartender continues his story and
mentions that one person told another to go jump in a lake. As
Marco walks in to meet Shaw, Shaw bolts out the door and dashes
off to the boathouse pond in Central Park and goes directly out
onto the pier and without hesitating walks into the water. In
the audio commentary on the DVD version of the film, Frankenheimer
notes that it was a frigid winter day and there was ice on the
pond, adding that he thought Harvey's work was fabulous and that
no one could portray a snob as well as he.
It works out that Shaw's American "controller"
is his mother and she tells him to play solitaire and then orders
him to kill Senator Jordan. Shaw goes to the Senator's home and
confronts him in the kitchen as he is about to pour himself a
glass of milk. He shoots him in the heart through the carton of
milk. In an audio commentary by Director Frankenheimer on the
DVD version of the film, Frankenheimer comments that he wanted
to avoid too much gore, explaining the shot through the carton
of milk. Shaw has been trained to kill anyone who witnesses his
assassinations and when the Senator's daughter comes into the
room he turns and without hesitation kills her with a single shot.
Marco eventually figures out that the Queen
of Diamonds in the game of solitaire is Shaw's trigger and arranges
for a deck of 52 Queens of Diamonds and confronts Shaw with it
to deprogram him. Shaw is shaken but not convinced and Sinatra
tells him to contact him the moment he receives his orders. It
is the day of the acceptance speeches at the political convention
at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Marco, who has not figured out who is supposed
to be Shaw's target, waits for Shaw's call but it does not come
and he dashes off the Garden where speeches are already underway.
Shaw's mother has summoned him and orders him
to shoot the Presidential nominee at a precise moment in his speech.
She also tells him that she is outraged that he had been picked
as her assassin, revealing the plan that her husband will become
the ploy of the Soviet bloc and that her ultraconservative stance
was merely a sham.
At the Garden, Marco suddenly realizes where
Shaw might be hiding and desperately tries to reach him in a light
booth high in the arena's rafters.
The ending is thrilling….
There are a few problems with the film's plot.
Firstly, if the Soviets were such brilliant brainwashers, why
would two members of the platoon remember enough to cause Shaw
to be put under Marco's surveillance. Secondly, why would Marco
let Shaw remain on the loose after supposedly deprogramming him.
Thirdly, would Marco really have enough time to locate Shaw in
Despite such nitpicking, the film itself never
falters and is unflinchingly fascinating, bizarre, and suspenseful.
Senator Iselin's buffonery appears now a little
exaggerated, but in fact it was not too great a stretch for those
old enough to remember the days of Red-baiting and the hysteria
of the McCarthy Era. While some critics, such as Pauline Kael,
have described the movie as a political satire, it was not satire
but a really scary thriller whose similarities to President Kennedy's
assassination a year after its release led conceivably to its
being withdraw from distribution for many years apparently at
the insistence of Frank Sinatra, who, according to Frankenheimer
was instrumental in its being made.
The film is generally believed to have been
the first to depict the McCarthy Era in a critical light as well
as the first to use karate in a significant way.
The most incongruous part of the film was not
the surreal brainwashing, or cariactures of McCarthy, or the wickedness
of Shaw's mother, but the role of Rosie, played by Janet Leigh,
who seduces Marco on a train from Washington to New York. The
dialogue between them is quite surreal and preposterous but acted
with conviction. She bails Marco out of jail after his fight with
the Shaw's Korean servant, played convincingly by the always menacing
and memorable Henry Silva.
Presumably Janet Leigh is in the movie to provide
"love interest" and Frankenheimer states in his commentary
that he considered her one of the most beautiful women in the
In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert
provides an intriguing interpretation. He suggests that Marco
himself might be another brainwashed agent/assassin and that Rosie
is his controller. That theory goes a long way to explaining the
quite strange "pick-up" relationship, but nonetheless
seems a bit too-farfetched for an already far-fetched story.
This riveting film deserved many Oscars, especially
for Angela Lansbury, whose sinister performance is extraordinary.
David Amram composed the score for the film.
Richard Condon is a quite extraordinary writer
and his other credits include "Winter Kills," which
was also about a Presidential assassination. Frankenheimer made
an even scarier movie than this, "Seconds," and many
years later would still be making such fine films as "Ronin"
(see The City Review article). In his
commentary, Frankenheimer emphasizes his use of deep-focus, wide-angle
lens and lauds the screenplay by George Axelrod, who also co-produced
the movie with him.
The DVD edition of this movie also includes
interviews with the director, writer Axelrod and Sinatra. In his
commentary, Frankenheimer notes that all the major studios had
turned the film down and it was only because of Sinatra's enthusiasm
for it that it was made.
Thrillers that carry strong political messages
such as "Fail-Safe," (see The
City Review article), "The Battle of Algiers" (see
The City Review article), "Seven
Days in May," "Executive Decision," "The Parallax
View," "Z" are relatively rare and this is the
"mother" of them all, which is remarkable for its pre-conspiracy-theory
In 2004, a remake of this film by director
Jonathan Demme starred Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra
Role and Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role. It took several
liberties with the original film and while Washington and Streep
were, as usual, excellent, the film lacked the tension of the original.