There was a lot going on here, and ultimately I was fascinated by this film.
During the Korean War, Major Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) is in a platoon captured during a skirmish with Chinese forces; but three days later, he and his comrades return to their home base, with Marco stating that they were saved by squad leader Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), save for two men. Shaw deserves the Medal of Honor, Marco insists – for he is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The others in the squad say the same – and, oddly, they use those exact words. But Shaw is thus honored and the men all discharged from combat.
Marco is assigned to a position with Army Intelligence. But he seems to have been affected by his capture – for instance, he keeps having weird dreams about his platoon all sitting in on the stage in some kind of amphitheater, being discussed by a group of observers; at some point, he dreams Shaw is ordered to kill their two missing platoon members as everyone coldly watches. The spectators at this event are an odd bunch as well – sometimes he dreams they’re a ladies’ gardening club, but other times he dreams they’re a bunch of Russian and Chinese diplomats. Marco chalks it all up to shell shock – until he gets a letter from another fellow platoon member, claiming he’s having the very same dream. The coincidence is enough to prompt Army Intelligence to interview them both, showing both men photos of known Chinese and Russian spies. When both men recognize a couple as figures from their dream, the Army realizes they’re both actually flashing back to a brainwashing scheme – one which has set up Shaw as an assassin.
Marco agrees to cooperate with the continuing investigation. He first visits Shaw, who has since left the Army and become a reporter – against the wishes of his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather John Iselin (James Gregory). Iselin is best known for McCarthy-like anti-Communist stunts, but Eleanor is the real power figure in the couple, and the more liberal-minded Shaw wants nothing to do with either. But Eleanor seems to know an awful lot about exactly how Shaw was programmed and how to trigger his conditioning, and Marco races to discover how to deprogram his comrade and what Eleanor’s ultimate plan is, before it’s set in motion.
One of the things that struck me about this film is just how weird it got in places. Marco’s dream sequence starts out looking like that garden club, with Marco and Shaw and their comrades sitting impassively on a stage surrounded by women speaking intently about breeding hydrangeas. But after a couple minutes, suddenly we see the women have turned into a group of men, discussing mental conditioning. And then when Shaw is ordered to kill his first comrade – we cut back to the women’s club applauding politely. But then it’s the women talking about mental conditioning. And then the men about hydrangeas. And the whole time Marco and his comrades are sitting there looking bored, even when Shaw is choking one of them to death. It’s a lot to take in – but not so much that it would turn off anyone, and is instead exactly enough to provoke curiosity about just what the hey is going on.
Other similarly weird moments crop up throughout – particularly when Shaw has been “triggered”, including one moment when he’s set off accidentally and heads to Central Park for a swim.
Eleanor’s ultimate motivation is an intriguing mystery as well. For most of the film she comes across as a sort of 60s version of Lady MacBeth, pushing both Shaw and Iselin into attaining the political notoriety she wants but can’t have as a woman. And yet there’s a moment that lead me to suspect her motives were even more complicated still – it’s best I not divulge – but even though the matter isn’t quite cleared up by the film’s end, I was still intrigued they even just raised the question.
The biggest surprise for me, though, was Frank Sinatra himself. His work in The Man With The Golden Arm already caught my eye – but his performance here completely overcame my last lingering pre-judgement of the man. In my defense – I’d grown up at a time when Sinatra, like Bob Hope or Dean Martin, was kind of seen as a has-been – a dude who’d been popular when my parents were kids but now was out in Las Vegas doing retreads of his older work for other older folks reminiscing about their glory days. But the thing with “has-beens” is that they once were something, and finally seeing what he had been was illuminating.
My one complaint with the film was that the two romantic subplots get short shrift; Janet Leigh has an all-too-small role as “Rose Cheyney”, a woman Marco falls in love with after a brief and baffling conversation on a train, and Leslie Parrish is “Jocelyn Jordan”, a free-spirited socialite Shaw marries against his mother’s wishes. Jocelyn is little more than a plot device, and Rose is even less of a presence. But these are small complaints compared to the rest of the film.