Cast: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, James Gregory
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury), Best Film Editing (Ferris Webster)
SUMMARY: While fighting in the Korean War, a group of American soldiers is captured by enemy soldiers and taken secretly to Manchuria. Three days later, all but two of them return to their own side, and Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) recommends Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) for the Medal of Honor. Shaw is credited with saving the lives of his fellow soldiers; when asked how they feel about Shaw, each of the others responds with the same statement about Shaw’s likeability. All of the men are then sent back to the States, and lose touch with each other; Captain Marco remains in the military, and is promoted to Major. He begins to have strange nightmares about the group and the encounter that led to Shaw’s mission: in the dream, the entire group is seated on a stage in front of a group of Communist leaders, and are hypnotized. On the orders of one of the leaders, Shaw first strangles one of the men, then shoots another without any hesitancy or emotion (the leader notes that the group has been brainwashed). At first, the Army does not believe that this dream has any basis in reality, but after another soldier from the group complains of the same dream — and both identify Communist leaders from photos — the Army begins to investigate. Shaw does not have the nightmare, but does have his own problems. His stepfather, John Iselin (James Gregory), is a Senator, but the real power in the family is Shaw’s mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury). She dictates what Iselin will do and also tries to control her son (though less successfully). Senator Iselin is currently in the news for announcing that there are a certain (changing) number of Communists working for the Department of Defense. A presidential election is coming up, and Mrs. Iselin hopes to secure a vice presidency for her husband.
Although she had previously discouraged the relationship, Mrs. Iselin now encourages her son to reunite with former girlfriend Jocelyn Jordan. Jocelyn is the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan, who vehemently opposes Senator Iselin on a personal and political level. Shaw does resume the relationship, and seems very happy. However, on several occasions he has received a call telling him to play solitaire; when he gets to the Queen of Diamonds, another call gives him a task to perform (usually an assassination). Shaw is completely unaware of what he is doing, as his brainwashing has been triggered by seeing the particular card. The calls dictating the tasks come from Shaw’s American handler, whose identity is unknown. At a costume party hosted by the Iselins, Jocelyn comes dressed as the Queen of Diamonds, and she and Shaw elope. Mrs. Iselin hopes that this will be enough to persuade Senator Jordan to align with Senator Iselin, but Jordan firmly states that he will oppose Iselin’s nomination as Vice President. Not long after, Shaw is triggered and sent to kill Jordan; when Jocelyn walks into the room, he calmly shoots her too. As all of this is happening, Major Marco has been investigating for the Army, and realized that Shaw is at the heart of things. He is able to figure out that the story about the unit and the Medal of Honor is just that: a story. His nightmare is closer to the truth: the group was kidnapped, brainwashed and released, and Marco was then triggered to nominate Shaw for the Medal, so that he could gain access to powerful political figures. Marco also figures out that Shaw is triggered by the certain card. He confronts Shaw and uses the Queen to trigger him, the repeatedly tells him that the Queen has no more power over him. It seems to take, and Shaw reveals the identity of his American handler — his mother, Mrs. Iselin. Soon, Mrs. Iselin triggers Shaw and tells him what she wants him to do next. At the nomination convention, Shaw will kill the presidential nomination, so that Senator Iselin (the VP nomination) will automatically become the new nominee, and be given emergency powers. With these powers, Mrs. Iselin intends to help the Communists takes over America. Despite Marco’s attempts to break the brainwashing, Shaw appears to be listening to and obeying his mother, and prepares to shoot the nominee at the party convention. Marco and another officer have also come to the convention, and realize that Shaw seems to have been triggered. As Marco fights frantically through the crowd to reach him, Shaw uses his sniper rifle to shoot Iselin, then his mother instead of the nominee. Just as Marco bursts in, Shaw shoots himself. Marco notices that he is wearing his Medal of Honor.
MY TAKE: I’m not sure I’ll ever look at Mrs. Potts (from Beauty and the Beast) or Murder, She Wrote the same way. It’s crazy how some actors who are famous for playing sympathetic characters can be so good at playing evil ones — like Denzel Washington, Heath Ledger or Anthony Hopkins. They obviously have a lot of talent. This is one of those movies that you have to hang in there to understand: you won’t get everything as it’s happening, but you will by the end. This is sort of frustrating at the time, but it keeps you watching and wondering. I actually thought that Janet Leigh’s character was up to something for a long time, because the way she met and got together with Frank Sinatra was so sudden and rather strange. This turned out to be wrong, but that was okay — apparently a lot of other people, including Roger Ebert, have thought the same thing. Unfortunately I did know that Mrs. Iselin would turn out to be the bad guy, because I know she’s on AFI’s list of top villains in film history. Still, it was a fascinating movie. It’s an interesting premise: brainwashing a soldier, then setting him loose in the upper regions of a rival government. He’s perfectly willing to assassinate somebody on a moment’s notice, because he’s not in his right mind. I did feel sorry for poor Shaw, though — he eventually shoots two comrades, his father-in-law, his wife, his stepfather and his mother before finally shooting himself. You can kind of understand why he shot himself, and why the film ended that way; otherwise, he has to deal with the knowledge of all of those actions, and the other characters have to keep an eye on him for the rest of his life, in case somebody successfully triggers him again.
Fun fact: Angela Lansbury played Laurence Harvey’s mother, but she was only three years older than him.
RATING: Very good; makes you think.