Set down among the large scale epics, the down home family movies and the silly comedies of 1962 was a small black and white extraordinary cold war paranoia noir thriller that came in on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis and a few months before the assassination of a young president, this was a movie that made some of us sit up and scream.
This movie had the look of reality because of the way it was filmed in fast some times jerky movements and scenes, and had the feel of live television. Images that would become reality in a short time, when we watched death on our small black and white TV’s in real time. This way of making a movie was new at the time for Hollywood and was directed by a young guy from New York City John Frankenheimer who began his career directing dramas that were “Live from New York”.
All those great Studio One’s and Playhouse 90’s that I grew up with and waited for with baited breath each and every week were special for us and this young Turk Frankeheimer finally tried his hand at movie making in 1957 with “The Young Stranger” but didn’t like doing movies and went back to live TV, fuck this shit is what I hope he said.
Then in the early 60’s he was tempted back to Hollywood by a novel written by Richard Condon and when he got Frank Sinatra on board it was go go go. This was back when Sinatra was a big Kennedy democrat before he became right wing and conservative and so with him on board the film was in production with George Axelrod doing the best screenplay ever.
Ok maybe I’m exaggerating but not by much, because this is a goosy up yours script full of fright, paranoia and sadness, and go ahead and watch it now, and I dare you as I write this review not to think of what sits in the oval office and how he got there.
Anyway getting back to 1962 it was a really good year for movies including the first James Bond movie “Dr. No” which was evil and paranoia also but it was light and fun, sexy and colorful where this Manchurian nut job was like a nightmare with our eyes wide open. It was a prequel to our soon to arrive national disaster of death, assassinations and conspiracies that is still with us.
So I watched it again after many years on the sharp beautiful Criterion transfer and even though I remember it with vivid remorse and fondness it was still fresh and nasty as the first time I saw it in a Brooklyn movie theatre lost and never found at the age of 15. The film swirls around us, not inviting us in but dragging us in by our hair, teeth and neck, pushing our faces into this American craziness. Can this really be real; could a take over of our country by a trio of foreign countries actually happen? Can someone be brainwashed to commit insane murders? CAN THIS BE MY FUCKING AMERICA?
The film itself has the look of an on the fly hastily put together TV drama, day for night shots somewhere out in La La Land sitting in for a paint by numbers Korea (the film is set during and soon after the disastrous Korean War) cheap sets that look like they will fall in on the actors, and process shots that were old even by 1962 standards along with some nice on location New York City shots. But the beauty of the film is in the writing, the superb score by David Amram, the cinematography by Lionel Lindon who also worked in early TV. And the Oscar nominated film editing by Ferris Webster and of course the great performances.
A very good Sinatra plays Major Bennett Marco, nicely intellectual (and sort of a reprise for him of the character he played in “Some Came Running), a former prisoner of war who is not feeling so well and is raging, sweating and depressed over his reoccurring nightmares that involve Laurence Harvey as Sergeant Raymond Shaw. Shaw was a prisoner with Sinatra and in Marco’s memory and dreams Harvey does terrible things that have been erased from Harvey’s mind, and thanks to the intervention of his mother, his mommy dearest who he hates with all his heart and what’s left of his soul is about to be awarded the medal of honor for his fake heroic war efforts against the enemy.
His nightmare of a mother is played to perfection by Angela Lansbury in what is surely one of the great performances in the history of cinema. Yes she’s that good. Lansbury is married to an idiotic right wing nut job senator in the mold of a Joe McCarthy played by James Gregory who she totally manipulates and controls. Lansbury is planning some terrible actions through brain games and insidious interventions that include a deck of cards and games of solitaire that finally explode into a riveting climax that will leave you shocked and disturbed. Also very very good is Janet Leigh back from her shower who plays Sinatra’s smart and sassy love interest and their introduction on a fast train is memorable, odd and touching. I liked Leigh a lot in this film. There is a lot of gossip and rumors connected with the film including charges of plagiarism against Condon, false stories about the film being withdrawn after the Kennedy assignation and ludicrous readings and interpretations, my favorites being that Janet Leigh was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese and that Angela Lansbury’s character was based on Roy Cohn. I leave it up to you to search the internet, my job is done here, except to say that this is the best film of 1962.