After Raymond Shaw and his fellow soldiers return from service in the Korean War, Raymond is awarded the congressional Medal of Honor, but everyone concerned is a bit fuzzy on the details. It transpires that the men were captured and brainwashed, and Raymond is now a weapon whose mind is in the hands of the enemy, just waiting for the appropriate trigger to carry out his instructions…. Frank Sinatra stars alongside Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and Janet Leigh in this enjoyable political satire and espionage thriller.

This film came personally recommended to me by none other than Paul McCartney. Not the real McCartney, but the Paul McCartney from local tribute band “Like the Beatles“. Needless to say I respect his film tastes over the real McCartney, who would probably tell me to watch the “Rupert the Bear” movie or something. I digress. I went on to read other fan reviews only to be overcome with a veritable tsunami of praise and wonderment. Even though I don’t hold the IMDb rating system in much regard, TMC’s score of 8.3 pumped up my internal hype-meter all the way to the giddy heights of “insta-purchase” and within a few minutes I had frittered away a few interwebpounds at Amazon. I begun the interminable wait for my hairy, spaced-out hippy postman to push the DVD through the letterbox of a house which was hopefully somewhere in the region of my own.

When a man from a neighbouring county knocked on my door and uttered the familiar phrase “I think this was meant for you” I hastily ripped open the cellophane (if angrily clicking my nails over a glued corner of plastic for half an hour can be considered hasty) and frisbeed the disc into the DVD player. Frank Sinatra’s rather curmudgeonly face lit up the DVD menu and I pressed play. Had I hyped myself up too much ?

For once – no. 20 minutes later I was witnessing a flawless piece of editing and directorial work. As the camera pans round a room we see our good ol’ Yankee soldiers sitting in a hotel, patiently listening to a rather dull lady lecture about growing hydrangeas. The camera keeps turning on a pivot. As the camera turns to 180 degrees we see an audience of  old biddies taking notes and listening fervently, hanging on the every word of Mrs Hydrangea. The camera keeps turning. As the camera comes round to a full 360 in a single shot, we see the soldiers again, only this time they are not surrounded by the trappings of a flowery hotel, but are instead on a stage of sorts with pictures of Communist leaders behind them. The camera keeps turning and we now see that the floral Mrs Hydrangea is actually Dr Yen Lo, an evil mastermind demonstrating to a crowd of nameless military suits the power he has over the minds of these soldiers. The logistics of the scenery changes in a single shot are impressive enough, but it is how clearly the Director shows us in-camera the difference between the soldiers perception and the truth that is handled so deftly. From this point the scene continues to develop the idea, interchanging the backdrop, the characters and script between both viewpoints. One minute Dr Yen Lo is in the hotel, and in another Mrs Hydrangea is talking military tactics in the demonstration room. It’s an impeccable triumph of editing and direction.

Unfortunately this is where – for me – the film took a very slight wrong turn. McCarthy-era political satire aside, the film is presented and paced as mystery, and I couldn’t help but feel that this (awesome) reveal was shown to the audience too early. From that point, you know exactly how the crew were brainwashed, what the triggers are, and the only mystery is exactly how the Communists are going to use their new subserviant weapon. When you do find out late in the film, it does lead to a very satisfying and exciting climax, but aside from a few moments mid-plot the wait does feel like… well.. a wait. It’s kind of like an episode of “Columbo” – you see how the crime happens in the first few minutes, and then you just watch as Columbo tries to figure it out for himself. In itself this isn’t a bad thing but the setup in this film  just screams for a traditional mystery angle – where the audience find out the clues with the main protagonist. This doesn’t hamper the film at all, but just suggests to me that retaining some mystery could have made this great film even better.

There are still a few surprises along the way though along with a few red-herrings and audience misdirection which leaves you thinking perhaps you have been fooled all along. Unfortunately there are also a couple of unintentional laughs. Frank Sinatra’s big martial arts scene is more Ralph Macchio than Bruce Lee and hindered further by some stilted and over-rehearsed fight choreography (although Sinatra did break his finger for real – he waxed on when he should’ve waxed off). This can be forgiven though – I assume this is one of the earliest representations of martial arts in American cinema. Then there is a scene where Raymond is accidently exposed to the brainwash trigger, and jumps in a lake after hearing a barman suggest the idea to someone else. I actually laughed out loud but the tone suggested drama. Laurence Harvey is also one of the most laughably bad screen drunks I have ever seen.

On a techical and production level the film is exemplary- with unique camerawork highlightnig the action onscreen. The reveal scene described above sets a near-unattainable bar but the film maintains energy and momentum with expressionistic flair. The camera movements match the tone and emotion of the characters with tilted off-kilter angles, free movement and focal changes. The style changes to a frenetic, rapid, shaky feel for the exciting climax, heightening the sense of tension and fear.

The cast are excellent aside from a few moments of histrionics from Laurence Harvey. Sinatra carries out his duties with a sincere conviction and I was impressed with him throughout. This was my first Sinatra movie but judging by this performance I don’t think it will be my last. Angela Lansbury plays the sinister, plotting mother of Raymond to perfection, despite only being around 3 years his senior in real-life.

Overall this was an excellent, well-paced thriller, which in my mind could have benefited from leaving a few stones unturned earlier in the film. Great performances, biting satire, impressive direction and a fantastic concept all contribute to what is a high quality, hugely enjoyable film.

4 / 5

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