Monday, July 31, 2017

Seven Days in May (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer                           Writer: Rod Serling
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                              Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner

There’s an eerie sense of foreboding surrounding Seven Days in May, as President Kennedy himself was a strong believer in the plausibility of the original novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. The president had received an advanced copy and felt it an important piece of work that needed to be read by the public. But beyond that, he even lobbied John Frankenhiemer--who had directed the equally prescient Manchurian Candidate--to make a film of the book. Unfortunately, Kennedy would not live to see the film as he was assassinated by forces within the government, not unlike those in the film. Knebel and Bailey based their rogue general on the real-life general Edwin Walker, whom Kennedy had to fire because he was making outrageous comments to his troops and staff to the effect that highly visible Democrats--including former President Truman--were Communists. Walker continued his rants after he was relieved of command, and even attempted to run for governor of Texas. The two authors also interviewed Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who was an advocate of first-strike nuclear response to Soviet aggression. The great Rod Serling was given the job of translating the novel to the screen and does a tremendous job of creating suspense when the president and his advisors think an attempted coup is impossible.

The film opens in front of the White House, protesters picketing outside the gates. Some people are unhappy with the president, Fredric March, their signs even say they want to impeach him, or replace him with military man Burt Lancaster. Another group supports his treaty with the Russians as a move toward peace. The protesters are dead silent, until one shouts and a brawl ensues. Except for the clothing it’s such a precise prediction of the battles that would take place on that very spot a few years later over the Vietnam War it’s spooky. March is assisted by his chief of staff Martin Balsam, and visited in the oval office by senatorial lush Edmond O’Brien. The whole issue is over nuclear weapons and March believes in disarmament above all, even his future in politics. When general Burt Lancaster is brought before a Senate committee, he has no issue with calling March weak for not listening to his concerns about the treaty. Senator Whit Bissell seems to agree. His doubts are based on a general distrustfulness of the Russians. Kirk Douglas, as a Marine colonel, works for Lancaster and they have an exercise planned for the weekend that they’re not going to tell the senators about. But when Douglas comes across a couple of things that don’t seem to be part of regular military operations, he gets suspicious.

At a party later Ava Gardner, who has been thrown over by Lancaster, makes a play for Douglas, but he takes a rain check. When Bissell makes a passing comment as he’s leaving that implies he knows about Sunday’s event, Douglas immediately goes out to see Lancaster. Sunday turns out to be a rehearsal for the complete evacuation of the government officials, but Lancaster won’t admit to Douglas that Bissell knows. Douglas, who has liberal leanings, doesn’t like what’s happening. Finally, he goes to March and tells him he believes there is going to be a military takeover on Sunday. John Frankenheimer was incredibly happy with the film, including the performances of his lead actors. Ironically, he had not wanted to work with Burt Lancaster because the two of them had a lot of conflict on their previous production, Birdman of Alcatraz. But Kirk Douglas assured the director that he would keep him in line. Ultimately, however, Frankenheimer was delighted with Lancaster’s performance and the two of them became good friends afterward while the director had a falling out with Douglas.

One of the great joys of the film is the choice of actors. Fredric March is magisterial, and it would be difficult to think of another actor at the time who could have matched the actor’s mix of honesty and folksiness while still commanding respect. Though Kirk Douglas apparently had to entice Lancaster by offering him the lead role of the general, Douglas’s part as the colonel is actually far more important in the film and he does an impressive job. Martin Balsam, George Macready, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien--who was nominated for an Oscar--are all perfectly cast and deliver tremendous performances. The real surprise, however, is the delightful presence of two other stars, John Houseman and Whit Bissell. Though he had been a major actor on stage since the thirties, this is only Houseman’s second appearance on film. It’s a small role, but he is very effective. As for Bissell, after having sunk to low-budget performances in teen exploitation horror films for AIP in the late fifties, his appearance in a major motion picture here is wonderful. AIP was usually the place Hollywood careers went to die, but here he is the equal of the other stars of the period. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith is fairly forgettable, but then that’s probably appropriate. Despite the numerous location shots, it’s a very intimate film. Seven Days in May is a tremendous film in its own right, but also a frightening reminding of the kind of forces at work even today that can undermine our democratic system of government.

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