Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films Tuesday: SEVEN DAYS IN MAY starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Fredric March

Since this has been such a politically charged month (and someone stole my Obama sign from the lawn) I've been watching a political film or two because, obviously, I can't get enough of political chicanery in high places.

My post is part of the on-going Tuesday meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in and see what other films, television, etc. other bloggers are posting about today.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964) is a film directed by John Frankenheime (who had directed the much better film, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in 1962) based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and starring Kirk Douglas as a Colonel working at the Pentagon for the Army Chief of Staff played by lock-jawed Burt Lancaster - both serve at the pleasure of the President, played by Fredric March. My problem with the casting is that I kept thinking March was just too old to be President -  in 1960 we had already elected the young and vibrant John F. Kennedy, but of course, he was already dead by 1964.

At any rate, acting-wise March as a very beseiged President Jordan Lymon is topnotch, as is Kirk Douglas as Colonel Martin Casey. I thought Burt Lancaster was a little over the top as General James Mattoon Scott, but then I suppose he was meant to be. Still a little of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas on screen at the same time goes a long way. Ava Gardner who plays the General's rejected mistress is a shadow of her former lovely self. Her face by 1964 was all broad and puffy-eyed. Still, I giver her props for not going the plastic surgery route. I'm more aghast at how her loveliness was squandered. But she really doesn't have much to do since she's basically a plot device, so she's fine.

Here's the basic plot:

President Lymon has signed (or is about to sign) a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. A treaty which is not popular at home, least of all with the Pentagon. General Scott is the President's chief opponent and has made his views well known in Congress and on television to the American people. Many in the country want Lymon out and Scott in.

Feeling his oats, thinking the public is behind him, the megalomaniacal General and a cadre of other Joint Chiefs are cahooting to...well, basically, take over the country within seven days in May - hence the title. To that end General Scott has managed to have built a secret base (!?) out in the western desert somewhere, prime nuclear missile silo territory. The plot has been on-going for some time with nobody the wiser. I suppose we're meant to think that the government was asleep at the switch.

Luckily for all clear-thinking, rational, peace-loving individuals, Colonel Casey has gotten suspicious (it seems he's the only staff member not privy to the plot) - certain minor incidents added up together lead him to an inescapable conclusion.

So he goes to the President who, at first scoffs - General Scott is a national hero, after all, a medal of honor winner and combat veteran. Scott strongly opposes the treaty but, treason?  Casey makes a strong enough case eventually to get the President to take some behind-the-scenes action calling into play only a small group of men he can trust. One of the them is his best friend and aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and the other is Senator Raymond Clark (Edmund O'Brien).

Now this is where anachronism rears its head. This screenplay makes no mention at all of the Vice President. For all intents and purposes he doesn't exist. Okay, we can live with that - in those days the VP was merely a title with no real power or authority, free to be ignored. Fine. But when the Presidenst sends Paul Girard on a mission to Malta to get some evidence from a general (John Houseman) who is, apparently, the head of the fleet - he is sent ALONE, with no back-up and no protection whatsoever. And what's more he gets the incriminating evidence with no trouble. Huh?

Then Senator Clark is sent out into the desert ALONE to try and find the mysterious missile base - no back-up, no security, no nothing, not even a secret service man along for the ride. Huh?

Two middle-aged men, one of who is fond of drink, sent off to dig up info which may possibly affect the fate of the known world. Okay. They're keeping a low profile, you might say. But honestly, it stretches credulity.

Both emissaries must keep in touch with the White House the old fashioned way: from the interior of phone booths. The President waits for calls in the Oval Office and when he plays a cat and mouse game with General Scott, he has a sort of television phone thing going on. Very quaint.

(By the way, though I've never been a big fan of Edmund O'Brien, he is simply wonderful in this and steals the picture.)

But SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, shot in bleak and rather uninspired black and white, looks very much like a stage play enlarged a bit for film with lots of talk going on as each day goes by and we get closer to a confrontation. It has the same set look as other political thrillers of the time, i.e. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE BEST MAN (a much better film directed by Franklin Schaeffer) and others. This was a film world in which everyone smoked (including the Prez) everyone looked weary and otherwise disgruntled and appearances were routinely garish. Nobody got soft focus not even the very young.

So why am I talking about this film today? Because in spite of all my misgivings, the story is a good one and the talk among the characters is interesting and intriguing (not surprising since the screenplay was written by Rod Serling) if slightly old news. Plus I do like stories taking place behind the scenes at the White House.

Somehow we did survive the nuclear era (at least so far) and nuclear disarmament is a reality (sort of) and the Soviet Union eventually broke up under its own untenable weight. In the screenplay both sides believe that sooner or later somebody will blow somebody up. (It's a wonder to me that we survived as well as we did, actually.)

But it is oddly disconcerting to see a story in which a plot to overthrow the government is handled in such a low-key manner with so very little fanfare. The ending too is a flat let-down. In truth, the real winner in all of this is the Constitution.

However, I still say watch the movie, it does hold the interest especially these days when there is so much venom at work in this country.


  1. I remember this as a most interesting idea that could have been executed better. Fine, nevertheless. And yes, I believe it could be remade even (especially) today. But who'd dare to?

    Btw, the novel (by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) is also quite good, if not better than the movie. In here it is explicit that the action takes place not in 1962 but in "the near future". I can't recall exactly where and how, but somewhere in there you can calculate this near future to the early-mid 1970s - exactly when this kind of paranoia / big conspiracy movies were all the rage. Sort of prophetic.

  2. Audiences will always be interested in intrigue in high places and this movie satisfies.

    For me, the only thing that really dates "Seven Days in May" is the attitude of protecting Ava Gardner's character from scandal. These days, the character would self-publish the letter and make the rounds of the talk shows.

  3. It could be remade today, I thought that too, Anders. Maybe I ought to take a look at the novel one of these days. :)

  4. You think so, CW? I thought she was too much walking wounded. But I could be wrong.

    I think the letters are in the story just to show that the Prez will not sink to the level of his enemies or even some of his own crew who are urging him to use them. He rises above it by putting the letters back in the desk. At least that was my reading of it.

  5. I liked this quite a bit more than you did. A lot of it was the acting - both March and Douglas are among my favorite actors. I also thought that in, as you say, a low-key manner, it maintained a growing sense of urgency. I grant that the ending is a little anti-climactic but I liked the fact that it didn't suddenly turn into a violent conclusion. As for the improbability of the Balsam and O'Brien missions, it embarrasses me to admit I never thought about how far-fetched that was so it didn't bother me; maybe if I saw the movie again, it would.

    As for Edmond O'Brien, even if you don't generally like him, you have to admit that nobody in films can out-perspire him.

  6. Terrific choice, Yvette! A Cold War film I know nothing about and with such a fine cast too. I'll see if I can pick up a DVD of this film.

  7. Great choice Yvette - I agree that MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is the better film (but then, I think that's true of it in comparison with most any other film) but I like SEVEN DAYS IN MAY a lot too, not least for its low key approach, which is certainly a fine contrast to the nightmre imagery of CANDIDATE and does help get over the credibility gap(s). I'm a huge fan of Frankenheimer anyway and I love how precisely he stages the dialogue scenes - Serling could get a bit verbose but I think it works well here. And I like the fact that Douglas is made to look a heel for expliting his friendship with Gardner, even though it's the fate of free world at stake etc etc. Douglas is usually at his best playing flawed characters.

  8. SteveHL, I'm fond of Douglas in small doses and admittedly, I liked Burt Lancaster more when I was younger. I think I liked March more as I grew older and began to appreciate him on a different level.

    Edmund O'Brien was always one of those actors who nearly always looked as if he needed a shower. :)

  9. Thanks, Prashant. I hope you get a chance to see it.

  10. Thanks, Sergio. I agree with your point about Douglas, he had to be flawed. For sure. I think both Douglas and Lancaster were just too large in personality and physicality to accommodate even the large movie screen. Know what I mean? It was hard to corral their energy.

    I didn't really mind the low-key approach.

    Oh, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is such a nightmare of a film. You don't get that at all from SEVEN DAYS IN MAY.

  11. A couple of points:

    - Early in the film, Sen. Clark says something to the effect, "Vice-President Giannelli picked the right time to go goodwillin' in Europe." So he wasn't being totally ignored (but then he wasn't cast, either, so there's that).

    - You have to remember that in 1962-63, Kennedy was the first young President many of us had ever seen. We were coming off a long string of fatherly types: Eisenhower Truman, FDR - not a babyface in the lot. Fredric March was in the established mode of the time - looking older was considered an advantage in those days ( I may be mistaken on this, but I believe the prototype here was Adlai Stevenson).

    - The lack of security: again, reflective of that time - we hadn't yet had the JFK assassination; the crackdown only happened then.

    - I love movies with loads of familiar character actors, and this one is Valhalla:
    Whit Bissell
    John Larkin
    Richard Anderson
    Andrew Duggan
    George Macready
    Jack Mullaney
    Bart Burns
    Fredd Wayne
    ... and on and on ...

    - Actually, Seven Days In May was remade for pay-cable a few years back.
    I can't recall the title or most of the cast (except that Sam Waterston was the President and Jason Robards was the Bad General).
    I do recall that they tried to "update" the story with dumb action scenes.
    Didn't work at all.

    All in all, one of my all-time favorites.


  12. Mike, I didn't hear the line about the VP, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I will say though that you'd think they'd call him home - but then that might have alerted the conspirators. Or, heaven forbid if the VP had been in on the plot....

    The film came out in 64 AFTER Kennedy was already dead at least that's the date listed on IMdB. So people seeing the film would have been seeing it after the assassination - don't you think? It's funny, my brother and I had this same discussion last night after dinner. He made the same point as you about the 'elderly' types we were used to electing. We even counted back to see how old Eisenhower was.

    As for the lack of security - I still use the film's release date. If this film had been released in 1962, the security issue would have seemed perfectly normal.

    I love Whit Bissell and Andrew Duggan and George Maccready, especially. I was also very fond of Richard Anderson. I should have mentioned them in my post but I was running long. Shame on me. :)

  13. My memory may be shaky on this, But I'm fairly that Seven Days In May was mostly filmed in 1963, before the JFK assassinaation, which last may have delayed its release by a bit.

    The Knebel/Bailey novel appeared in '62, and I understand (haven't read it) that Serling's screenplay sticks pretty close to it.

    I do recall Serling appearing on a talk show years later, recounting how the film crew basically stole the scene of Martin Balsam boarding the Navy destroyer to drop the dime on Admiral John Houseman (that gentleman's film acting debut, by the way).
    It seems the company didn't have Defense Dept. clearance to do the filming (the DOD didn't approve the screenplay). But a year or so before, Serling had filmed much of a Twilight Zone on such a destroyer, and he cashed in a chit to get the Balsam footage under the guise of another project.
    ( ... or something like that ...)

    I see that in my laundry list of Character People in this movie, I forgot to mention Hugh Marlowe and his one-man anticipation of the Fox News Channel.
    (The more things change, the more they stay the same ...)

  14. Yeah, the date is pretty significant on this, Mike. I wonder where IMdB gets its info. At any rate, it makes for a great talking point. :)

    I remember that at Frankenheimer's request (I think) THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was either drawn back from theaters or put in storage for awhile after the Kennedy assassination.

    Thanks for the story on that Martin Balsam scene. Who knew? I don't wonder that the DOD didn't like the screenplay.

    Hugh Marlow was never a favorite of mine. Remember what a sleaze he was in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL? I always think of him as belonging to the Dana Andrews school of wooden acting. Though I like Andrews much better. :)

  15. You aren't alone in the Hugh Marlowe Non-fan Club.

    When Marlowe was playing Ellery Queen on radio, he got so caught up in the part that he began making personal purchases (clothing, accessories, and the like) using the EQ name and charging the purchases.
    This didn't sit well with Fred Dannay and Manny Lee, EQ's co-creators and the main writers of the radio show - who also didn't like Marlowe's full-of-himself acting style, both on and off mike.

    Sidenote: over-identification was apparently an occupational hazard with portrayers of Ellery Queen over the years.
    One of the other radio Ellerys, Sydney Smith, started to book himself for lectures as EQ without first clearing it with Manny Lee or Fred Dannay. They weren't as hard on Smith as they were on Marlowe, because they preferred Smith's subtler approach to the EQ character.
    I've also read that when Jim Hutton did the EQ TV show in the '70s, he actually lived in his dressing room on the set at Universal City, running his lines well into the night with his son Tim (although that could have had as much to do with Hutton's somewhat disordered domestic situation as anything else).

    OK, off-track, but I thought it was interesting, anyway ...

  16. We're usually off-track around here anyway, Mike. :)

    What is the magic spell that Ellery Queen casts over his portrayers? Inquiring minds would like to know.

    I think this sort of thing happens to a lot of unwary actors. It can't be easy being one person for most of the day, then suddenly having to switch to your 'true' self.


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