Seven Days in May
A military coup in the U.S.? General Burt Lancaster’s scheme would be flawless if not for true blue Marine Kirk Douglas, who snitches to the White House. Now Burt’s whole expensive clandestine army might go to waste – Sad! John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling are behind this nifty paranoid conspiracy thriller.
Seven Days in May
Warner Archive Collection
1964 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 118 min. / Street Date May 8, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Martin Balsam, Andrew Duggan, John Houseman, Hugh Marlowe, Whit Bissell, George Macready, Richard Anderson, Malcolm Atterbury, William Challee, Colette Jackson, John Larkin, Kent McCord, Tyler McVey, Jack Mullaney, Fredd Wayne, Ferris Webster.
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Rod Serling from the book by Fletcher Knebel, Charles W. Bailey II
Produced by Edward Lewis
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey’s novel Seven Days in May was the rage in 1962, when people talked about The Manchurian Candidate and Fail-Safe as sophisticated commentary on the tenuous international situation, with a Cold War crisis around every corner. It became the next pet project for John Frankenheimer, the director of film version of The Manchurian Candidate. The story of an attempted military coup against the United States was excitingly topical subject matter for a close-knit group of Hollywood liberals. Kirk Douglas both produced and acted, and hired Rod Serling to write the screenplay. Producer Edward Lewis had been Douglas’ producer on Spartacus and would continue to guide projects for Frankenheimer. Star Burt Lancaster had played The Birdman of Alcatraz for Frankenheimer.
Although classified as far-fetched in 1964, the events of Seven Days in May were thought to be believable by liberals concerned by the radical statements and acts of certain generals, particularly General Edwin Walker. The screenplay refers to both Walker and Senator Joe McCarthy by name as threats to American democracy. Seven Days in May joins the movies just mentioned plus Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as prime Cold War / political thrillers of the 1960s.
The story sees a group of generals led by the ambitious Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) prepare to seize control of the United States. Scott considers President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) a traitor for negotiating an arms treaty with the Soviets, that the military feels gives the Soviets an advantage. Scott has established a secret army force to seize the nation’s TV networks and communications centers. He also has the support and cooperation of Senator Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell) and a TV network bigwig, Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe). But the General keeps his own closest aide out of the loop. Marine Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) picks up on clues drifting around the Pentagon. He uncovers the existence of a program called ECONCOM and a secret air base called ‘Site Y,’ that are both off the record and unknown to the President or the Congress. Casey alerts the Oval Office directly, and arouses enough suspicion that President Lyman dispatches his closest aides to find proof of Scott’s perfidy. Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) flies to Spain to force a confession from Vice-Admiral Farley Barnswell (John Houseman), who Casey believes refused to take part in the coup but hasn’t reported it. Senator Clark (Edmond O’Brien) seeks out Site Y in the desert near El Paso. Clark tries to contact Col. Mutt Henderson (Andrew Duggan), who Casey thinks is attached to Site Y, but who apparently isn’t aware of the base’s purpose. Back in Washington, Casey has his own dirty task to perform — obtaining compromising letters about General Scott from his former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner).
Tightly structured and slickly directed, Seven Days in May succeeds on all levels. Although it’s not as audacious as Manchurian Candidate it earns full marks for making a wild story seem credible. The film plays no Richard Condon/George Axelrod mind games with the audience. The only possible trick dialogue comes when Kirk Douglas asks Ava Gardner for a rain check, and Ava Gardner tells him to, “Put it somewhere safe where you won’t forget.” That sounds a bit too much like, ‘put it where the sun don’t shine.’
According to John Frankenheimer, Rod Serling set up the intrigues perfectly but couldn’t write a convincing love scene; Frankenheimer engaged the blacklisted writer Nedrick Young to fill in that gap. Only at the end does Rod Serling fall back on several Civics 101 speeches by President Lyman, that reassure the viewer that our country is in the hands of wise and responsible men. Of all the political thrillers and satires released around the JFK assassination, Seven Days in May is the only one that doesn’t end in political chaos — or WW3.
Critic John Baxter listed Seven Days in May as a science-fiction film, which I guess makes sense if it is supposed to be happening in the 1970s. That justifies the President’s advanced teleconferencing equipment, but I didn’t realize that the show was meant to be futuristic — the same ’63 Fords are on the road. Baxter was impressed by a shot of Martin Balsam’s envoy in a little boat under the enormous aircraft carrier, which looms overhead like a giant building. To me that image was less futuristic, than an expression of military might. The President has an office with a videophone, but General Scott and his Pentagon cohorts wield mind-boggling weapons and technology.
What really pegs the movie as science fiction is the emphasis on technology-based paranoia. Secret military bases figure mostly in fantasy spy thrillers of the 1960s, but the most important precursor to the mysterious ‘Site Y’ appears in the Val Guest / Nigel Kneale Quatermass 2 from back in 1957. Edmond O’Brien drives his car out into the blank desert. When he leaves the road, we wonder if he might be in danger of hitting a secret minefield. Then he’s arrested by security troops. The exact same sequence of events happens in Quatermass 2, only the secret base guarded by its security troops is the foothold of an invasion from outer space.
So why am I throwing the word ‘paranoid’ around so freely? All of these stories sprout from the idea that clandestine organizations, cabals, conspiracies are afoot, whether instigated by spies, traitors, megalomaniacs or space aliens. Col. Casey gets wind of Site Y only by accident, from an innocent hint dropped by a pal, and from a communications-room gossip (comedian Jack Mullaney) who thinks he’s stumbled onto a high level betting pool. Mullaney’s officer isn’t a whistleblower or an intentional leaker, but the effect is the same.
We’re treated to a number of standard conspiracy elements that might come from Feuillade or Fritz Lang. The forces of good don’t have it easy, as important allies have a habit of disappearing without explanation. The airport scene with O’Brien and Andrew Duggan has the slightly queasy feeling of airport scenes in Phil Karlson’s paranoid-noir The Brothers Rico, where Richard Conte is slow to realize that his every move is being monitored and/or manipulated.
Now, after fifty years of thrillers trying to out-do each other with cynical conspiracies, the clues put before Col. Casey seem really obvious. We also jump to even darker conclusions. The movie doesn’t imply that a tragic airplane crash was anything but an accident, but the first thing we now think is, would General Scott sabotage a passenger flight and kill everyone aboard to eliminate one man? On the other hand, to cook General Scott’s conspiratorial goose from the get-go, all President Lyman would have to do is hire Rosemary Woods to tape his Oval Office conversations.
Although Kirk Douglas plays the ‘big hero’ role, Col. Casey’s defection to the President’s camp still feels like a dishonorable betrayal. Col. Scott’s scheme is much like the 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler by a conspiracy of army officers. Even though Casey is doing the right thing, he’s still a snitch. If Germany had won WW2, I can easily imagine a fictionalized movie about the attempted assassination that invents a Casey-like valiant Aryan hero who saves the day for the Fuhrer and the Reich, at the last minute. Cynical minds will raise an eyebrow at Col. Casey’s wholly unselfish motives. Seeing how real top Generals elbow each other for political position, we can’t help thinking that a more realistic Co. Casey might be anticipating a major reward for doing his patriotic duty.
John Frankenheimer’s all- pro cast really pulls this one off, making difficult scenes seem easy. The director is most proud of his final Burt Lancaster — Fredric March confrontation, but there are other standout scenes. The scene where Martin Balsam’s Paul Girard visits the aircraft carrier, and diplomatically puts an admiral’s feet to the fire for a confession, is stunningly good. Girard is just one little man with a briefcase, and he goes up against the admiral with fearless resolve. John Houseman took his first film role as the admiral, an excellent job.
Edmond O’Brien got an Oscar nomination for his bombastic, alcoholic Senator Clark, who believes in effective politicking even if one has to dirty one’s hands. O’Brien reminds us of a more cantankerous Charles Laughton from Advise and Consent; he brings needed spirit to the role: “… and more courage may be purchased at yonder tavern.”
Having both the rapscallion Clark and the cultured Girard on his team makes Fredric March’s president Jordan Lyman more likable. Written with great dignity, Lyman is one of March’s better late-career roles. March’s skill pays off when he’s tasked with delivering a series of ‘author’s message’ speeches at the finale.
Ava Gardner has no scenes with Burt Lancaster, eighteen years after their mutual breakthrough movie The Killers. Frankenheimer says she had difficulty performing but the result looks great. The director winces at what he calls bad dialogue, a line where Gardner’s Ellie compares a steak cooked rare, to the fact that the honest truth is also ‘rare.’ I think a later line is even a bigger hoot: “I was a stupid, impressionable female who let an Air Force General use her like his personal airplane.”
Keeping Ellie’s letters as backup for a smear campaign makes the Prez and Casey look unprincipled as well, especially in 1964. Of course, today it all depends on who is being smeared. Compromising letters might destroy one candidate, but do nothing to the credibility of another. It all depends on which direction the American lynch mob general public is leaning that week.
The supporting actors seem chosen for previous associations. The traitorous connivers are played by Hugh Marlowe and Whit Bissell, who often took punk-villain roles as ethics-challenged little men. George Macready practically specialized in creepy villains, which makes him a good choice to play the only personal advisor to Lyman who scoffs at Col. Casey’s warning of a conspiracy.
John Frankenheimer directs for clarity and avoids camera tricks. He stages a riot in front of the real White House (abetted by JFK, we’re told) but his next-biggest scene is a White House press conference. Frankenheimer sells the reality of many scenes with his use of TV cameras and monitors– the coverage of the conference, security cameras in the Pentagon. In 1964, being shown on TV conferred an aura of reality to almost anything. Later paranoid cinema would make video surveillance a major issue, but here it’s a way to add visual complexity. Instead of a mirror reflecting another angle of a character, video monitors multiply the images on display. We’re also impressed by the film’s focus on its conspiracy plot to the exclusion of sidebar stories or commercial filler scenes. Yes, there is one kissing scene to provide an image for the trailer. But an equivalent modern movie would make Andrew Duggan and Edmond O’Brien’s escape from Site Y the launch for a ten-minute chase.
Elsewhere excellent design hides budget limitations. The wide shot of the secret airbase features Quonset huts that appear to be only semi-circular stage flats, with lit windows. We see the tail of exactly one jet aircraft and are told that the rest of the plane wasn’t there. A military dune buggy vehicle appears to be a modified snow tractor. These dodges disguise the fact that the film didn’t get military cooperation. Frankenheimer may have not asked for cooperation, preferring to steal shots when needed, such as some action staged at the entrance to the Pentagon. The director obtained his aircraft carrier shots with a last-minute request, instead of going through channels. The only odd detail I see is a flag in the President’s office at the 96-minute mark, that looks really cheap and phony, as if it were only meant to be a background prop. What happened?
If Seven Days in May misses classic status, it’s only because of the somewhat subdued ending. The story is over the moment President Lyman has the power to checkmate General Scott. But Rod Serling keeps right on preaching to the audience, and builds to a 100% gold plated liberal democracy speech. Serling’s capper is the gem, “The real enemy isn’t the general — it’s this nuclear age of ours.” The press corps cheers Lyman when he finishes. Viewers unsure about what has happened are thus reassured that the ending is a happy one. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther loved that sentiment: “If for no more than this statement, the film is worth its salt.” Crowther also thought the existence of a secret military base was not plausible.
Of course, right now any fantasy about Washington operating in a competent manner is more than welcome. In 1962, the idea of a President asking for the resignation of a general more popular than himself surely reminded everybody of Truman’s battle with General MacArthur. For a time MacArthur was more popular than anyone in Washington — much of America was behind him when he called for all-out nuclear war in Korea. I suppose that the real reason Seven Days in May seemed so credible in 1964 is that the JFK assassination had just proved that even more farfetched scenarios were possible. Could a military takeover have really happened?
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Seven Days in May seems timed for the present increased interest in high-level political intrigues, when copies of the book and discs of 1984 are selling out, and reviewers are reminding us of bizarre political fantasies like Gabriel Over the White House. Seven Days was originally released by Paramount but I don’t believe the disc bears a Paramount logo; the film reverted to Seven Arts, and thus is now distributed by Warners.
The flawless presentation captures the glossy look of Ellsworth Fredericks’ B&W cinematography. The high-key interiors aren’t lit for mystery, but Frankenheimer compensates with grittier exteriors in the rain, the shots of the aircraft carrier, etc. Senator Clark is held prisoner in a $2.98 plywood-walled room in a Quonset hut, which seems exactly right as it conveys the proper sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, the settings for the White House with its Press Room, along with all of the TV hardware on display, shows that big money was spent to good effect. Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse score uses military drums without being too obvious.
The effective trailer re-uses some of the title sequence montage that John Frankenheimer feels certain was designed by Saul Bass, although no credit is given. Many of the facts stated above come from Frankenheimer’s full audio commentary. Likely recorded for an older laserdisc, it’s a highly informative and insightful track, as were his commentaries for Seconds and The Train. Frankenheimer has plenty of anecdotes to share about the film. The ending was changed long after the shoot, in France when he and Burt Lancaster were filming The Train. The original finish had a much more clichéd fate for the General Scott character.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Seven Days in May
Supplements: John Frankenheimer commentary, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 3, 2017
Here’s Michael Peyser on the Lancaster/Douglas classic:
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