Monday, September 21, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Seven Days in May (1964)

Our latest Netflix movie was SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, an excellent political suspense film.

Kirk Douglas plays a colonel who uncovers a plan by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Scott (Burt Lancaster), to overthrow the Presidency and install himself in power. The great Fredric March plays the President of the United States, whose nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union has made him unpopular with both the public and the military brass.

Although this film was released 45 years ago, in many ways it is amazingly undated. Setting aside my annoyance with the film's politics -- i.e., the Cold War hawks in the military saddled with being the bad guys -- at times this film seemed almost ripped from today's front pages. For instance, the movie starts with a discussion of the President's tanking poll numbers (they are down in the 20s!); it was interesting to have polls be a plot point in a film set nearly half a century ago.

The disarmament issues call to mind last week's news regarding our current President announcing plans to abandon a missile shield defense system for our allies in Czechoslavakia and Poland.

Another key issue that rings true is the use of the media to sway the public to one side or another; General Scott has a network newsman (Hugh Marlowe) at his beck and call.

It's hard for a film to miss when the cast starts out with the names March, Lancaster, Douglas, and Ava Gardner, who plays General Scott's former mistress. I might not have cared for the President's politics, but Fredric March is nothing less than superb in a role which combines vulnerability and rock-ribbed strength. I haven't heard the director's commentary track yet myself, but I'm told director John Frankenheimer says March is one of the two greatest actors ever in the movies. (I don't know who the second actor was!) March is simply gripping.

Lancaster is quite interesting as the power-obsessed general who believes that he's all that stands between the United States and nuclear annihilation. Or does he, really? Are his motives nukes, personal power, or both? And what about the contrast between his public image and personal life? (There's a story we've seen played out with too many politicians.) A couple more scenes to more fully flesh out his character's back story and how he made the leap from Congressional Medal of Honor winner to potential dictator would have been good, although I'm not sure where they would have fit in a 118-minute film. This is a small quibble, though, in an excellent film.

Edmond O'Brien was nominated for the Oscar for his role as the alcoholic senior senator from Georgia. The senator's loyalty to the President and his country are the only things stronger than his love for drink, and he is thus able to put the bottle aside long enough to gather key intelligence about the pending plot.

This was John Houseman's first acting role, other than an appearance in a film in 1938. Houseman only appears in a couple of scenes but his character provides a significant turning point in the plot. Apparently Houseman did his part in exchange for a bottle of fine wine! Houseman, a longtime movie producer, didn't act again for nearly a decade, but that next performance was his Oscar-winning role as Professor Kingsfield in THE PAPER CHASE (1973).

The cast also includes Martin Balsam, Richard Anderson, George Macready, Andrew Duggan, Whit Bissell, and Helen Kleeb.

The movie was directed by John Frankenheimer, from a screenplay by Rod Serling. It was shot in black and white by Ellsworth Fredericks. The musical score is by Jerry Goldsmith.

One further note, I found the film's sets depicting the Pentagon and the White House very interesting. The use of a time clock at the Pentagon to help count down the passage of time was an effective plot device.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY has been released on DVD in a crisp widescreen print. Extras include a commentary track with director Frankenheimer, who passed away in 2002.

This film has also had a release on VHS.

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is highly recommended for a most interesting and thought-provoking viewing experience.

May 2017 Update: SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. My review of the Blu-ray is here.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh I need to see this! A friend of mine recommended it to me and I always had it in the back of my mind but your review got me to put it at the top of my Netflix queue!

Sounds like a great movie with a great cast.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad this inspired you to move it up in your queue -- I hope you will find it as enjoyable as I did! I'd love to know your impressions.

I'm looking forward to taking another look at it via the commentary track.

Best wishes,

11:42 AM  
Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

This is one of my favorite "political paranoia" films -- and I agree with Frankenheimer; March blew everybody out of the water with his performance in this film.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I really liked it, Ivan -- this is one I would consider purchasing (it's not very expensive) and adding to our DVD shelves at some point.

The nuances of March's performance were fascinating. And I loved that I could disagree with his politics but admire his integrity, his willingness to make firm decisions, and his management of a crisis which flew at him out of left field, so to speak.

Best wishes,

8:57 PM  
Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

It's funny you should mention purchasing this DVD -- I think it was one of the first discs I ever bought. The first time I saw it (again, I'm dating myself) was on TBS at 1 or 2:00 am in the morning.

The commentary isn't bad, but Frankenheimer gets a bit long-winded discussing what size camera lens he used for each scene. Still, it's worth a one-time listen.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

This was a great movie! Thank you so much for inspiring me to see it. I just posted part of Frederic March's monologue from the film on my blog this morning. I really think this is March's film, even though Lancaster and Douglas are superb as well.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad you liked it too, Raquelle! I agree, it was March's movie. He was truly superb.

Best wishes,

10:44 AM  

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