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Seven Days in May

Warner Home Video

Starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster

Directed by John Frankenheimer

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It's confession time. I must admit to a nearly lifelong fascination with Whit Bissell and Hugh Marlowe. Who are they? How can you ask? Well, both are character actors from the 1950s. Bissell is perhaps most famous for being the mad scientist in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Marlowe was a light comedian most notable for his appearance in All About Eve. When I was a kid, I used to confuse the two of them because to me they looked so much alike. They seemed to have classic '50s Republican American faces, square, with long mouths, and hair that always combed way back. Naturally unnoticeable men, if you will. If I noticed them, it was only to confuse them. And together they also looked like a third actor whose name I usually can't remember (Jeffrey something?), but when I do remember his name that means I can't remember one of the other two (there's only so much room in there). Well, you can imagine my surprise when both Bissell and Marlowe shockingly turned up in Seven Days in May, and even have a scene together. (Earlier they had also appeared together in Birdman of Alcatraz.)

Upon viewing the new DVD version it seems inevitable that they would appear in a film which is filled with '50s character actors. Shot in 1963, but not released until February of 1964 because of the Kennedy assassination, Seven Days in May is a taut, if talky, tale of political intrigue in Washington, D.C. Based on a novel by journalists Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, with a script by Rod Serling, the film tells of a Marine Colonel attached to the Pentagon who discovers a dire plot to overthrow the government by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who view the sitting president as soft on communism. The Colonel goes to the President with his suspicions, which spark a race against time (the "seven days" of the title) to find proof of the plot and thwart it. The Colonel's problem is that the leader of the junta is his revered boss, a Douglas MacArthur-Curtis LeMay inspired super-patriot who thinks he knows how to run the country, and with whom the Colonel fundamentally sympathizes with politically. There are a lot of meaty little parts in Serling's script, and director John Frankenheimer drew upon a long list of associates from his television days and previous movies to fill them.

It's a great cast. Among the secondary characters is Edmond O'Brien, as a dipsomaniacal Georgia senator, who was nominated for an Oscar for the part and won a Golden Globe. Also on hand is Martin Balsam as a presidential aide, and the square jawed John Larkin (The Satan Bug) as a more ostentatiously right-wing Colonel. Richard Anderson is in there somewhere, and John Houseman, in his first film as an actor, has a bit as the dissenting Admiral. In one of his memoirs, Houseman says that Frankenheimer fired off guns behind his head, which the neophyte screen-star took to be routine.

Will we see their like again? That's one of the questions that Frankenheimer's audio commentary raises. He expresses considerable praise for Burt Lancaster as the main plotter, Kirk Douglas as the hero, and Fredric March as the liberal, Stevensonian president, and notes that when you have these men — all accomplished professionals — on the set, everything runs more smoothly, and the meaning of the script is explored and realized.

Seven Days in May is a good movie, but its cinematic values are old-fashioned. It doesn't have the pep that modern audiences seem to crave. It's a film about ideas, and moral quandaries. Its main character is essentially an informer. In his commentary, Frankenheimer is unduly defensive about the film's slow pace and apparent lack of action. He praises a certain escape scene for its economy (which was probably budget induced — the film cost $2 million to make). But all of this is unnecessary. Seven Days in May is one of the first paranoia films, and it remains one of the best.

Interestingly, Kirk Douglas has several scenes opposite George Macready, his co-star in Paths of Glory, here a Clark Clifford-ish character who is one of the "best minds" in Washington, a thankless role in which he has to be skeptical while everyone watching knows that he is wrong about everything. This Kubrick connection is a reminder that Kubrick came to be a major influence on Frankenheimer, while also suggesting that Frankenheimer remains at best a second-tier director who has never made an outstanding, unambiguously great film of a Kubrickian stature.

A TV director turned movie director, Frankenheimer is an intellectually lighter precursor to Oliver Stone. Like Stone, he was drawn to political topics, but then became for all intents and purposes an action director, some of which, among the 36 he has made, have been good to great (The Train, The French Connection II). He likes handheld cameras a lot and alternates between aesthetic distance from his characters and getting into the fray and mixing it up. Frankenheimer has been active in democrat politics — JFK, who eerily loved The Manchurian Candidate, cleared the way for the director to shoot some of the film outside the White House, and Frankenheimer was the person who drove Robert Kennedy to the hotel on the day he was shot — and to rebuild his career Frankenheimer began shooting TV movies on political topics in the '90s, so it is interesting that in his commentary to this film he rarely touches on its political aspects. On the commentary, Frankenheimer mostly points out aspects of his visual style, the wide angle lenses, the hand-held camerawork, his preference for black-and-white film, and his manner of framing, often with a large face in the foreground and one-to-two other figures in the background (which actually is a signature style of Akira Kurosawa). In any case, most of the films Frankenheimer has made were adapted from novels or plays and so it is a little annoying for the director in his commentary to claim without irony that Seven Days in May is "my movie."

Nevertheless, Frankenheimer gives due credit to Serling and the source novel. In his commentary, Frankenheimer at first indicates that Serling wrote the whole script, but later he tells a funny anecdote about suddenly finding the film short-changed a day, and then reveals later on that he hired a former blacklisted writer named Ned Young to rework an awkward scene between Douglas and Ava Gardner. Hearing that was a good confirmation of this viewer's impression that the scene in question was impossible, and in fact amid a lot of praise for all the stars involved, the director singles out Gardner for being "difficult." But Serling wrote great dialogue; concise, smooth, and with a precise vocabulary.

You'd think that if Frankenheimer found anyone difficult to deal with it would be Lancaster. They had already made two films together (eventually they would make five), and the director had sworn off ever again collaborating with the smiling, athletic, but ultimately very serious thespian. The feeling was mutual. Screenwriter Walter Bernstein is quoted in Kate Buford's new biography of Lancaster as having heard the actor say about Frankenheimer that he's "a bit of a whore, but he'll do what I want," which seems to be what Lancaster wanted from most helmers. But Douglas was one of the co-producers on Seven Days is May, and he convinced the director that Burt could be handled. He was also coming off a bout of hepatitis, which may have rendered him unusually docile.

Lancaster first suggested, in letters to Douglas, that the joint chiefs not be rendered merely as blowhard villains, but that the film actually fairly present their case. This set the tone for the rest of the film, which is for the most part nerverackingly realistic. An original ending, in which Lancaster drove his car into a bus, was dropped for the more muted defeat of him simply getting into the back of his chauffeured car (a shot that was photographed in France during the filming of The Train ). But despite the film's realism, nitpickers won't be able to ignore an over-reliance on coincidence, or wonder how Douglas's friend and fellow soldier, played by Andrew Duggan, could be so close to one of the main plotters yet remain uninformed of the conspiracy, or how a newspaper headline could announce the death of a character whose identity was apparently unknown on the plane he was flying.

While complaining about the new market-research-driven Hollywood, Frankenheimer notes that Seven Days in May probably couldn't get made today. The proof of his observation is in the fact that the film was remade, in 1994 as a tepid TV movie called The Enemy Within, with Forest Whitaker in the Douglas role.

Warner's DVD edition of Seven Days in May comprises a rich, clean black-and-white transfer in 1.85:1, with audio in the original mono. In addition to the commentary track, there are cast-and-crew notes, a rather skimpy summary of the political background of the film, and the theatrical trailer.

— D. K. Holm

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