Monday, January 6, 2014

John Frankenheimer: Seven Days in May

Based on the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Waldo Bailey II, Seven Days in May is sometimes referred to as Frankenheimer resting on his laurels by following up his previous film — the masterful The Manchurian Candidate — with yet another paranoid political thriller. That’s a bit unfair, though. Seven Days in May doesn’t have much in common with The Manchurian Candidate. It takes itself too seriously to be a satire, and it seems that Frankenheimer and his screenwriter, Rod Serling, are too busy emphasizing Big Important Speeches than ensuring that there’s any kind of drama or intrigue in the film. The film has a great cast and a fantastic opening sequence, but it ultimately is just too talky. Some of those talky scenes really work thanks to the acting (especially a scene near the end between Burt Lancaster and Frederic March), but ultimately the film feels a lot like Frankenheimer’s previously flawed films like The Birdman of Alcatraz: a film heavy on exposition with some good acting and good setpiece mixed in — but there isn’t much more to it than that.

The premise of Seven Days in May is as follows: Lancaster plays General James M. Scott, who is convinced that President Jordan Lyman (March) is too soft on America's enemies. He feels so deeply about this that he plots a military takeover of the United States. Every time President Lyman gets close to figuring out the scheme, though, he is derailed by political protocol. Eventually, Lyman seeks the aide of the man who first uncovered the plot: Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), who is more of a reluctant aide as his ties are very strong to the General.

You see, General Scott has formed a secret base in New Mexico, which serves as headquarters for his plan to overthrow the government. But Colonel Casey begins to think things are odd when he hears of this base — which he is unfamiliar with — as well as references to other bases and units and suspicious protocols that he is unfamiliar with. All of this piques his interest, concerning him to the point where he has no choice but to set aside his loyalty to the General and tell the president about his suspicions that General Scott is planning a military coup d’etat under the guise of a military exercise. 

Seven Days in May is one of the first paranoid thrillers, but it’s not one of the better ones. There are parts where the film really moves — especially in a “The West Wing” kind of a way where there isn’t a whole lot happening on screen, but the acting is so good and the delivery of the dialogue so stellar, that it’s hardly noticeable that we’re essentially just watching people sit/stand around and talk.  The film may feel a bit dated (unlike Manchurian) to some since — as Frankenheimer admitted in the DVD commentary — modern audiences would never be able to accept the premise because such a secret plan in the modern technological age could never go by undetected the way it does in this film. He also stated that audiences would never accept the premise because modern opinions of politicians is lower than it has ever been, so audiences would simply roll their eyes at the President’s speech that ends the film.

But I don’t know that I agree with Frankenheimer. Audiences bought Aaron Sorkin’s idealized White House in “The West Wing,” and as I mentioned above, the film’s emphasis on big speeches about honor and duty and other bits of exposition underlining American Pride is something that would be right up Sorkin’s alley — so the film doesn’t feel too dated.

And whether or not the film may or may not be dated isn’t even the film’s biggest flaw — that would be Rod Serling’s (best known for “The Twilight Zone,” obviously) script and the unconvincing deus ex machina ending. A lot was changed from the source material, actually, most notably the ending where General Scott gets into a car and simply drives home—his name disgraced and career over after his plan has been outed—whereas in the novel Scott drives his car head-on into another car, killing himself. There’s also the matter of the totally unconvincing subplot concerning General Scott’s former mistress, which feels like nothing more than a way to shoehorn Ava Gardner into the film (otherwise it would have been all men in the film). In addition to these flaws, the film is just too talky in parts and is a bit of a slog through the middle portions where it becomes a pretty dull procedural, but that soggy middle is bookended by some great moments that make the film worth seeking out (and make it so much more than a mere Manchurian clone). 

The opening of Seven Days in May — a protest outside of the White House (which was legitimately shot outside of the front gate of the White House without problems thanks to Pierre Salinger’s, President Kennedy’s Press Secretary, insistence that President Kennedy wanted the film made) gone awry — is one of Frankenheimer’s standout setpieces. It’s really the primary reason to check out the film. In my previous essay on The Manchurian Candidate, I brought up the quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum where he said that The Manchurian Candidate could “conceivably be the only commercial American film linked to the French New Wave.” Here, that link is more overt than ever. The immediacy Frankenheimer and his DP Ellsworth Fredericks give the scene and the way they free their camera from the tripod is really quite jarring when you consider the small, talky movie that follows.

Here, Frankenheimer once again relies on his experiences with live television as he moves through the crowd of protesters, making it feel like we’re right there in the fight, and at one point even mounts his camera on the back of police motorcycle. The scene is chaotic (and reminds the viewer of the aesthetic choices used in the fantastic ending to Manchurian), and it is no doubt exciting stuff for the time, but, unfortunately, it is also the most exciting and intriguing thing about the film as every scene that follows fails to live up to this great opening.

Frankenheimer's style of direction is perfect for this film. He uses the same framing techniques and deep focus and wide-angle shots as well as low camera angles that he’s used in all of his previous films. He also worries about the filmmaking and lets his actors act. In an interview with Frank Sinatra on the DVD for The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra noted how impressed he was with Frankenheimer that he trusted his actors to make the right choices when it came to the script. This is probably because Frankenheimer is a director that is more concerned with the technical aspects of the film than with choices the actors make (why else would he continue to work with Burt Lancaster when the two didn’t really see eye-to-eye?) , and even though the opening scene is a great example of Frankenheimer’s gift for memorable setpieces, Seven Days in May is also a great showcase for its actors, showing that Frankenheimer could facilitate some great performances out of a low key character drama.

Douglas is great as Colonel Casey, displaying an array of conflicting emotions as he juggles loyalty to his country and loyalty to the General. He was also more invested than if this were just a normal job, for he was one of the major driving forces in getting the film made. Initially he was to play General Scott; however, he insisted that Burt Lancaster be in the film and take the much juicer role. This was all very much to the chagrin of Frankenheimer, who, as we’ve discussed in other entries of this retrospect, had some major problems with the star. Ironically, Douglas and Frankenheimer would be the ones that would butt-heads on the set, while Lancaster would continue to collaborate with Frankenheimer on two more films (The Train and The Gypsy Moths).

Lancaster and Frederic March have a fantastic verbal confrontation at the end that, in addition to the opening protest sequence, is the other highlight of the film. I loved the was Lancaster just barrels through the President’s arguments because he knows he’s right, and portrays this character as a man obsessed with his righteousness.It’s not just Douglass, Lancaster, and March that are worth watching, though: Seven Days in May also has a couple of nice supporting performances. Character actors Martin Balsam and Edmond O'Brien are great as President Lyman's advisors.

In wrapping this up, I don’t want it to sound like I’m ragging on Seven Days in May too much. There’s a lot to like here, but the film is a bit of let down coming on the heels of The Manchurian Candidate. Still, the opening is fantastic, and the acting is top notch. Ultimately, it feels a bit like a film Frankenheimer needed to get off of his chest and then move on something less political. However, Burt Lancaster would call upon the filmmaker to rescue yet another one of his films (read: let Lancaster do whatever he wanted), this time from Arthur Penn, as Frankenheimer was brought on for a complete overhaul of The Train, taking it from in-depth character study to action film. The results are a finished product that is certainly the opposite of Seven Days in May.


  1. "It takes itself too seriously to be a satire... his screenwriter, Rod Serling"

    The hell you say!

    "Rod Serling’s script and the unconvincing deus ex machina ending"


    (I haven't seen the movie. But I just saw A Carol for Another Christmas, and my estimation of Serling's long-form drama writing skills is presently at a low ebb. Love me some Planet of the Apes, but when the dude's off, he's OFF).

    1. Oh man. A Carol for Another Christmas...I wasn't aware that was even available to see. I looked on Wikipedia to see if it had been released on DVD, and it looks like TCM has aired it the last two Christmas seasons. I need to be on the lookout for that next year...hehe

      Anyway, yeah, this is one of his off scripts. The actors make it work at times, though.

    2. Yeah, I DVR'd all of the Christmas Carols on TCM on whatever day it was, and binged watched them New Year's Day. Let us simply say that the Alastair Sim version did not receive a serious competitor to its authority that day.

      But definitely worth a peek for sheer curiosity's sake.