Sunday, December 30, 2012

John Frankenheimer | Seven Days in May

code catchers
by Douglas Messerli
Rod Serling (screenplay, based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II), John Frankenheimer (director) Seven Days in May 1964

While watching John Frankenheimer’s likeable entertainment Seven Days in May again yesterday, I was struck with just how old-fashioned were its narrative structures. Part of the problem, is the result, obviously, of the pop-fiction work on which it was based, Fletcher Knebel’s and Charles W. Bailey’s novel of the same name; and no one has ever suggested that the film’s screenwriter, Rod Serling, was more than a kind of hack whose dramas are primarily dependent upon ironical shifts of reality. But, unlike the far more witty and complex story of Frankenheimer’s earlier work, The Manchurian Candidate, this tale is told with an almost plodding commitment to a horizontal storyline. In fact, the director reminds us of its simple calendar-based structure again and again, counting down the days of crisis as if the film were akin to some kind of 1940s romance in which the pages of life flip, one by one, forward, the words “Time Passes” flashing across the screen.

       From the very beginning, the director sets out his major opponents, President Jordan Lyman—a slightly paunchy and gruff liberal, Fredric March—and the dashing and passionately conservative General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). In between them stands the intelligent assistant to Scott, Colonel Jiggs Casey, played with fierce determination by Kirk Douglas, whose cleft chin has never been more on display.

       Casey believes in the constitution, while the arch-conservative Scott apparently is ready to stage a coup, information about which piles up in the first few scenes as if the film’s creators were attempting to bombard their audience not through weapons but with word-bound clues. All but one of the country’s major generals has agreed to bet, apparently through Scott, on the Preakness horse race. An unknown desert base, ECOMCON, is suddenly mentioned in small talk. A right wing Senator pays a late night visit to General Scott. All of this occurs at a time when the President is about to sign an anti-nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, and just a few days before military maneuvers at Mount Thunder, where Lyman will be watching, out of sight of any of his staff or news reporters.

      When Casey brings up these coincidences to the President himself, both Lyman and his aides laugh it off. The fools! Don’t they know this is the way every coup begins?

       In short, Frankenheimer creates little tension, pouring out the story as if it were something he needed to quickly get off his chest, before settling down to the complications of Casey, Girard, the President’s aide (Martin Balsam), and Lyman’s political friend, the alcoholic Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), are sent off in search of evidence. And even here everything goes pretty much by the book. Clark finds that there is, in fact, an unknown desert camp (and is held captive within); aide Girard tracks down the one commander who has refused to bet on the Preakness—code for going along with coup—and gets a signed confession (he dies in a sudden plane crash); Casey takes up Eleanor Holbrook’s (Ava Gardner) invitation for dinner since she has been Scott’s former lover. Holbrook refuses his offer of sex, but predictably provides him with what he seeks through a series of love letters Scott has sent. We never discover what are in those letters, but we know, vaguely, that they contain incriminating evidence.

       Understandably, the President suddenly declines to attend the war exercises, and, soon after—as if Frankenheimer is in a hurry to wrap his film—calls in the offender, laying his cards on the table and demanding the General’s resignation. Scott refuses, realizing that the President has little evidence (he actually has only the mysterious letters, which he, just as mysteriously, refuses to use). The General even attempts to convince the President that Lyman himself had long ago given his approval of ECOMCON! For a few precious minutes it appears that Seven Days in May might even have a plot complication. But no luck! With deus ex machina precision, Senator Clark is released, reporting back to the President, and the signed confession is discovered among the plane’s wreckage, hidden in Girard’s cigarette case.

      Scott and his cronies have no choice but to resign. The President goes on television to assure the nation that all is well, the director thus ending this slightly paranoiac film with a homily instead, as he had in The Manchurian Candidate, with a profanity.

      If at times it almost seems that this movie might take us into a secret world of unpredictable occurrences, writer and director seem to have determined to take the straight path to the conventional. Unlike the novel, General Scott doesn’t even have to die in a car crash, but presumably lives out his life in comfy obscuration. I should have mentioned, however, the opening credits are great!

Los Angeles, December 30, 2012

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