Sunday, December 30, 2012
John Frankenheimer | Seven Days in May
code catchersby 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
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.
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.
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