Sunday, May 21, 2017

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY: Blu-ray (Seven Arts/Joel Productions 1964) Warner Archive

John Frankenheimer’s celebrated Seven Days in May (1964) has everything a blue chip political thriller ought: the traitors - villainous, the espionage - cold and calculating, the heroes - steadfast and undaunted by seemingly insurmountable odds. The picture’s virtues are many; not the least its killer cast, headlined by Fredric March (as a President with plummeting approval ratings), Burt Lancaster (a stoic general of the Cold War home guard), Kirk Douglas (a military aid with mounting doubts) and Ava Gardner (as a Washington hostess with second thoughts on her blundered love life). Seven Days in May also boasts a very taut and articulate screenplay from noted Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling (cribbing from a top notch political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II); Ellsworth Fredericks’ stunning and effective B&W cinematography, and Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse, but as invaluable underscore. And yet, the picture’s overall effectiveness, even its narrowly averted political coup d'état (which must have seemed intriguing - if fanciful to audiences from a far more un-jaded epoch than our own –1964 – despite that decade’s political unrest and turbulence) somehow gets mired in too much stylized mechanics and Frankenheimer’s ambitious staging to ever simply run with its ball and show off what a dynamo it truly ought to have been.
There is a great deal about the picture that holds up remarkably well today – in some cases, uncannily so (the perceived collusion between a U.S. President and Russia, as example…now where have I heard that one before?!?) and, undeniably, the rather incestuous alliances operating just under the radar of the ‘official front’, mostly put on for the public’s show in D.C. If remade today I have no uncertainty some heavy-handed liberal commentator would choose to illustrate and champion the absolute implosion and downfall of America’s institutionalized form of government. Despite more than a handful of truly disconcerting vignettes scattered throughout Seven Days in May, meant to suggest the tenuous fragility of America’s constitution and paraphrasing from Edward Abbey’s universal quote about a patriot’s need to remain ever-vigilant in defense of “his country against his government”, Frankhenheimer’s dénouement is, in fact, a comforting reminder that no government can fold so willingly when the man seated at its head, boldly suffers the slings and arrows of media-based hype, virtually intent on his impeachment almost from the moment he took his oath of office, when personal integrity and faith in the constitution are his allies against such an overthrow and the black hole of unbridled anarchy surely to follow.
It is rather fascinating to consider what the movie might have been if producer, Edward Lewis had had his way. According to co-producer, Kirk Douglas, the finale originally shot showed Gen. James Mattoon Scott (the treasonous character played by Burt Lancaster) departing the White House in disgrace in his sports car; the vehicle suddenly out of control and crashing with Scott instantly killed; the car’s radio continuing to broadcast President Lyman’s penultimate speech about the sanctity of the U.S. constitution. Given the machinations of the plot, particularly those mounted against the President by Scott, the wreck might have been inferred as a political assassination either orchestrated by the opposition or his own side, for Scott’s failure to meet his primary objective (the overthrow of the current regime), a deliberate suicide, or perhaps, quite simply a coincidental ‘accident’; divine justice doled out to the would-be usurper of the throne. Such a finale would have also mirrored the fate of Sen. Prentice in Knebel and Bailey’s novel. But Kirk Douglas and John Frankenheimer, who co-produced Seven Days in May, were of the opinion this was an even more distracting and a really dour note, particularly in lieu of the Kennedy assassination, still a very fresh wound inflicted upon the national psyche in 1964.
The conspiracy theorems of the novel, written and published before Kennedy’s untimely demise, and, the movie (made and released after it) do, in fact, play right into that climate of morbidly dark and sinister disillusionment gripping America then (arguably, this has only continued to fester and ferment since). So, Frankenheimer and Douglas endeavored to soften the blow by concluding the picture – rather abruptly – with Lyman’s stoic, yet hopeful Presidential address to the media and the nation, having only just won his political sparing match with Scott and speaking from the heart, as well as the head, as he summarizes, “There's been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander, because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom!”
It is one of Hollywood’s strange little ironies that Seven Days in May was begun with Douglas and Frankenheimer in perfect sync and agreement, but ended with their mutual falling out; the paradox compounded by the fact Frankenheimer had reluctantly agreed to this project (after almost walking out) with considerable acrimony towards co-star, Burt Lancaster. It seems theirs had been a less than amicable working relationship on Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). But Douglas insisted on Lancaster for the role of Scott – accepting the less flashier part of Scott’s assistant, Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey to entice Lancaster into partaking. Lancaster and Frankenheimer’s détente on Seven Days in May would ultimately end with the two becoming good friends. Oh, how fickle, strange and untrue is friendship - and life. The shooting of Lancaster’s scenes was delayed until the end of production to allow the actor his recovery from a particularly virulent bout of hepatitis. Years later, Frankenheimer would conclude Lancaster’s performance was the best in the picture; a notorious mixture of deceit and pathos, eliciting contempt and empathy in tandem from the audience. 
Barring his spat with Douglas, Frankenheimer also butted heads with co-star, Ava Gardner whose scant six days commitment to the shoot forced Frankenheimer to concede that, while beautiful and talented, she proved “a real pain in the ass.” Co-star, Martin Balsam objected to Frankenheimer’s use of a pistol to kick start his scenes. Yet for all their backroom bickering, virtually all of the aforementioned performers give flawlessly and are decidedly at the top of their game. The production toggled between interiors shot at Paramount Studios (the picture was originally distributed by Paramount, but made independently by Seven Arts, in association with Douglas’ own production company – Joel) with location work in Paris, Washington, San Diego, Arizona and California's Imperial Valley. Frankenheimer, who had been inside the Pentagon, instructed Production Designer Carey Odell on the minutiae for the look of its interiors, pronouncing the final results spot on in their authenticity. Frankenheimer also observed that his opening sequence, depicting mob riots outside the White House, was shot under duress. For although he had given permission for the shoot, the local constabulary were quick to inform Frankenheimer his time there was limited; the sequence further hampered by the fact Washington’s crew had no professional stuntmen on the payroll. To compensate, Frankenheimer selected professional athletes from the University to partake, reasoning that if he could not get actual pros to stage a good fight, he could at least conquer some of the necessary requirements for a good dumb show by exploiting their athleticism to lend an air of authenticity to their skirmish.
No kiddingSeven Days in May is actually set during ‘six days’ in 1970; a covert turn of events being plotted at the highest levels of government to overthrow President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) whose approval ratings have plummeted since brokering a tenuous nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Interestingly, according the movie the Cold War between the United States and Russia is still on; an oddity in Serling’s adaptation that, when viewed today, distinctly grounds its presence as a movie made in the 1960’s (about the sixties) rather than the seventies. The novel, set four more years ahead in the future, is centered on a stalemated war in Iran. With Lyman’s reputation in free fall, all except his closest inner circle of loyalists have begun to doubt not only the effectiveness of his policies, but equally his ability to even govern with any credibility at all. After all, the general consensus is that the U.S.S.R can never be trusted. Even the President’s closest confidents, including perpetually bourbon-soaked Southern Senator Raymond Clark (Edmund O’Brien), personal aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and cabinet minister, Christopher Todd (George Macready) have their sincere doubts about the stability of such a treaty. They do, however, stand firmly behind Lyman’s professional integrity as a noble peacenik, imbued with an interminable spirit of optimism, even in the face of his own impeachment. 
After witnessing the spectacle of protestors brawling just beyond the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Lyman is convinced the nation is on the brink of a collective nervous breakdown. The President’s private physician, Horace (Malcolm Atterbury) has more immediate concerns about Lyman’s blood pressure. It’s too high. Jordan could definitely use a vacation – a few days’ rest at his private residence, away from the chaos and confusion of this public spotlight. And yet, Lyman stands implacably firm on his convictions. Any future welfare for the United States must be built on the unwavering brokerage of peace in good faith toward the Soviet Union; shades and echoes of the sentiment expressed by the late John F. Kennedy in his address to the nation shortly before that fateful November, where Kennedy reasserted “…our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.” Alas, Lyman’s most virulent opposition is not from without, but rather, within. As the debate rages on, lines are clearly drawn in the proverbial sand; Clark challenging Scott’s urgency during a congressional meeting to repeal the President’s nuclear disarmament treaty while Sen. Fredrick Prentice (Whit Bissell) sides with the notion Lyman’s current policies are decidedly out of touch with the will of the American people. But are they really?
Things reach their crisis mode as Pentagon insider, United States Marine Corps Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey, Director of the Joint Staff, becomes highly suspicious of the Joint Chiefs, coming to a startling conclusion: led by Air Force Gen. James Mattoon Scott, they intend to stage a coup d’état and depose Lyman and his cabinet in just seven days. According this plan, an undisclosed Army combat unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) has already been set up somewhere in the Arizona desert to carry out a complete ‘black out’ operation of the nation’s telephone, radio, and television networks. This ‘exercise’ has been pitched to Lyman by Scott as a test of the Emergency Broadcast System; a ruse that Lyman, unaware of its actual intent, agrees to partake in, but then withdraws from after being debriefed by Casey of its underlying potential to silence Congress before they can implement his treaty. Despite his opposition to Lyman’s policies, Casey – a lawyer by trade – is compelled to make Scott’s unconstitutional collusion known to the President.  Armed with this knowledge, Lyman gathers together a very small inner circle of trusted advisors to further investigate the claim his presidency is about to be transformed by an old-fashion ‘palace coup’. Secret Service White House Detail Chief, Art Corwin (Bart Burns), Treasury Secretary Chris Todd, advisor, Paul Girard, and Georgia Senator Ray Clark are dispatched to uncover the truth and get proof.
Casey endeavors a ‘chance’ meeting with Scott’s former mistress, Ellie Holbrook (Ava Gardner) at a typical Washington soiree. Ellie is a vulnerable D.C. socialite, prone to self-doubt and pity – the perfect pigeon for Casey to glean all he can about Scott’s ulterior motives. But the situation is complicated by the fact Casey values Ellie, and moreover, once harbored an unrequited romantic yen, thwarted when she took up with Scott. Their affair at an end, Casey continues to carry a torch for her now. He offers to drive Ellie home from the party, but then opts to tail Sen. Prentice to Scott’s private residence instead. Later, Casey makes an impromptu visit to Ellie’s apartment. And although his pretext of a romantic evening together is marred by his determination to find out what Ellie knows about Scott’s plot to overthrow the government, his dodge is defeated when Ellie walks in on him going through her former correspondences from Scott; letters tossed into the ash can to satisfy Casey’s concern about her feelings for Scott. Despite her protestations, these have not cooled in the interim since their separation. Hence, her promise of offering Casey a hearty steak – medium rare – and the truth ‘rarer still’ is revoked; Casey, tossed on his ear after an as invigorated slap across his cheek.
Meanwhile, Clark is sent to El Paso, Texas to seek out the hidden ‘Site Y’ military base. He is found out in his casual queries, captured and detained under a watchful twenty-four hour guard; plied with libations to keep him anesthetized until the coup can take place. But Scott has underestimated Clark’s loyalties to Lyman. Instead of drinking the booze perpetually being topped up by his nightstand, Clark is quietly flushing it down the toilet to keep a clear mind, if not a civil tongue in his head. Eventually, Clark confides his ‘fantastic story’ to Col. William 'Mutt' Henderson (Andrew Duggan); a good friend of Casey’s who has been kept out of the loop about the real reason for Clark’s detainment. Armed with the knowledge he is an unwitting participant in a military-styled coup to depose the President of the United States, Henderson helps Clark escape; using force against his own men and hurrying Clark to the airport to make his timely return to Washington. Clark promises Henderson a thorough reprieve for his actions. But only moments later, Henderson disappears, forcing Clark to get on the plane alone.
It is an ominous precursor. Girard is sent by Lyman to meet up with the USS Kitty Hawk, presently stationed somewhere in the Mediterranean, to obtain a written confession from Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell (John Houseman). Barnwell is believed to have rejected Scott’s coup, but knows of its particulars. When confronted by Girard, Barnswell at first resists admitting anything, but then agrees to sign a full confession of the events as outlined in a prepared statement. Girard cannot believe his good fortune, telephoning Lyman with the news he is leaving at once to deliver the signed confession into the President’s hands. Alas, fate intervenes. Or is it something more ugly – more sinister; news arriving just a few hours later that Girard’s plane ‘crashed’ somewhere in the mountains outside of Madrid shortly after takeoff. Investigating the wreckage, Girard’s protective casing with Barnswell’s letter, perfectly preserved inside, is found by Henry Whitney (Fredd Wayne); a steward working at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. In the meantime, Gen. Bernard 'Barney' Rutkowski (Ferris Webster) alerts the President of a suspicious gathering of fighter planes, dropping off the radar in El Paso. Rutkowski confirms what the White House already knows; a secret base of operations does exist with planned maneuvers for something big. Safely returned to the White House, Clark passionately encourages Lyman to use the letters Casey recovered from Ellie’s trash as proof of Scott’s complicity in the coup, to use them to blackmail Scott into resigning without ever making the reasons for his stepping down public, thus preserving at least the illusion of his integrity.
But Lyman is a man of integrity also; and refuses to go down into the mud to win this fight. Besides, he reasons if he went public now with no proof other than the letters he would be branded as paranoid and delusional by congress; hardly the qualities desirable in a Commander in Chief. Now, the President telephones Barnswell. The Vice Admiral is noncommittal at best. Worse, he lies about Girard’s visit, claiming he never signed any such confession. It’s crunch time. Rutkowski indicates to Lyman his queries have all been brushed off by the Joint Chiefs. However, he has since learned whatever they are planning has been moved up on their itinerary for later this same evening. Todd urges Lyman to ‘face the enemy’. Alas, Lyman has astutely surmised neither Scott nor the Joint Chiefs are the real cancer on his Presidency. Rather, the nuclear age, with its abject paranoia is; having sickened man’s faith in himself, whipped it into a fevered frenzy, blotting out logic under a dark cloud of intellectual impotence from which the likes of a Senator McCarthy, General Walker, and now, a General Scott can pervert the public’s faith in the government entrusted with serving their welfare. Instead, Lyman sends for Scott. The General arrives, unaware of the reasons for the summons. But when pressed to reveal himself as a traitor, Scott belligerently challenges Lyman’s authority instead. “If you want to talk about your oath of office,” Scott suggests to Lyman, “I'm here to tell you face to face… that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.”
Lyman rebuffs Scott’s impudence as sheer and inexcusable megalomania. Scott responds with a renouncement of his own glorification, weighing his concerns with the interests and very survival of the United States. “Then, by God, run for office,” Lyman reasons, “You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?” Unable to convey the brevity of his misguidedness to Scott, the President prepares to hold his press conference. Meanwhile, Scott plots to intercept air time on all three networks at nine o’clock this same evening; his coconspirators, Generals Diefenbach (Robert Brubaker), Riley (William Chalee) and Hardesty (Tyler McVey) gravely concerned that their well-laid plans have already begun to fall apart. Scott ensures them nothing can stop their coup now. But he has grossly underestimated Lyman. Lyman makes Barnswell’s signed confession known to the press during his conference and furthermore, publicly calls for Scott, Diefenbach, Riley and Hardesty to resign. They are traitors against freedom. Their plan foiled, all of the accused except Scott tender their letters of resignation effective immediately; Scott ordering his chauffeur instead to drive him home. The movie concludes with the public announcer declaring: “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of the United States.”
Seven Days in May is an expertly scripted political thriller, its impact somewhat blunted by Frankenheimer’s verve for too much cleverness; his decision to maintain a certain theatricality to the piece loosening the yoke of tension, except in several supremely staged moments of reflection. In hindsight, it is Rod Serling’s trenchant dialogue that gets the real nod here; Serling, one of America’s foremost prolific and prescient wordsmiths, adds concentrated clairvoyance to these verbally combative exchanges. Nothing Serling ever wrote is ‘connective’, merely designed to move us along the plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’. Instead, he possessed that intuitive spark of literary genius for which he is justly renowned now, but in his own time was quite often either overlooked and/or dismissed; particularly for his work on the now legendary and trend-setting TV anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Serling ought to have had a more enduring legacy of writing credits to his name and a more distinguished reputation and career in his own time. Alas, censorship served only to invigorate Serling to find new ways to make his very same points crystal clear, going over their limited intelligence (or lack thereof), though equally burning himself out prematurely in the process.  
Fredric March delivers a towering performance as President Lyman. March, whom I personally believe came into his own late in his career, playing an impressive array of important roles spanning the gamut from men of stature (like Lyman) to outright charlatans (disreputable CEO, Loren Shaw in Executive Suite, 1954, and, Bible-thumping attorney, Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind, 1960), achieves a level of verisimilitude only rivaled in fits and sparks by the rest of this distinguished cast. The second most impressive performance in the film irrefutably belongs to Burt Lancaster; restrained, coupled with an almost stolid body language, able to convey solemnity and vigor in tandem. It’s Lancaster’s vocal range that impresses. It always has; his inimitable thunder from the diaphragm that rattles to the rafters when stirred but can as gingerly coax an almost intimate and tragic, careworn sadness. The hero and the villain rather evenly and impressively matched, Kirk Douglas’ Casey gets rather lost somewhere along the way; relegated in support even when we expect him to take charge of the scene. Even Ava Gardner has more presence during their brief exchanges. Douglas might have played Scott himself, if his admiration for Lancaster had preceded his actor’s ego. But Douglas has shown a certain ignominious humility through Casey; drawing attention to the fact he knows better but is unable to live up to our expectations, precisely when saddled in a supporting part.  
While Frankenheimer was successful at getting permission from the White House to stage his mock-up protest in front of its gates, his request to photograph a shot of Col. Casey entering the Pentagon was adamantly refused. Frankenheimer also shot the pivotal moment where Col. Henderson vanishes into thin air at Washington’s newly constructed Dulles International Airport – the first film crew to utilize its cavernous space. ‘Y site’ was constructed in the sweltering heat of Indio, California. President Kennedy, a huge proponent of the novel, and encouraging of a film to be made from it, would not live to see the debut. Kirk Douglas would later recall how the theatrical release of Seven Days in May somehow seemed more apropos following the President’s assassination. Seven Days in May’s uncanny timeliness may have had something to do with the picture’s critical success in 1964, as well as its enduring reputation ever since. While some attempts were made by Frankenheimer to create an ‘into the future’ glimpse of the world circa 1970, including the use of more exotic foreign cars, the debut of newly issued M16 rifles and unheard technology in direct video conferencing, when viewed today, Seven Days in May has the distinct look and feel of a byproduct from the mid-sixties. Mercifully, this has never dated the movie; only re-situated its time capsule appeal to an epoch just a scant ten years before the events presumably taking place within its plot.
Although released theatrically by Paramount, the entire Seven Arts Production library was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1967 and a blessing it is too, since Seven Days in May gets a nicely restored Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive (WAC). Like virtually all the deep catalog releases WAC has favored us with thus far, this one attests to their hallmark of quality. No other company putting out vintage catalog today has had such a consistent track record; peerless quality miraculously achieved with great care paid along the way to ensure movies like Seven Days in May will endure for many good years into the future and for future generations to enjoy, critique and study for as long as movie-land pop culture endures and there are people around interested in reviewing it in their own good time. As before, we applaud WAC herein for being among the most proactive – if not prolific – of purveyors of classic movies in hi-def.
The B&W elements were in fairly decent condition at the time of the DVD’s release. But they have been given the necessary upgrade herein to even further merit such consideration and praise. Minute artifacts that plagued the DVD release – minor instances of dirt, scratches and other anomalies have been virtually eradicated herein. The image is clean and very stable; one curious jump cut occurring during Gen. Scott’s debriefing of his co-conspirators near the end of the movie. I suspect, although I have been quite unable to find out, that either a portion of Burt Lancaster’s dialogue needed to be excised, or added in post-production without the corresponding necessary footage, resulting in a need to loop the footage that, after all, is dominated by a close-up front and center of the back of Lancaster’s head as he delivers his plan of action to the Joint Chiefs. 
The grey scale herein is immaculate, illustrating the subtle nuances in Ellsworth Fredericks’ cinematography. Better still, grain, that appeared ever so slightly smoothed out on the DVD, looks very indigenous to its source on the Blu-ray. The DTS audio is 1.0 mono and adequate for this presentation, exhibiting no undue hiss or pop. We get John Frankenheimer’s DVD commentary ported over for this re-issue in hi-def. It’s competent but only occasionally engrossing. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Seven Days in May is a movie that ought to be seen today. It has a lot of relevancy within our present political arena. Politics – the sideshow that thinks it’s the whole circus. God help the man in charge of it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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