A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

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7 DAYS IN MAY (1964) — one of Frankenheimer’s very best, I’d say. It’s taken me ages to get around to it. Maybe the opening scene put me off, since I think the handheld, jagged cutting and multiple inserted red frames (Frankenheimer admired Hitchcock enormously, so he’s riffing on SPELLBOUND — there’s a good story about his Hitch idolatry, if you remind me) was a little overdone. And then there’s a very long build-up in which most of the terrific cast have little to do but repeatedly explain to us who they are and what their jobs are and what got done before the movie started. A slow pressure starts to build though as Colonel Kirk Douglas, all clenched reptile features and micro eye-darting, suspects something is up. When he reports to President Fredric March that General Burt Lancaster is plotting a military coup, at last the film takes off and begins to generate serious tension.

Frankenheimer commissioned the script from his old TV colleague Rod Serling, who does lay on the exposition a bit thick at the start, and the speechifying even thicker at the end, but it evolves into a cross-cut pattern of escalating, nerve-biting, nail-raising, hair-shredding excitement. We got this the same year as STRANGELOVE? No wonder FAIL SAFE failed. You can only have so many of these things in a year, I expect. Otherwise the nervous strain would be too great.

Serling’s exposition isn’t exactly bad, it’s just more obvious than I like it, with characters showing off unnecessarily just to shoehorn a little more information into their speeches, calling each other by name multiple times, and so on. But the groundwork is laid effectively enough so that once the plot really gets moving, you’re never confused despite the complexity. The speech-making is rendered more excusable by the fact that Sterling gives his villain convincing motivation — noble cause corruption, where the ends justify the means — making him as much a patriot as March.

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Edmund O’Brien, typecast as a drunk, is very enjoyable too. Every time I see him now I think of the story in WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES, Gary Graver’s shambolic but fun documentary — a couple of assistants on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND had the job of helping O’Brien (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” quoth Welles) pack his luggage after the shoot. And he had all this weird shit in his hotel drawers — raw meat and light bulbs and stuff. “Are you sure you want all this packed?” “Yeah yeah.” So every time we See O’Brien we make a crack about his meat ‘n’ light bulbs.

Having gotten his ebullient, experimental side out of the way early, Frankenheimer goes almost classical, eschewing his Dutch tilts but exulting in Kubrickian symmetry, deep focus and the frequent use of the “A” composition ~

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He has a lot of fun with TV monitors, a recurring device of his from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on. Easy to see why they figured in his imagery, given his years spent barking into a microphone in front of an array of glasse screens. He also has some shots here that are just expressively wonderful.

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Being a political drama of its day, the story is very male-driven (Martin Balsam: “I have a feeling this time next week we’ll all be laughing.” Fiona: “On the other sides of our faces. Which will have been blown off”). But there’s room for a lusty turn from Ava Garner, and a very very shiny one from Colette MacDonald, who turns out to have been Preston Sturges’ daughter-in-law. We both thought it was Karen Black.

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We correctly identified John Houseman, though, in his first screen appearance since TOO MUCH JOHNSON twenty-six years previously. In that one he was a Keystone Cop, in this one he is an admiral. Natural Authority.

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13 Responses to “A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics”

  1. Edmund O’Brien is particularly wonderful in The Barefoot Contessa.

    Burt is perfectly cast here. He takes the ruthlessness of J.J. Hunsecker up a notch to full court press megalomania. And believe me if you’re familiar with General Curtis Lemay what Frankenheimer and company were up to here isn’t fiction.

  2. I’ve heard it suggested that LeMay’s wackiness was partly an act to scare the crap out of the Russians. But even if so, he must have been chosen as the most convincing candidate in the armed forces to assume the role of nutjob. And we know what happens to people who play such roles for too long (cf Cukor’s A Double Life)…

  3. It wasn’t an act.

  4. I’ve seen this film before on TCM. It caught my interest – and what a cast.

  5. Quite a grouping, yes. Refereeing Douglas and Lancaster would be a full-time job, one would think, but then there are all the other egos to take care of…

  6. Yeah–great cast. I seem to remember some good verbal sparring between Martin Balsam and George Macready (or was it O’Brien and Macready?). It’s similar to the plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (but earlier)–the small, weak group that has to secretly investigate a conspiracy where the consequences of being discovered could be fatal.

    I think its sister film, Manchurian Candidate, is more significant, but this one’s a bit more fun to watch.

  7. MacReady is always nice to see, and due to his bad guy history, you’re not too sure about him at first. You’ll find a big piece on Manchurian Candidate here somewhere — a film whose many serious flaws don’t seem to hurt it a bit, so strong are its virtues.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    The difference between the writing styles of George Axelrod and Rod Serling is, I think, part of the reason why I’ve seen CANDIDATE several times and have yet to sit through the entirety of SEVEN DAYS. Axelrod writes in epigrams and hipster riffs, whereas Serling offers information. Part of the difference between the two source novels? Possibly.

  9. Vanwall Says:

    I read the novel before I saw the film on TV, and I was impressed how well it was adapted. The parts are perfectly cast, and fit the characters in the book to an amazing degree. Strangely enough, this film, and others like Full Metal Jacket, have become fetish pieces for a lot of people on the right, because they only see and hear the ‘You can’t handle the truth’ kind of macho dialogue, they must see the rest of the films in some delusional manner that they can fit into whatever alternate reality they’ve created for themselves.

  10. Serling does allow Lancaster’s character to present a justification that makes sense from his point of view. And he gets some florid slogans, which I guess could be quoted out of context.

    But that’s bizarre. Do the wingnut fans not notice who wins in the end?

    Chris, the movie is slow to get going and relies a lot on exposition early on, but we found when we stayed with it, it got really gripping after the 45 min mark. All was forgiven.

    It doesn’t have the wit of TMC, but it has other good things.

  11. Unkle Rusty Says:

    “If you come inside I will offer you a steak, rare, and the truth, which is rarer still.” Or something like that, as I recall. An example of Serling clearly in love with his own writing but dammit if it doesn’t work, especially coming out of the mouth of Ava.

  12. These are all political types, and overwritten, florid speech seems quite credible. It’s how we WANT these people to speak, anyway.

  13. […] Frankenheimer and adapted by Rod Serling, it plays like a rehearsal for the same team’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, but as a reds-under-the-beds nuclear drama it dishes more cold-war paranoia than you’d […]

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