Archive for 7 Days in May

The War Room

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Forbidden Area strikes me as a comically weak title — a big build-up and a puny conclusion — and there are plenty of other flaws in this live TV play, but there’s a whole lot to admire also. Directed by John 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 expect from this pair of liberals. If you removed the McCarthy-bashing subplot from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and displaced the balance, you’d have a sense of what to expect. I imagine from Serling’s POV the “what if?” angle and the atomic anxiety outweighed the re-bashing, but since the plotline is quite unlikely and hinges on sinister commie infiltration, all skews wingnut.

Amazing/mismatched cast — Chuckles Heston and Diana Lynn are leads, with Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Victor Jory and Jackie Coogan as supporting yanks, and Tab Hunter as the Russkie saboteur planning to disable America’s nuclear defenses with an intrinsically silly scheme. Hunter gets the benefit of most of Frankenheimer’s wide-angle distorted closeups, and his face fits this approach rather well, transforming into a kind of Aryan Easter Island monument.

Frankenheimer’s blocking thrills me anew — based on this and RONIN he may be the all-time champ at staging dry exposition in an exciting way.

A taut, packed, snazzy frame —

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We follow one character, breaking up that frame, as he bananas off screen left then right —

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This brings us back to a new variation on the original composition, with a different character playing the important role of Big Foreground Shoulder.

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I definitely want to steal this in whatever thing I direct next.

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A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by dcairns

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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.