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.
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 ~
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.
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.
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.