Movies We Like
Seven Days in May
With the Cold War in full swing, the saga of President Kennedy peaking, another potential war in Asia, and nuclear proliferation moving at a rapid pace, the early ‘60s inspired a slew of solid political flicks. From nuclear madness came Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Beach. Political soap operas inspired Advise & Consent and The Best Man and from those, the deep paranoia of the right, and the “military industrial complex” came director John Frankenheimer’s twisted, sorta sci-fi nightmare, The Manchurian Candidate. For Frankenheimer’s follow-up he would combine all the genres (nukes, politics and right wing paranoia) for the slick White House thriller Seven Days in May which features Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas appearing together for the second time, after Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (not including Lancaster’s cameo in The List of Adrian Messenger). Just as he did brilliantly in Sweet Smell of Success this time Lancaster took the supporting bad guy role. It’s a great showdown between two of Hollywood’s most sculpted physiques of their era.
Based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, Douglas plays Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, a Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff aide to the powerful James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster). Jiggs is a moderate, more devoted to upholding the Constitution than playing politics, but the guys above him are stone-cold hawks and don’t like it when liberal President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) signs a nuclear disarmament agreement with the Soviets. Reading cables, hearing secondhand conversations, and finding an incriminating crumpled note leads Jiggs to deduce that Scott is planning a military coup against The White House. He takes his suspicion directly to the president and then begins a cat and mouse game of cloak n’ dagger, teaming with the most trusted members of the president's inner circle, including his top aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), a crusty drunken Southern congressman played wonderfully by Edmond O’Brien (he won an Oscar ten years earlier for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa), and finally Jiggs cozies up to a boozy Washington socialite, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who knows all the town’s players and harbors secrets.
Clark’s detailed insurgency plot includes secret training camps and plans on seizing the nation’s television and radio stations; he has all his bases covered. Using horse race language as code, and conspiring with top military brass (including a fascinating unbilled cameo by John Houseman), Clark has given them seven days to pull this off. So Jiggs and company have a week to check behind all the curtains, trip up the players, make allies, and plot their own game of political chicken, seeing who blinks first. They even try to use a sex scandal to save the country.
Other then dull, talky scenes with Gardner, the film moves at a frantic pace with the intensity building. Like the best of Hitchcock’s espionage flicks, it ratchets up the pressure on the hero, making him a rabbit for the hawks. But unlike Hitchcock there is no playfulness here, no humor; as usual Frankenheimer directs his thrillers with deadly seriousness. And though he takes care not to portray all military career men as war-mongering nuts, he seems to enjoy their war game insider jargon. Like his terrorist thriller Black Sunday a decade later, the real fun in Seven Days in May is the uncovering of the little details, the small stones that are left unturned; though it’s all so incredible, it’s totally believable, because of the overly complex nature of the plot and the embracing of ‘60s technology. Ironically, in Path to War, Frankenheimer’s final film made for HBO before his death, he details how the hawks pushed a liberal president into an unneeded war. Seven Days in May perfectly predated Lyndon Johnson’s trip down the rabbit hole of Vietnam. If only Johnson had had a Kirk Douglas watching his back or believed in truth like the fictional President Lyman in the America of Seven Days in May, we might have all been spared the carnage.
Seven Days in May was nominated for two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Edmond O'Brien), and Best Art Direction (Carey Odell, Edward G. Boyle).