John Frankenheimer was a director of some renown but given the consistent quality of his work across a variety of genres and throughout five decades, he really should be better appreciated. That he made three of the very best films of the 1960’s in the space of three years is an emphatic testament to this. In 1962, he gave us perhaps the greatest Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and two years later (right before he gave us The Train), he followed it up with one of the few films that could actually rival The Manchurian Candidate for that mantle.
Seven Days in May is a sweeping hair raiser that follows the efforts of the President of the United States, his closest advisors, and a Colonel in the Pentagon to investigate and expose a possible high-level military conspiracy, the aim of which, is to overthrow the government for its left wing stance on US-Soviet disarmament. That the conspiracy seems to be led by a people’s hero, a four star General with strong right wing tendencies and a megalomania complex, makes matters all the more tricky as the investigation requires negotiating their way through fanatically loyal military brass and equally right leaning members of Congress.
The plot (adapted from Fletcher Kneble and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel) is rich with intrigue and impeccably set up against Frankenheimer’s equally clean black and white canvas, a canvas that is further embellished with a luscious balancing of key and fill lighting. It’s speared forward primarily through its beefy dialogue which is strengthened all the more because a host of that era’s great scene-stealers are responsible for its delivery. Kirk Douglas is his usual mix of professionalism and presence as the honourable Colonel who cannot tolerate what he sees as an overreach by his superiors. Frederic March gets to the core of his character’s presidential predicament showing just enough strength and vulnerability. As you’d expect, Martin Balsam, Edmond O’Brien, and George Macready add substantially to the tone of the film as the presidents’ team who head out to investigate the different elements of the mystery.
However, it’s probably fair to say that Burt Lancaster’s power-mad General dominates this movie. Lancaster had an ability to be truly intimidating when he wanted, as his portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated, and the controlled menace he shows in this film is scintillating. If there’s one regret regarding his turn in Seven Days in May, it’s that he never got to share the screen with Ava Gardner again (his co-star from The Killers – his breakthrough movie which also starred O’Brien) who plays the jilted lover and potential threat to his reputation. In truth, the scope of the film doesn’t really allow for such an indulgence but cinephiles would’ve liked it!
There’s a controlled but persistent energy to this film as the action skips relentlessly and with a knife-edge like tension between the White House, The Pentagon, aircraft carriers, military bases, Congress, and dark alleys. The result is a movie that is the very definition of a thriller. Moreover, graced as it is with pure class from the acting, writing, directing, and Jerry Goldsmith’s low key but suitably paranoid score and that it also taps a subject that kept audiences of its time in a state of dull fear, it’s easily one of the most arresting thrillers too.
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