Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Win Without War

There is no humanity without the awareness of cruelty. As much as we want to believe in reason, in goodness, we have to remember otherwise and understand that it may not get any better. That’s just the way some people are. John Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY was released in early 1964 and is meant to take place in the near future although it’s barely evident from watching the film. A date seen on a map possibly sets it in 1970 but there’s very little that would actually qualify it for some form of science fiction aside from the usage of video monitors for tele-conference purposes. The very concept of television and how it relates to people is something of a recurring image throughout Frankenheimer’s career and though SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive in a stunning new transfer, is only a film about The Future in the loosest sense beyond an “all this could happen tomorrow…” feel the basic idea of how much would eventually play out on television wasn’t too far off. Frankenheimer was an extremely cultured, intelligent man, almost intimidatingly so but in spite of how much the film believes in a certain degree of justifiable paranoia he clearly also subscribes to the notion that the human brain is something which can eventually be won out by rationality. So he got some things wrong. On this particular point, if only for the optimism that he possessed, maybe he shouldn’t be faulted.

After a disarmament treaty with the Russians is ratified, the poll numbers for U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) are at a record low. Almost by accident, Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) stumbles onto a few seemingly random pieces of information—a betting pool among high-ranking generals of the upcoming Preakness Stakes, the existence of a military base he was unaware of, which leads him to consider that there may very well be a secret plot led by the popular General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to stage a coup which will remove Lyman from office. With enough evidence and anecdotal information to at least convince the President of the possibility, Lyman sends various close allies off on secret missions to investigate and use what they know about Scott, including whatever may have happened with his former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), to discover the truth behind the plot and do whatever they can to stop what’s happening before it’s too late.

Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II with a screenplay by Rod Serling, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is pure paranoid reportage, in some ways an extension of the hysteria portrayed in Frankenheimer’s previous film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE but more grounded, more aware of the flaws within people that could lead to such potential calamities. The possibilities of what the end result might be are potentially far worse on a global scale, any satirical exaggeration in the earlier film is buried in favor of deadly seriousness with him taking one of the best scripts he ever had to work with and presenting it cleanly, briskly, tautly, always aware of what is at stake. There’s very little in the way of scale other than a small riot filmed in front of the actual White House and the closeness gives a feel of immediacy to every scene which hides how much is staged on sets, hinting at gigantic developments but only showing the briefest of glimpses. It’s a film set in a grown up world, a foreign concept right now, made by grown-ups, the premiere just days before Frankenheimer’s thirty-fourth birthday in ’64 and his total sense of focus is evident, throughout, each scene directed in a way that allows for total clarity as if it really is his own eye peering at every shot, waiting for what the characters are going to do next, every cut displaying a sign of his passion for the world to remind us how important it is to know what may possibly happen.

It’s essentially a thriller that mostly involves people conferring in rooms and the few traditional suspense beats are relatively low key but always compelling, its visual style consistent with other Frankenheimer films in how characters are often framed in relation to each other making every dialogue exchange even more intense. The overall feel is a little nightmarish at times, partly because of the Serling dialogue but also because of the claustrophobia felt by this insular world with certain elements offering a feel of ellipsis possibly for budget reasons but also possibly because the movie knows that it’s not really about the escape from the secret base in the middle of the desert. The plotting also keeps things close to the vest at times as to exactly what sort of plans are in motion with characters kept offscreen for stretches to add to their intrigue and if there’s more to a key plane crash than just an accident we never hear about it. Ava Gardner, the one prominent woman in the cast, is in for a few scenes as Scott’s ex-mistress with information that may be used against him which in one sense feels like an excuse to stick a semi-love interest into the picture and it’s a little soapish in how it plays but the subplot also becomes a reminder of the real world out there beyond the corridors of power, something that’s been discarded in favor of the job that never ends.

The heroes are conflicted, believing so strongly in the rules of their world that they can’t accept that something might come along to upend all of that until they have no other choice. Kirk Douglas’ Jiggs might not even be a ‘hero’ at all, ambivalent at best about the treaty and the information he’s passing along, while March’s President Lyman isn’t as torn about what he believes but he’s just uncertain enough about what he needs to do that it’s believable he won’t be strong enough in the end, firmly aware that even if he’s done the right thing it could still be his downfall. So it makes sense that the only person totally assured in what he’s doing is Lancaster’s General Scott, a few shots framed directly behind him that place us literally in his headspace as if a reminder that to him, his head is where the wisdom flows from, his decisions are what should be obeyed. The paranoia always in the air brings an otherworldly quality to the narrative helped by the rich, weighty intelligence of the Serling dialogue, every utterance with all the significance imaginable bringing a certain big budget TWILIGHT ZONE vibe to it. It’s made almost made more unsettling by how there’s nothing supernatural going on, events that can be explained if only they can be understood. As grounded as it is there are still a few elements that feel part of the ZONE/MANCHURIAN DNA to keep us uneasy and even Scott’s overcooked proclamations goes perfectly with his point of view as well as odd touches that skirt that vibe, particularly Andrew Duggan as one of the unknowing colonels at the secret base playing part of his role as if he’s in a slight daze, slowly waking up to the realization that there’s something off about it all.

It’s a version of the MANCHURIAN kaleidoscope that’s a little closer to the real world, the suggestion that Raymond Shaw play a game of solitaire turned into continued attempts here to have Edmund O’Brien’s alcoholic Senator Clark investigating the secret base to have a drink instead, to forget about all those things he’s being told are happening. When all else fails here the conspirators resort to simple gaslighting (“I’m afraid your memory fails you, Mr. President.”) which certainly helps to tie the film in to the world of 2017 even more. The crumpled piece of paper that might be a clue reveals more than any possible futuristic technology and all these TV monitors meant to show us what’s going on only make the true allegiances that much murkier although the thematic conclusions the film reaches courtesy of President Lyman, stating that the enemy isn’t Scott and his supporters but instead the paranoia of the nuclear age may seem na├»ve today, not when we have a major political party seemingly intent on stripping away all rights of a large amount of the populace. But this President, and the film as well, correctly labels it a sickness, the product of minds filled with desperation and impotence. There is the dream buried in the aspirations of the people who made this film that someday this can all be fixed, maybe someday this hatred can be wiped away, maybe someday Jiggs will redeem that raincheck Eleanor Holbrook keeps alluding to. There’s no point in waiting after all. We have to fight for the future, not stand around assuming it’s going to happen. Because that’s when the end comes.

Right now we live in a world beyond satire but this film is from another time, an extension of the live TV plays where Frankenheimer got his start, as well as films from long ago which aspired to people who might, just might, display the potential to be better, of what you’re tempted to do, and the good you might actually be capable of, when you’re down at the bottom of the barrel. The overall message is essentially pacifist but while still aware that the military is a reality it's purely, simply hopeful that one day we may be able to move past certain things. It’s also from another time when not only might certain love letters possibly incriminate somebody the people who have them actually have to think about it. What they have is dignity, something the traitorous Scott doesn’t possess nor does he care about, freely shutting somebody out the instant they start talking about ‘the Democratic way’ and the conservative commentator played by Hugh Marlowe of course folds under pressure instantly. Jiggs is human enough that he needs to take a gulp of that scotch before putting his suspicions into words and he agonizes over the choice he has to make, a reminder that it’s usually the good ones who argue over the morality of how to achieve their goals.

Very much a product of the Kennedy years, made pre-Dallas but released after and the specifics of the future don’t matter since Frankenheimer had no idea what was coming, no idea what would happen to JFK, no clue that in just a few years he would be accompanying RFK to the Ambassador. He couldn’t have known that one day there would be someone in power basing his decisions on what the TV ratings would be just as much of General Scott’s plan depends on being seen by the nation on television, the best way imaginable for a God (or a monster) to be anointed, at least until Facebook and Twitter came along. You shouldn’t have to wait for the future to happen before something is done but sometimes we’re forced to live with the consequences of those who didn’t act when they could have. The final words heard in the film immediately after a speech that sums everything up and states exactly what we want to hear (and, goddamnit, watching it now almost brings tears to my eyes) are of an announcer stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was the President of the United States.” With the final crash of Jerry Goldsmith’s brief score we are assured. It would be a nice feeling to have right now in the version of the future we’re living in, but I suppose we really do need to think of this as science fiction.

It’s a phenomenal cast. Burt Lancaster brings all his power and cagey intellect, spitting out the ferocity of his speeches without a care what the answer will be, the smugness of Scott daring the other person to even try to disagree. Frederic March is total dignity, coming off as someone you could imagine as weak but what he does he’s the strongest of them all, willing to keep from blinking and the power in his eyes and the uncertainty as well. It’s Lancaster and March who get the big confrontation of the entire film with each of them simply brilliant in how they come at each other. It was Kirk Douglas who reportedly realized as they were making the film that he had the lesser part so it could be argued that he visibly transfers that frustration to his performance of a man straitjacketed by what he’s compelled to do and the immense guilt he feels even though he knows what’s right, his silences left hanging there as he becomes more anguished over which side he’s on. As the woman who Scott won’t even say a word about when her name comes up, Ava Gardner plays her role a little like Ava Gardner as Ava Gardner Movie Star, waiting at a party with a drink in her hand to film her Special Guest Appearance. On the audio commentary Frankenheimer refers to difficulties with Gardner and she doesn’t always seem as confident as her co-stars; you can feel the director forced into coverage during a few of her scenes to help them play out. The great Edmond O’Brien received the one acting nomination for this at the Oscars and he’s electrifying, in some ways playing the audience surrogate, the one person in the film who appears to feel mortal, trying to keep his flaws in check for a little while to get the job done. Plus there’s also Martin Balsam, Whit Bissell, Richard Anderson (RIP), George Macready (also in PATHS OF GLORY and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN with Douglas), Colette Jackson as a girl in an El Paso bar wondering about the nearby secret military base (she pops so instantly that on the audio commentary Frankenheimer wonders what happened to her; sadly, she died in ‘69 with only a few other credits) and an unbilled John Houseman, pitch perfect in his first film as an Admiral holding back the truth of what he knows about the plot.

People are who they are. And that’s what they want to be. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. The new Warner Archive Blu lives up to the importance of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, with a transfer that is a huge improvement over the old DVD playing like a crisp new 35mm print after watching a muddy TV broadcast. Plus it contains the illuminating audio commentary that Frankenheimer recorded several years before his passing (he was one of the best at this—he remembers f-stops on certain shots, for crying out loud) and I wish he was still around to tell us more stories about this film to maybe shed more light on the path that led us to where we are right now with people who want nothing more than to be in command, just like the general working under Scott who we’re told subscribes to “out and out fascism”. At the very least, the people in this film seem more intelligent than certain people in the real world these days; certainly the film has better dialogue. So maybe that means there’s hope. Because right now we’re forced to deal with the madness while the intelligence that people like John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling delivered to the world gets left behind. Which is where we are right now. In the future.

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