Seven Days in May

   This post is part of Classic Movie Blog Associations “Politics on Film.”  Blogathon.

In the opening scenes of “Seven Days in May,” we find picketers from both sides of the political spectrum demonstrating outside the White House. Tempers are high. A riot breaks out, and the police arrive attempting to break up what has turned into a free for all. Those divisive times were over fifty years ago. It’s amazing how times have not changed. Today it is no different, tolerance and respect are in short supply. For many of us, emotions are driven by fear. We live in a period where Americans fear foreigners, terrorists, North Korea, Iran, Nuclear war and more. Fear drives irrational behavior.

     Based on a novel written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, and published during the Kennedy administration, the roots of Seven Days in May go back to the late 1950s and one Major General Edwin Walker. Walker was a staunch anti-communist with strong political views, which he had no problem sharing with those under his command. He labeled former President Truman, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others including then-current President Eisenhower communists. He protested to President Eisenhower about sending Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to assist with the integration of schools. Walker was a follower of Rev. Billy James Hargis, who believed the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot. Walker was also an acquaintance of Robert Welch Jr., a co-founder of the John Birch Society. Walker submitted a resignation letter to Eisenhower, which the President refused to accept. After the election of J.F.K., Walker once again sent a letter of resignation. Kennedy accepted it. Walker was out, though his ties to Kennedy did not end there.  The novel’s authors used Walker as a major inspiration for the character of U.S. Air Force General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film.

     Kirk Douglas purchased the film rights to the book, and despite Pentagon objections received the blessings of then President Kennedy to make the film. Burt Lancaster agreed to play Scott and John Frankenheimer to direct, this despite his misgivings of working with Lancaster again after having problems during the making of Birdman of Alcatraz.

     President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union going against the opinion and recommendations of his military advisors. Scott is especially perturbed and considers the President’s move an act of treason. The American public has reacted by giving Lyman a twenty-nine percent approval rating.

    Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), Scott’s aide, comes across some strange inexplicable information: various cryptic data sent between Joint Chiefs of Staff members, a secret military base located in a barren area of Texas. Suspicious, “Jiggs” suspects that Scott and a group of other senior military are planning a coup. The military takeover is scheduled for the following Sunday when the President will be isolated during a military practice alert. Though he has no definitive proof, “Jiggs” goes to the President who gathers a group of trusted advisers to investigate the claims. The President sends faithful Georgia Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) to Texas to investigate the secret military base. He finds it and ends up held in confinement. Presidential aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) is sent to the Mediterranean to “talk,” basically draw out a written confession from Vice Admiral Barnswell (John Houseman).  Girard gets it, but on his way home is killed in a plane crash over Spain. The confession, tucked in a cigarette case, a gift from the President, lies in the wreckage. Additionally, “Jiggs” obtains some discriminating letters from Scott’s former lover, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to use against Scott. The President does not want to use the letters, we’re never told what they contain, though he is encouraged by his staff to use them. Scott, by any means necessary, must be stopped.

     When the President confronts Scott, the General denies it all. He is convinced the public is behind him and not a weak President. Leyman is about to confront Scott with the letters, but at the last minute stops himself. Later, after a meeting with the other Joint Chiefs, Scott tells them of his meeting with the President, and that he has no solid evidence. They need to stay united and move on with their plan on Sunday. However, before the plot is put in motion, the President holds a press conference demanding the resignation of Scott and the other Chiefs of Staff. During the press conference, the President is informed that Girard’s cigarette case was found and contained Barnwell’s handwritten admission of the plot. He orders copies be made and sent to Scott and the others. The coup is over. The President addresses the nation saying, “There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men, are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.”

     Though made more than a half a century ago, Lyman’s film ending speech remains thought provoking and a powerful indictment on those who believe the only road to peace is through bigger and bigger bombs. War is the answer. As Lyman says, “our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker.”

     Seven Days in May is a perfect companion piece to director John Frankenheimer’s previous paranoid/political film, “The Manchurian Candidate,” Frankenheimer remains faithful to their respective sources. The film is one of the finest and frightening political thrillers ever made.  Frankenheimer’s sharp direction is nicely complemented by Ellsworth Fredericks low-key, almost noir-like cinematography, and Jerry Goldsmith’s menacing score magnificently assists in setting the mood. The entire cast is impressive: Burt Lancaster is like a tightly wound clock, and far more evil than had he been his loud, typical over-acting self; Kirk Douglas had the tough role of blowing the whistle on his boss, a man he admired; Frederic March makes for an admirable President who has lost the confidence of the American public, but must stick to the principals he believes are right, and Edmond O’Brien gives a typically steady performance as the boozy Senator from Georgia. Others in the cast include the still beautiful Ava Gardner, Andrew Duggan, George Macready, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe, and Richard Anderson.

President John F. Kennedy read the novel and found it credible enough to believe it could happen here. Assassinated in November 1963, Kennedy never did get to see the film. Still, there is one more connection between J.F.K. and Seven Days in May.  On April 10th, 1963, retired General Edwin Walker, whom Lancaster’s character was inspired by, was in his home sitting at a desk when a bullet came through his window, fragments from the shattered window wounding Walker. While there is no definitive proof the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, he was known to hate Walker considering him a fascist. Oswald’s wife Marina later testified after the Kennedy assassination that her husband told her he was going to shoot Walker. However, by the time the FBI found out about this connection, Lee Harvey Oswald is shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

Across 110th Street

unnamedAcross 110th Street is an intense, nasty, hard-boiled heist film that from its opening moments to its final freeze frame finish never lets up. The pacing furious and deadly. Shot on location, mostly in Harlem, this film is too easily characterized as just another blaxploitation film; it’s not, this is a top-notch crime film that is a must-see for crime film connoisseurs. Continue reading

Point Blank (1967)

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John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir Point Blank is based on the novel, The Hunter, the first of twenty-three hard-boiled paperbacks about a career criminal who goes by the singular name of Parker. The series was written by Richard Stark, one of many pseudonyms used by Donald E. Westlake, one of the all-time great crime fiction writers our time. Westlake’s career spread across novels, screenplay, and television. Several of his many books have made it to the big screen including The Split (1968) The Hot Rock (1972), Cops and Robbers (1973), Bank Shot (1974) and Two Much among others. Westlake’s screenplay credits include The Grifters (2000), adapted from famed pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson novel, and The Stepfather. Two of my own personal favorite works of Westlake books are both standalone novels: The Hook and The Ax. Continue reading

Beirut (2018)

BeirutBrad Anderson’s new film, Beirut has been receiving mixed reviews. Some critics are calling it not accurate. That said, it remains  one of the more intelligent and adult films released so far this year which means it will lose money and die a quick death at the box office. With no Marvel superheroes or bottom-feeder level comedy,  the film has little to attract the majority of today’s audience. Continue reading

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

farwell_my_lovely-6Robert Mitchum may have been a little long in the tooth to play Philip Marlowe, and the film itself is no hipster revisionist tale like Robert Altman did with The Long Goodbye just a few years earlier. Farewell, My Lovely is a straight throwback to the classic days of Bogart, Powell, and Montgomery. Mitchum, of course, starred in many classic noirs: Out of the Past, Angel Face, The Racket and Where Danger Lives are just a few. This was Mitchum’s first time portraying the P.I. In 1978, Mitchum would again play Marlowe in the Michael Winner remake of The Big Sleep. That film was a bit of a misfire. While not as bad as its reputation, let’s just say Bogart and Howard Hawks have nothing to worry about. Continue reading

Georgia O’Keeffe (2009) Bob Balaban

georgia-jpgGeorgia O’Keeffe, a pioneer of the modern art movement and one of the most famous American female artists, captured through her abstract depictions of large flowers, animal skulls and the landscape of the Southwest, the power, the emotional pull and perception of abstraction in art. O’Keeffe was unique; she followed no artistic school or thought. Her vision of form and design all came from within her own spirit. Continue reading

Florida Noir: Out of Time

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Like Florida, Out of Time is laid back and easy, at least it starts off that way. We meet Banyan Key Police Chief Matt Lee Whitlock, a smooth Denzel Washington, as he makes his rounds one hot evening in the small coastal town. Relaxing back at the office, he receives a phone call from one Ann Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan); there’s an intruder outside her small house, can he come over. At her home, he begins asking a series of questions. We soon realize they are both acting out a coquettish sexual game that ends up with them in bed. The playful sexuality is as hot as the Floridian temperature in the dead heat of summer. Continue reading

Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder

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A dark Los Angeles night. A reckless speeding car is seen racing through the streets running a red light. When it comes to a screeching stop, a hunched over man gets out and enters the Pacific All Risk Insurance Co. Building. After looking at row after row of desk after repetitive desk, he goes into his private office. The man is hurt badly. Hunched over, perspiration running down his face, he begins to tell his tale into a dictaphone. His name is Walter Neff, and he is about to make a confession. Continue reading

Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965) Joseph Cates

whokilledteddybear-1600x900-c-defaultConsidering the subject matter, it’s amazing that the low budget, Who Killed Teddy Bear was released in 1965. The film is a smorgasbord of Production Code taboos broken one after another: incest, masturbation, homosexuality and more. It all set in the seedy lurid world of 1960’s slime filled Times Square. It’s an oddity for sure, and a definite bump up above the typical sexploitation movies that decorated the deuce and Times Square back in the day, if for no other reason than the cast includes Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Jan Murray and Elaine Stritch. One other reason to watch is due to the gritty, noirish cinematography provided by Joseph C. Brun (Odds Against Tomorrow, Edge of the City). One word of warning. Though over fifty years old and not as graphic as films today, Who Killed Teddy Bear may still be unsettling for some. Continue reading

The Grapes of Wrath on TCM – Feb. 10th

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John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of classic Hollywood’s most impressive and important films. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, a morally emotional work filled with both rage and empathy; it won both the National Book Award and a Pulitzer. One year after the book’s publication came Ford’s masterpiece.

TCM is broadcasting the film on Friday (February 10th) at 8PM (Eastern).

Down below is an excerpt from my e-book, Lessons in the Dark, where you can read more about  The Grapes of Wrath classic films. Available at Amazon. Continue reading