Seven Days in May (1964)

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*. And before you can finish saying “great titles!” you find out they were done by Saul Bass (though they’re uncredited, Frakenheimer says that he is 95% sure Bass did them).
*. Was this the first “Fed Scare” film, expressing our paranoia over powerful, crypto-government organizations that come complete with secret bases and hit squads? (At least one assumes Martin Balsam’s plane was blown up, though it’s never spelled out.)
*. The usual line has it that the cinema of paranoia was a product of Vietnam and Watergate. This was before all that.

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*. Frankenheimer: “I don’t think that this movie could be made today. I think all the values in the country have changed so drastically . . . in recent years the way the office of the presidency has been debased, I don’t think that the public would accept a president as idealistic as the Frederic March character. But that’s what we believed in in those days.” Probably true, as is his later claim that today’s audiences would probably smirk at the civics lesson in March’s speech in defence of democracy in his confrontation with Lancaster at the end. What happened to us? Oh, I know, but it was more than all that wasn’t it?
*. Was Frankenheimer the Oliver Stone of his day? Not artistically, not by a mile, but politically? A little bit. Stone’s the guy you could best imagine doing a contemporary re-make. Or was that W.?

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*. So how big a cad is Jiggs for trying to schmooze some dirt on General Scott out of his ex (Ava Gardner)? Quite a cad, I’d say. The betrayal scene really exercised Frakenheimer and Serling, and they were never entirely satisfied with their political version of The Aspern Papers. Another writer was brought in, contributing a line that Frankenheimer considered to be the worst in any movie he ever made (“I’ll make you two promises. A very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare”). The whole romantic subterfuge subplot just seems out of character for Jiggs.
*. While on the subject of Ava Gardner (Frankenheimer: “at times, difficult to work with”), how refreshing it is to see a mature, sexual woman, especially in a movie of this vintage. They’re rare enough today.
*. Mattoon. What a wonderful name. I think it’s a city in Illinois.

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*. Lancaster looks rock-like enough to go on Rushmore. The only craggier actor I can think of would be . . . Kirk Douglas. Or maybe Ronald Reagan.

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*. Once again with the giant globe as a symbolic prop for the megalomaniac (noted previously in my commentary on Dr. No). Who was the first to adopt this shorthand? Chaplin?
*. This is a movie that (I think surprisingly) very little has been written about. Perhaps it seems too crude, preachy, and obvious in retrospect. And yet it still works quite well.
*. Rod Serling. Not a realistic writer — he doesn’t do small talk, and many of the lines seem like stage dialogue — but he’s such an honest and essential one.

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*. At heart it’s a theatre piece, which is, I think, what’s really behind Frankenheimer’s use of long takes, composition in depth, and lots of characters attending in the background. Even if they don’t have speaking parts, Frankenheimer likes to keep people on stage.
*. Frankenheimer also loves using the American flag as a prop. In the showdown between Jiggs and Scott, Jiggs is backed by the flag while Scott is backed by missiles, an intentional use of iconography that echoes the opening credits.

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*. I love that scene, by the way. One of my favourite dramatic situations is when two characters engage in a masked conversation: they both know that they’re talking about something that they’re not, superficially, talking about. There’s something in this that, I feel, gets at the very essence of drama. It’s all performance.

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