Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.

Promoting a male-oriented film about politics was always going to be a hard sell despite the distinguished cast. One route Paramount marketeers went down was a massive tie-in with publisher Bantam’s bestseller paperback . Over 1.5 million copies of the book had been rolled out and Bantam had arranged cross-over publicity in supermarkets, five-and-dime stores, booksellers and wholesalers stocking the book. “Look” magazine ran a six-page article by one of the book’s authors Fletcher Knebel.

Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).

The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.

About $65 million out of the U.S. national budget of $90 million was allocated to the military, according to director John Frankenheimer writing in the above magazine. Frankenheimer combined with Kirk Douglas’s company to purchase the book and hire writer Rod Serling. The original script was too long so, without losing a scene, the director went through it cutting phrases and sentences here and there till it was down to the required two-hour length. Paramount put up extra money to get Ava Gardner join the cast.

At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.   

As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.   

Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.

A hint of the future: one unusual aspect of the picture was the use of closed-circuit television which was seen as being used as method of general communication between politicians and the Pentagon.

The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus  three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.

Fashion might have seemed to offer limited marketing opportunities for such a picture but that did not stop Paramount’s publicists. On the back of one of the subsidiary characters being seen combing her hair with an Ajax comb the manufacturer was inveigled into a nationwide campaign. Director John Frankenheimer was pictured wearing a custom-made Cardinal suit in an advert in “Gentlemen’s Quarterly” and designer Mollie Parnis created a suit for women which could be simply altered every day to provide enough outfits for seven days.

Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.  But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Swimmer (1968) *****

Ever since Broadway had produced an elegy to a man broken on the rack of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hollywood had been searching for an equivalent, but had only managed to come up with tales of men self-destructing through drugs (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and alcohol (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962). The Swimmer, with its physical and mental dereliction, filled that void. It was the bravest choice of Burt Lancaster’s career – William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott turned it down –  the athletic prowess that had carried him through a host of films from The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to The Professionals (1966) now virtually redundant.

The final scene when, in the pouring rain, clad only in swimming trunks, he crouches, broken, on the steps of his abandoned house, as if seeking sanctuary in a church, was a stunning image. But it was more than that. Few actors of his generation would have been willing to stoop so low. Yes, the likes of Marlon Brando were often beaten to the point of humiliation (The Chase, 1966), but that was in the course of duty, not in pursuit of the American Dream. That Lancaster, a touchstone to Hollywood virility, the man-god with the dazzling style, was the one to come apart made the drama even more powerful.

The under-rated Frank Perry had struggled to find a footing in Hollywood even after the (minor) success of David and Lisa (1962), but he was one of the few directors willing to tackle the uncommercial subject matter. It was such a troubled production that producer Sam Spiegel, never one to shy away from publicity, did not put his name on it and Sydney Pollack who had directed Lancaster in The Scalphunters (1966) was called in to re-edit the rough cut. Eleanor Perry, the director’s wife, fashioned the script from one of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, by John Cheever.

The story is a simple one. Lancaster plans to swim across the county via the swimming pools of his upmarket neighbors to reach home. At the start he is vigorous, powerful, with a terrific dive and swimming stroke. He names the journey “the Lucinda river” after his wife. But he is like Ebenezer Scrooge, meeting ghosts from his past, facing up to the present, and left with only a desolate future. With each successive visit to a swimming pool, another part of his life unfolds. From the outset we can tell something is wrong – couples exchange odd looks and occasionally he is met with sympathy or hostility, neither of which he comprehends, and persists with a rose-tinted version of his life. And gradually, his physique deserts him and he limps, can’t pull himself effortlessly out of a swimming pool and instead of being warmed by the sun begins to shiver.

Stylistically, the movie begins with the idyllic, a camera tracking through the countryside from Lancaster’s point-of-view, his footsteps on the soundtrack, deer, a rabbit and an owl popping into view. As a counterpoint to long tracking shots of Lancaster trotting down a sunlit avenue of trees, Perry employs the zoom camera (an innovative technique at the time) to go so deeply into his eyes it must pierce his camouflaged soul. Harsher music and slower movement by Lancaster prefigure the onset of dangerous reality. And it is not the end of summer as Lancaster imagines (making reference to flowers or trees) but the beginning of autumn as the drifting leaves show.

By focusing so much on the actor’s physicality – he is never out of swimming trunks – we see at once his strength and his eventual weakness. There is one glorious sequence where he races a horse. In another, he leaps a five-barred fence. This is as the character perceives himself, a triumphant physical specimen.

But what we see, as he is pitifully stripped of dignity, is something else. Scenes that start brightly end ominously. For part of his adventure he is accompanied by former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard). Initially, this is a picture of lost innocence, a three-minute sequence of Lancaster and Landgard mostly in longshot walking in dappled sunshine through the trees, as if they belong in a fairytale, with their voices detached from the images. But when she professes an adolescent crush (stealing one of his shirts, for example) and he begins to act in overprotective paternal fashion she takes it the wrong way and although nothing untoward occurs it clearly creeps the girl out and makes us realise that Lancaster is living in the past.

The present he could – and should have – enjoyed is tantalizingly all around. Every pool he visits belongs to the rich. There is alcohol aplenty. The houses are fabulous. As well as swimming pools, people own horses. Middle-aged neighbors sit out, ignoring the attractions of the pool, enjoying what their wealth has brought.

It is not a descent into madness for he must already have been unhinged to embark on his excursion but a nightmare that never ends. There is no safety harness for the American Dream. Once you fall, there is nothing to stop the plummet. Nothing left but, to mix the metaphors, swimming on empty.

The Swimmer is on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, there is an excellent documentary, directed by Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer (2014)  which you can find on YouTube.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.