Screenwriter Rod Serling really likes to employ monologues in Seven Days in May. John Frankenheimer likes to direct them too. And the actors like to give them. Because they’re good monologues. The monologues give all then actors fantastic material. Everyone except George Macready, who isn’t the right kind of scenery chewer for Seven Days. Maybe Ava Gardner, who gets the thankless role of being the only female character of note in the film; doubly thankless, given her part is of a fallen woman and her monologue is the weakest in the film, writing-wise. She’s at least good and effective, just shoe-horned in. Macready has a choice part and oozes too much through it.
There are a lot of actors in Seven Days, there are a lot of monologues. The only one not to get any monologues (well, within reason, given the size of the part) Kirk Douglas. For the first half of the film, he’s sort of bouncing between monologues as he has a conspiracy thriller discovery arc as well as a “why the heck are there so many facists in the Armed Forces” arc. Douglas works for Burt Lancaster, who’s the top dog general at the Pentagon. Lancaster gets some great monologues. Fredric March is the President of the United States, who’s just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets. Lancaster thinks March is a weak sister. Douglas thinks the military should stay out of politics and, somewhat naively, believes it does. But he also doesn’t think fascists are okay, so when it seems like there’s something suspicious going on with an upcoming nuclear threat drill–Douglas goes to the White House and tells March there’s a conspiracy for a military coup of the United States.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it’s a success. Seven Days is great entertainment. It just ought to be a lot better.
When the film starts, it’s Frankenheimer showing off. There’s a fight scene. Protestors for and against nuclear peace. Shocker, all the people against are white males. They throw the first punch. Riot in front of the White House. Frankenheimer shoots it stark, documentary style. There’s some issues with the scale of it, but it’s still an effective sequence. It’s also the only time Frankenheimer does anything approaching vérité. So while it’s distinctive, it’s a rouse. Seven Days isn’t going to be vérité. Though there are occasional later hints, which never pan out.
But then it almost immediately becomes Douglas’s movie. For the first half of the picture, until he tries to seduce Gardner for information to take down Lancaster, Douglas is the protagonist. The movie’s about the conspiracy, sure, but it’s about how he’s reacting to his role working against his commanding officer. After the Gardner seduction, the movie reduces Douglas to a supporting role. It’s got no real lead, just March, Lancaster, Edmond O’Brien, and sort of Martin Balsam. Balsam’s the only other person in the main cast not to get a monologue. He and Douglas are doers. Everyone else is a talker, especially O’Brien, who’s a drunken Southern senator who chows down on every line, sweating profusely and spectacularly. It’s a thin role at times–O’Brien gets to talk the movie version of politics, which hurts everyone who has to expound on it eventually; not even Lancaster and March can make the third act work.
See, Seven Days is able to get away with its American exceptionalism but not warmongers movie politics because Serling and Frankenheimer never double down on them. The thriller aspect is bigger. There’s even a military sand-crawler chase sequence. For a while in the second act, right after the film drops Douglas down, it seems like it might get action-packed. Then it doesn’t. It goes through a series of false endings and hinges the whole thing on the movie politics and how well Serling can write monologues about them.
And he chokes a little. There are too many monologues in the third act and they’re all too long. Lancaster gets away with one too long monologue. Poor March gets two.
Acting-wise, almost everyone’s fantastic. Not Macready. Andrew Duggan’s got a great small part. Lancaster’s great, March is great, Douglas is great. The problem is Serling’s switch from specific protagonist–Douglas–to a general one witnessing the events, which ends up being March most often. Serling fumbles that switch in perspective, but he and Frankenheimer keep the narrative distance about the same. So it’s not successful, but far from a failure.
Gardner’s good. The part’s crap. Even in the context of the story, the part’s crap–she’s Lancaster’s former now drunk mistress, who Douglas exploits for information. She’s got like three scenes, interacting with no one but Douglas. Again, shoe-horned in. Still, she makes the part work. It’s just she and Douglas really get boned by the script in the second half.
O’Brien’s kind of amazing. He’s a little broad, but he and Balsam as globe-trotting spies is one of Seven Days’s nicer second act touches. Balsam’s good too, he’s just got a far less showy part.
The film’s got great production values–big scale from Frankenheimer–amazing editing from Ferris Webster, good photography from Ellsworth Fredericks, solid Jerry Goldsmith score. It’s great entertainment.
It’s just a little thin.
Directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Rod Serling, based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Cary Odell; produced by Edward Lewis; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Kirk Douglas (Col. Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Burt Lancaster (Gen. James Mattoon Scott), Edmond O’Brien (Sen. Raymond Clark), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Whit Bissell (Sen. Frederick Prentice), George Macready (Christopher Todd), Hugh Marlowe (Harold McPherson), Richard Anderson (Col. Murdock), Bart Burns (Secret Service White House Chief Art Corwin), and Andrew Duggan (Col. William ‘Mutt’ Henderson).