Friday, December 19, 2014

Seven Days in May

As far as the black-and-white movies go, Kirk Douglas is one of my favorite stars.  Like many of the Hollywood icons of the classic era, he embodied toughness, grit, humor, integrity, confidence – all the good qualities we expected to find in leading men back then.  Sure, he could be a bastard if the role called for it, but every time I see him on the screen I am hooked. 

I liked him in Kubrick’s World War I moralistic epic Paths of Glory.  I liked him as Doc Holiday in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  Superb as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life.  He was great in the relatively unknown Ace in the Hole.  And one on my favorite Kirk Douglas performance was in Seven Days in May, perhaps because of the “last boy scout” aspect to his Colonel Casey, perhaps because of the visceral power struggle with his nemesis and superior commanding officer, Burt Lancaster, himself no slouch on the big screen.

Seven Days in May deals with a secret coup d’etat against a flailing President of the United States (played by Fredric March), launched by the charismatic Air Force general (Lancaster) in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  A mid-level Colonel at the Pentagon (Douglas) stumbles across a few odd occurrences one Sunday, such as the heads of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines sending in bets on the Preakness horse race in May and the possible existence of a heretofore unknown division of soldiers called ECOMCON (Emergency Communications Control) and a heretofore unknown military base.  Putting the pieces together in a spooky and ominous way, Colonel Casey’s conscience forces him to bring his uncertainties to the President.  Through some deduction and detective work, the coup is uncovered, set to take place during a full-scale military exercise six days later.  The question remains: how to stop this exercise in brutal military muscle-flexing while remaining firmly on the side of the Constitution and the American way of life.

Needless to say, it’s a great political thriller with some great confrontational scenes between March and Lancaster and Douglas and Lancaster.  One of the best closing exchanges ever in the history of movies, too.

I’ve seen it a handful of times.  Saw it with the wife and she seemed to enjoy it too.  Then I found the novel John Frankenheimer based his movie one at one of my used book stores a year or so ago, immediately bought it and finally got around to reading it. 

Which got me thinking.  Which was better – the book or the movie?

The movie generally follows the book in plot with a few major differences.  In the book, the President has a few more allies working with him; in the movie it’s just him, Casey, his chief of staff and a senator friend.  The book also worked in more of Lancaster’s compatriots, whereas in the movie they are faceless brass.  If I recall correctly, the movie presented March’s President, Lancaster’s General Scott, and Douglas’s Colonel Casey as a triumvirate with more-or-less equal screen time.  In the book it seemed that Casey had much less time; his time as the focal point was given instead to the President.  So in the movie if President/Casey/Scott was at 40/40/20, in the book it’d be 60/20/20.  But that’s just an unscientific spur of the moment survey of three-week-old memories echoing in my brain.

Anyway, the major difference between the book and the movie is, as far as I can tell, Ava Gardner.  A character in the book who inhabits exactly one chapter is written up for Ms. Gardner, and I can understand why.  And in the book, the President is confronted with the option of using a tax return the Gardner character has which has a deduction for “entertaining” General Scott, and it’s implied this will publicly humiliate the General.  In the movie it’s a stack of love letters from a failed extramarital romance.  Maybe the first is a euphemism for the second, but either way it’s a seedy, last-ditch fallback plan the distinguished President does not want to use.  Truth be told, in both media, it was the weakest part for me.

The best parts?  The no-nonsense confrontations.  Between President and potential Usurper.  Between potential Usurper and his unimpeachable underling.  Whether its March and Lancaster or Lancaster and Douglas verbally sparring, those scenes are the payoff.  Right vs. Wrong, Right vs. Might, the Constitution – those who would uphold it vs. those who would usurp it.  Great stuff, great dialogue.  And when it comes to the choice between reading those blistering, tension-laden exchanges between characters on the page or icons on the silver screen, the edge has to go with the movie every time.

And that classic question at the end: Do you know who Judas was?  The answer is worth the price of admission.

Grade: Movie – A+ / Book – A

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