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SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: from the novel by Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II/Rod Serling; cinematographer: Ellsworth Fredricks; editor: Ferris Webster; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Frederic March (President Jordan Lyman), Kirk Douglas (Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey), Burt Lancaster (General James Mattoon Scott), Edmond O’Brien (Senator Raymond Clark), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Andrew Duggan (Colonel William Henderson), Whit Bissell (Senator Prentice), John Houseman (Vice-Adm. Farley C. Barnswell); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Edward Lewis; Paramount Pictures; 1964)
“Gripping political thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Frankenheimer’s (“The Manchurian Candidate”/”The Train”/”The Young Savages”) gripping political thriller is based on the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and the screenplay is by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame. Its demagogue usurper character is reportedly based on the views of the far-right member of the John Birch Society, General Edwin Walker.

President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union and his poll numbers are very low. Not only is the public displeased with him, but the presidential ambitious charismatic Air Force Gen. James M. Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, considers it a treasonable act and says so publicly–you can’t trust the commies.

Scott’s loyal aide, Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), becomes suspicious of his boss when he accidentally learns of both a top secret base in Texas and of cryptic messages among the Joint Chiefs. When Casey believes that his boss is leading the other Chiefs of Staff in a coup to occur seven days later in May, he reports his suspicions to the President. As a result, Sen. Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) is sent to investigate the secret base. Clark locates the base but is taken captive. He eventually breaks out with the help of Jiggs’s colonel friend, Henderson (Andrew Duggan). The President next sends his press secretary, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), to Gibraltar, who obtains a statement from Admiral Barnswell, a Joint Chief who refused to go along with Scott. But on the return trip Girard is killed in a plane crash, and a fearful Barnswell denies signing the statement.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

But things don’t rest there, as Casey obtains from Scott’s former mistress, the Washington hostess, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), some incriminating letters. Armed with all this information, President Lyman demands the charlatan’s resignation in a confrontation and when things turn completely against the once heroic general, he resigns and the coup never materializes.

The acting by Lancaster, March and Douglas is superb. Frankenheimer keeps it frighteningly chilly, tense, thought-provoking, and realistic. The possibility of such a foul deed happening is very real, and this charged melodrama gives us a good idea of how such an insider coup may look.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”