Olympus Has Fallen
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer they are at least.
Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personal with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.
The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.
John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.
Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal are never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired, until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Topkapi is one of those movies in which it is fun to look in the background at the colourful array of gadgets and gizmos. The film’s sets are a thing of beauty, full of beautiful, understated colours. This is the kind of movie to watch to watch on a hot summer’s day, or to escape the winter blues. The movie was filmed on location and acts like a time capsules for 1960’s Turkey and Greece, and capturing in a documentary like for the nitty, gritty street corners of Istanbul.
The production code was all but gone in 1964, thus the movie is able to explain and able to show in detail how they are able to commit their crime with explanations of the security system in place and how to bypass them, as well as their undercover scheme and the heist plan; I just delight in that kind of exposition. There were the days before security cameras, therefore they aren’t an obstacle to get around. I also imagine they probably could have chosen to have the criminals get away scot free if they had desired.
Peter Ustinov steals the show, in one of those performances which brings me levels of respect towards an actor playing a loveable sucker and the most unconvincing conman who can’t fool anyone to save his life. Oh the other hand I’ve heard reviewers criticise the casting of a 44 year old Melina Mercouri as a flirt who is not very attractive, I disagree. I find it’s an interesting character dynamic to have a somewhat maniacal nymphomaniac who isn’t particularly attractive yet has a lover who appears to legitimately sees something in her.
Topkapi may have the best heist sequence I’ve seen in a film. By this point in the film I’ve already attached a strong emotional interest in these characters, but during the heist itself the characters played by Ustinov and Maximillian Schell develop an unexpected emotional bond which raises the stakes higher than they are. With a clumsy fool who is afraid of heights, a lighthouse being controlled from afar by other operatives and precise rope movements to moving an entire glass enclosure, I’m left with that glorious feeling of clenching your hands when something almost goes wrong.
Natalie & Tony & Henry & Lauren
A mainstream movie with sex in the title, even pre code didn’t do that. I could only find two films which precede Sex and the Single Girl; Sex (1920) and The Opposite Sex (1956). Although I imagine after this a movie having with “Sex” in a movie’s title wasn’t such a big deal but here they sure take advantage of it with the animated opening which puts alot of emphasis on the word ‘SEX’ in big capital letters. Perhaps the movie may have something interesting to say on its subject with Natalie Wood playing a psychologist who is a 23 old virgin (which characters in the film viewed as a compliment) or something about sleazy journalism but the movie becomes too dull to bother deciphering.
From what I’ve seen I get the impression that Richard Quine is a lousy director. He’s done a number of movies with great casts and interesting premises but are let down by flat, uninspired direction. The opening scene of Sex and the Single Girl is a gem with 1930’s comedy actor Edward Everett Horton giving a speech on how proud he is of his publication becoming “the filthy rag it is today”. Sadly it goes downhill from there. Even with the movie’s madcap finale it is hard to care what’s going on.
Henry Fonda was ashamed of this movie stating in an interview that he agreed to star in the film as a comprise to do a box office picture so he could indulge in doing movies which interested him such as 12 Angry Men and The Ox Bow Incident. There are worse movies you can do but why did he hate it so much? I doubt he would have an issue with appearing in a sex comedy as he himself starred in the sexually charged comedy The Lady Eve years earlier or is it because of the movie’s sleaze factor? Who knows…
Although I would be lying if I didn’t say I still got some superficial enjoyment out of the film. I am a sucker for the 60’s aesthetic with the bright, colourful sets (the stocking factory is very amusing) and the cool, breezy music by Neal Hefti. Likewise I do like the contrast between two generations present between Tony Curtis & Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda & Lauren Bacall. Sex and the Single Girl could have been a neo-screwball gem. In the end it’s a movie which looks appealing from the outside but is hollow on the inside.
Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cooking?
Man’s Favorite Sport? would have to be my favourite neo-screwball comedy (does such a term already exist or can I claim to have invented it?), and perhaps the last screwball directed by one of the original masters of the genre, Howard Hawks.
The factor which by far most surprised me in Man’s Favorite Sport? was Rock Hudson. My previous encounters with the actor left me unimpressed, leaving me classify him as one of classic Hollywood’s duller leading men. However the fact that I not only enjoyed his performance in this film but found him hysterically funny was such a shock that I was demanding answers. Did Hudson acting abilities improve by 1964? Is he better than comedy than drama or had he just grown on me? It just goes to show that there are very few classic Hollywood stars who can’t impress me in at least some small way or another, even if my previous impression of them where not very good. Paula Prentiss is also entering my books as a one hit wonder actress; I’ve yet to see her in another film in which she is as joyous and energetic as this with that comically imposing voice of hers. Being a semi remake of Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, the two leads could have just done impressions of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn but the avoid doing so and make the roles their own but like Grant and Hepburn their chemistry is on fire.
This movie exemplifies in the early to mid 1960’s aesthetic with its fashion, the cars and overall appearance showcasing the final days of old Hollywood glamour. I want to know who the set designer in this film was; the revolving bar alone has to be one of the most unabashedly 60’s sets ever. Even the less “out there” sets such an office, or a fishing shop, have a certain beauty to them. The film’s colorful visuals help give it the appearance of a live action cartoon, partly due to the fact that many of the outdoor scenes take place on obviously fake sets but then again isn’t a live action cartoon one of the definitions of screwball comedy. I also don’t normally go for those cheesy opening credit songs from the 50’s and 60’s often sang by the likes of Doris Day but this one is dam catchy.
Unlike the manic intensity of its sister film Bringing Up Baby, Man’s Favorite Sport? is surprising a very relaxing film to watch, aided by lake side resort setting and Henry Mancini’s music score, which is so mellow. I just love the juvenile innocence of the gags present in this film, such as a bear riding on a motorcycle to many variations of William Powell’s fishing scene from Libeled Lady. Likewise the common screwball comedy theme of crises of masculinity permeates the film. Hudson’s Rodger Willoughby (a name which feels straight from a 1930’s comedy) is an icon of masculinity from writing books about fishing, yet he is secretly a phony who has never fished in his life and completely fails at his attempts at his attempts at outdoor living while being made the foil of two hyperactive women. Man’s Favorite Sport? shows by the 60’s it was still possible to make these kinds of movies with the same velocity they had back in the 30’s.
Fail-Safe or Strangelove? That Is the Question
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Fail-Safe is largely overshadowed by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove due to both movies being released in the same year. Both films deal with the events leading up to a nuclear strike although Fail-Safe takes a serious approach as opposed to the comedic nature of Dr. Strangelove. I much prefer Fail-Safe which I feel is a considerably more suspenseful film than Dr. Strangelove is a funny film. Fail-Safe examines in step by step detail what could potentially happen if a technical mishap gave pilots on a bomber the order to drop a nuclear bomb, in this case on the city of Moscow. The movie never explains what the technical mishaps was but the rest of the film examines in precise detail the actions which would be carried out if such a thing was too happen; primarily trying to stop the bombers and convincing the Soviets that the oncoming attack is accidental. Although the opening scene at the rodeo seems rather pretentious, Fail-Safe is a no-nonsense, straight to the point wordy drama. Like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe is a film driven by heart pounding wordy exchanges.
Playing the President of The United States requires an actor with charisma and a commanding screen presence, no surprise that Henry Fonda pulls of the role with the greatest of ease. As a huge Henry Fonda fan I do delight in seeing him as the most powerful man in the world. Along with James Stewart and Gary Cooper as actors who best embody the everyman, I feel this is one of the best roles of his career, representing the ideal American President (on the surface level at least) I’m sure many wish for (no political party is mentioned) as he tries to remain calm under the most extreme pressure.
Fonda spends almost the entire film in a small room only being accompanied by his Russian language translator Buck (Larry Hagman). This one aspect of the film did have questioning why the President isn’t surrounded by advisers and associates but this one liberty does create a sense of loneliness and claustrophobia with the film’s use of high contrast black and white cinematography also heightens the sense of fear and giving the film a great visual flare in one of the most visually stunning black & white films of the 1960s’s. Hagman’s performance itself is especially impressive as his character translates Russian to English as he listens to it being spoken, talking in a uniquely awkward manner in several sequences throughout the film, the first of which is a single, lengthy uncut shot.
The only other liberty I have to question in Fail-Safe is the failure of the wife of the bomber pilot O’Grady to tell him something only the two of them would know when speaking to him over the radio in an attempted to divert the bomber from destroying Moscow and convince them this isn’t an impression from Soviet spies – Could have at least been worth an attempt in order to avoid World War III.
Comedic actor Walter Matthau shows off his dramatic stripes as the cynical nuclear expert Professor Groeteschele, whom is more concerned with the political and economic aspects of nuclear warfare as opposed to the cost to human life. He is cold hearted and has no sentimental side to him and even gets pleasure making discussions of nuclear war into a piece of sick entertainment as seen at a house party during the beginning of the film. Later he makes very questionable recommendations in attempt to have communism destroyed when the opportunity arises due to the technical mishap. His final worlds in Fail-Safe are a recommendation to prioritise recovering business records in New York City over the recovery of survivors and the dead as apparently the economy depends on it. Whether or not this and other actions are justified, Groeteschele is a character who gives off bad vibes throughout the film and appears to enjoy his job a little too much.
The movie contains a disclaimer at the end that the US military has procedures on place to prevent the film’s events from occurring actually occurring but with a character like Matthau’s being a government adviser, I wonder what kind of statement the movie is making. The Congressman Mr. Raskob acts as the audience getaway character, perplexed and terrified of the technology he is being given a tour off at the war room of Strategic Air Command while the military personal act in a confident manner to the improbability of anything going wrong. I doubt Fail-Safe is going to give any viewers a pro-nuclear mindset and will leave a chill down your spine. I feel nobody does thought provoking and issue based films (or issuetainment) as well as Sidney Lumet but none quite as terrifying as Fail-Safe.