Seven Days In May (1964)

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”).

There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If more westerns were like The Was a Crooked Man I could consider myself a bigger fan of the genre. The opening scene in which a black maid who fakes the mammy act sets the stage for a film which defies convention. To date I’ve never seen another western like it; it’s not like a John Ford western or a Howard Hawks western, this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz western; the first and only Mankiewicz western. I also love that theme song and am happy to hear it again and again in instrumental form throughout the film.

Mankiewicz was a master of handling dialogue and thus there is such a snappy pace to the whole film. “Nothing like fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy” may be my favourite line Kirk Douglas has ever uttered in a film. The film is full of characters whom each get their own unique stories. The two homosexual lovers and comic buffoons played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph have the most interesting character arc with an outcome which is the only time in the film someone isn’t totally out for themselves. The large scale prison set on the other hand captures the mundanity of prison life with the film gradually building up to the impending escape, ranking There Was a Crooked Man among the great prison escape movies.

There Was a Crooked Man is a movie which combines old Hollywood mixed with new Hollywood with its traditional western setting and it’s dosing of cynicism. The cast features stars both veteran actors and younger stars and a script by David Newman and Robert Benton of Bonnie & Clyde fame. Even the one moral character in the film ends up turning bad. Henry Fonda plays the moral role he was known for throughout his career right up until the very end of the picture, leaving me with a big smile on my face. The movie is very cynical but it’s that kind of wonderful cynicism that makes you feel happy, and not feeling down. Although I would call There Was a Crooked Man a funny movie, it is not the kind of film in which I find myself laughing but rather laughing inside to myself.

Cactus Jack (1979)

Meep Meep!

Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger did a movie together?! Yeah I couldn’t believe it at first ether. But that’s only the tip the ice berg of bizarreness with Cactus Jack. It’s also live action Road Runner cartoon! So let’s sum this up: “One of the all time Hollywood greats and the granddaddy of cheesy action movies team up for a live action road runner cartoon.” How did this movie bypass me for so long?!

Douglas wasn’t as a big a star as he once was by the 70’s so did he take this role due to lack of superior film offerings or was he not ashamed to show that he had a sense of humour about himself. It’s also worth noting the relationship he has with his horse in this movie is very reminiscent of another Kirk Douglas film, Lonely are the Brave. I’m also not sure if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines are intentionally or unintentionally funny. The scene in which he narrates a flashback about when he tried to stop a bunch of horses from injuring woman, children and old men while trying his hardest to emote cracks me up.

The main problem with Cactus Jack is that the jokes are very hit and miss. At 85 minutes it’s already a short movie but even then it could have trimmed down to meet the requirements of its high concept premise. The road runner inspired gags are undoubtedly the highlight. By far my favourite gag is the classic painting a tunnel onto the side of a rock. Of course having this gag in a cartoon is funny itself however I find having it played out in live action is even funnier in the sense that I couldn’t believe they were doing a live action rendition of this joke, having me pondering if that the carriage would really go through that painted tunnel. However is it just me or does the very last gag in the film makes no sense? Why is Kirk Douglas laying a trail of gun powder into a shed full of dynamite when he’s using this shed as a hideout…oh never mind. On the whole it’s a flawed film but it is Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a live action cartoon. Do I even need to say anymore? This is the type of film I could watch more than once purely based on its novelty value.