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”).

12 Angry Men (1957)

…and Justice for All

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I don’t think I can bestow a higher statement of praise on a film than to call it a life changing experience. 12 Angry Men influenced me not to believe everything I hear, instead to question things and ultimately turning me into a more skeptical person; there is more to life than meets the eye (or ear). It’s one of few films which helped shape who I am as a person.  When watching it I constantly visualise the details in my head of the events and locations of the murder case described in the film. I enjoy never knowing what really happened; did the kid commit murder or not? It’s up for the viewer to decide.

12 Angry Men is a movie which is hard to write a review for; I wouldn’t be surprised if I come back to add more since I find myself watching 12 Angry Men at least once a year. With layer upon layer upon layer, this is a movie I could talk about hours, and always finding new aspects to discuss on each viewing. Ah the joy of an engrossing, wordy, civil debate. As the exposition reveals more details of the case I am left saying in the words of Milhouse Van Houten, “Tell me more!” 12 Angry Men is like Pringles, once you pop you just can’t stop, stop watching that is.

Every time I watch 12 Angry Men I find myself focusing in on a different character. I’d have to watch the 12 times in order to fully explore every character, all representative of personalities we’re likely to encounter in real life’; I’m sure I’ve encountered each one at some point in my life. This is a movie which needed a cast comprised of character actors (aside from Henry Fonda) in order to create such personalities. The characters are believable without being two dimensional stereotypes. Not all of them leave prejudice at the door; it’s more obvious with some than others. Not all of them really take much interest in the case or have much pride being part of a jury and even treating it as a bit of a joke at times; even the judge at the beginning doesn’t to be very enthusiastic about the case at hand. They also have different levels of levels of confidence and surety in their opinions.

12 Angry Men also provides an insight into avoiding group conflict. Like with a jury or a classroom full of people, this large variety of personalities are unlikely to converge elsewhere in a small space for a period of time in which they have to communicate with each other, such as what John Hughes would explore with his teen detention drama in 1985 with The Breakfast Club. You really get a sense of who likes who and who doesn’t as the heat beats down in that claustrophobic space. Director Sidney Lumet made the cast spend time with each other before filming and it certainly helped. I don’t feel like I’m watching actors, I feel like I’m watching a group of everyday people in a jury. As not all US states at the time opened their doors to having women present in juries; the film is not 12 Angry Men and Women. I imagine the feminine point of few would have influenced the examination of the proceedings; just think of Grace Kelly’s female instincts from Rear Window.

 

The cast:

Juror #1 (Martin Balsam):

The Jury Foreman. He doesn’t express any opinion or reasons for changing his vote, taking a neutral stance like a media presenter.

Juror #2 (John Fiedler):

Nerdy and socially awkward, reminds me of Rick Moranis. I find it interesting that he is placed sitting beside Lee J. Cobb’s juror #3 as the two are polar opposites. He finds it difficult to articulate an opinion at first but grows confidence and later stands up to the other jurors.

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb):

Lee J. Cobb is my favourite of the cast, in my view being the most interesting complex character with the biggest ark as the opinionated and brash Juror #3; ultimately stealing the show. He seems fair and rational at first until we gradually discover he wants to boy on trial found guilty for personal reasons. His breakdown at the end is a highlight in a film full of awe inspiring performances. His angry outburst to Fonda that he’ll kill him followed by Fonda’s response of “You don’t really mean you’ll kill me, do you?”, is surely one of the greatest zingers in cinema history.

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall):

A cold hearted individual which is reflected by his wearing of a jacket throughout the whole 90 minutes despite the heat. A bit of a ‘know it all’ which makes it all the more interesting when he is proven wrong. Also the movies and stars mentioned during his cross examination by Fonda are not real.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman):

Comes from a slum background although his appearance doesn’t suggest this. He votes guilty on two occasions despite the boy on trail coming from his same background.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns):

The most normal juror, doesn’t stand out – a very regular John Doe. He doesn’t have anything to add when asked for his opinion, just repeating points which have already been made in an unsure manner.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden):

Clearly doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t care about the case and even bullies and tries to intimidate other jurors. He has no respect for the grounds with his gum chewing and litter throwing and although he never outright says he wants to leave and go to the ball game which he has tickets for, but it’s painfully obvious from the beginning.

Juror #8/ Davis (Henry Fonda):

The outsider of the jury. A man who is brave enough to stand up to the collective and going against popular opinion, even when the rest of them get frustrated with him. Fonda like in many of his movies is a beacon of truth and justice here, but he doesn’t come off as unbelievable saintly – even with his wearing of a white suit. The scene in which he puts his knife in the table is a gasping moment if there ever was one.

Juror #9/ McCardle (Joseph Sweeney):

The most elderly member of the jury. Juror #1 states he should be respected because of that, and I believe this is deserved because of his knowledge and his confidence in Juror #8.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley):

The most obviously bigoted member of the jury and thus ultimately doesn’t prove to be a huge help to the proceedings with his prejudiced rants or his hypocrisy in defending the woman’s statement despite her also being “one of them” too. At one point he even suggests telling a funny story he heard rather than discussing the case and eventually gets expelled from the table for his prejudiced views.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec):

An immigrant who takes more pride in the democratic system than any of the American members of the Jury and defending it such as when Juror #10 demands that Juror #5 reveals his voting choice. Likewise I love his statement to Juror #2 in response to what side he is on: “I don’t believe I have to be loyal to one side or the other, I’m simply asking questions”.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber):

I get the impression he represents 1950’s conformity with his appearance, looking like a character from  a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy with his very 50’s glasses and hair. He goes along with the crowd, even changing his vote more than once.

Is Jury Duty really this incredible in the real world? At the end of the film I wonder if the jurors are aware that they’ve just experienced probably the most incredible 90 minutes of their lives.