Seven Days in May Blu-ray Review

Highly recommended 5 Stars

Seven Days in May is a taut, intelligent thriller about an attempted military takeover of the United States government which has been beautifully brought to Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

Seven Days in May (1964)
Released: 01 Mar 1964
Rated: APPROVED
Runtime: 118 min
Director: John Frankenheimer
Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner
Writer(s): Fletcher Knebel (novel), Charles W. Bailey II (novel), Rod Serling (screenplay)
Plot: United States military leaders plot to overthrow the President because he supports a nuclear disarmament treaty and they fear a Soviet sneak attack.
IMDB rating: 7.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 58 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Standard Blu-ray Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 05/02/2017
MSRP: $21.99

The Production: 5/5

I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government. – Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey

Seven Days in May is a taut, intelligent thriller about an attempted military takeover of the United States government which has been beautifully brought to Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

The President of the United States, Jordan Lyman (Frederic March), has recently negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, a treaty which has deeply divided American citizens and is strongly opposed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). The Gallup Poll shows that the approval rating of the president has sunk to a new low, and a demonstration in front of the White House has broken out in a brawl between Lyman supporters and those who are opposed to the treaty.

In the meantime, the president is meeting with his most trusted advisors: his appointments secretary Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien) of Georgia. There are serious and justifiable concerns about the Soviet Union’s willingness to abide by the treaty, and there is likely to be some pain experienced by an economy with has been on a war-readiness footing since the end of World War II. The continual bashing of the treaty by the charismatic General Scott, Senator Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), and rabble-rousing television commentator Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) has helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the president.

Scott attends a contentious hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee with his assistant, Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), after which they discuss a Top Secret training alert which has been scheduled for the following Sunday. Scott reminds his assistant that only a relatively few military officers and the president know about the alert, and even the Congress is being kept in the dark.

Casey then goes to the Joint Chiefs communications center to review the classified messages which have arrived that day. A talkative junior officer points out to him that Scott has sent out an unusual message on classified channels about a betting pool for the upcoming Preakness Stakes. The recipients of the message are all high-ranking military officers, and only one, Vice-Admiral Barnswell (John Houseman), the commander of the Sixth Fleet, has declined to participate. Casey shrugs it off, figuring that rank has its privileges, but shortly thereafter he bumps into an old friend, Colonel William “Mutt” Henderson (Andrew Duggan). After exchanging pleasantries, Henderson mentions that he is now the Executive Office of ECOMCON. Casey is momentarily taken aback because he has never heard of ECOMCON, even though his position in the Pentagon requires him to know about all military commands. Henderson naturally assumes that Casey knows all about ECOMCON, so when his friend inquiries about the command’s staffing he replies that there are 100 officers and 3,600 enlisted men stationed at a base near El Paso.

Casey is baffled and troubled about the fact that he has been left out of the loop regarding ECOMCON, and he is mildly annoyed a few minutes later when Scott’s aide, Colonel Murdock (Richard Anderson), quizzes him about whether he said anything to Henderson about the alert. Casey then casually mentions Scott’s Preakness pool, and Murdock almost flies off the handle. This unexpected reaction prompts Casey to begin making inquiries about ECOMCON, but he finds that the Pentagon operator has no phone number for a command by that name. At a party that evening Senator Prentice lets slip to Casey that he knows about the alert. Late in the evening Casey decides that he had better drive to General Scott’s house to report this, but when he arrives he discovers that Senator Prentice’s car is parked there.

The next morning Casey, suspicious about what he saw last night, asks his boss if he didn’t sleep well. “Got to bed too early,” lies Scott. “Slept from 8:00 to 8:00. Too much sleep.” Following a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, which Casey does not attend, he has a brief chat with Scott, who is leaving for New York to give a speech. Casey then notices a scrap of paper has been left on a table, which he instinctively picks up. It is a handwritten note which mentions ECOMCON and an airlift which is scheduled for Sunday, the day of the alert. Casey is persuaded that something is amiss, and he risks his career by asking for a meeting with President Lyman.

Burt Lancaster is imposing and thoroughly convincing as General Scott. Kirk Douglas recruited Lancaster to appear in the film, and reportedly he came to regret that Lancaster got the meatier role, but Jiggs Casey is more complex and in some respects the more interesting character of the two. Frederic March is excellent as the unpopular president who has less than a week to find out if there is anything to Casey’s suspicions. The always reliable Edmond O’Brien is superb as the hard-drinking Senator Clark, a performance which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Martin Balsam is equally effective as Paul Girard, and John Houseman is fine in the small but important role of Admiral Barnswell.

Also getting star billing is Ava Gardner as Eleanor Holbrook, a Washington socialite who has a past with both Casey and Scott. The depiction of Holbrook in the film is a considerable departure from the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. In the novel she is in her late twenties and living in New York City, and she willingly provides Casey with some information which proves to be important in the story’s ultimate outcome. Gardner plays her as an older woman, and while the interaction between her and Casey is interesting, in the end it does not amount to much.

The film’s often electrifying script is by Rod Serling, and in most respects it is true to the novel. A few scenes have been compressed – for example, the novel begins on Sunday but the film opens on Monday, which required moving the Preakness Stakes from Saturday to Sunday or it would have been Six Days in May. The chronology of the ending also has been changed, making it more tense and dramatic.

Seven Days in May is directed with skill and intensity by John Frankenheimer, whose previous film was the highly controversial The Manchurian Candidate. He had a reputation for being a demanding director who always knew exactly what he wanted, which apparently suited Lancaster. They had previously worked together on The Young Savages and Birdman of Alcatraz, and would so again on The Train.

The premise of Seven Days in May is that democracy is a fragile form of government. Its viability depends upon the willingness of those in power to peacefully turn over that power to others when the electorate so decides. In the United States it requires faithful adherence to the Constitution, even when that document gets in the way of policies which many might strongly support. President Lyman eloquently states his feelings on the subject:

There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win, without war, the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander. Because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men, are wrong. We remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient. And we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.

That sentiment undoubtedly strikes some as hopeful and others as hopelessly naive. Regardless, this country’s democracy has survived for nearly 250 years, and Seven Days in May is a timely reminder that preserving it requires eternal vigilance.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

Frankenheimer preferred to film in black & white, and this sparkling Blu-ray transfer helps us to understand why. It is framed at 1.78:1 and is delivered in 1080p via the AVC codec. The picture is very sharp, with the unavoidable exception of some brief dissolves. Black levels are solid, shadow detail is excellent, and contrast is strong. A natural level of film grain has been retained to give Seven Days in May a natural film-like appearance.

The superb cinematography is the work of Ellsworth Fredericks (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sayonara). President Kennedy was fond of the novel and gave permission for Frankenheimer to film the opening protest scene on location in front of the White House, while the president was away for a weekend. He also gave permission for the set designers to come in and sketch the interior of the White House, which gives the film a strong sense of authenticity. The shots of Paul Girard boarding an aircraft carrier were filmed aboard an active carrier, USS Kitty Hawk, in San Diego (doubling as Gibraltar).

Readers are encouraged to read the laudatory comments of our resident film restoration expert, Robert A. Harris:

A few words about…™ Seven Days in May — in Blu-ray

Audio: 4.5/5

The DTS HD-MA 2.0 soundtrack is flawless. Dialogue is crystal clear, ambient sounds provide some realistic effects, and Jerry Goldsmith’s pulsating score, particularly during the opening credits, makes it clear that this is a very serious film.

English SDH subtitles are available.

Special Features: 2.5/5

The extras on this Blu-ray disc consist of the original theatrical trailer (which is rather long with a running time of 3 minutes, 42 seconds) and a very informative commentary track by director John Frankenheimer. We are fortunate to have the commentary track as it was recorded in 1999, just three years before he died from complications following back surgery. Both extras apparently appear on the 2000 DVD release of Seven Days in May.

The director goes into great deal about the film’s production, discussing everything from filming locations to camera angles to the actors. I was surprised to learn that he had done a considerable amount of prior work with Rod Serling on television dramas. He also tells the story about how he decided to have the first scene of the film on a Monday but then realized that the story would end on Saturday. His friend Charles Lederer came up with the idea of having the Preakness Stakes run on a Sunday so that the story would cover a full seven days. Nobody seemed to mind, even though horse racing wasn’t done on Sundays in 1964.

Overall: 5/5

Seven Days in May is a top-notch political thriller with a cast which features some of Hollywood’s finest actors. I enjoyed the story so much that I re-read the novel immediately after I saw the announcement that the Blu-ray was coming out.

This is a must-see Blu-ray and it can be found at the Warner Archive website or at Amazon.

Published by

Richard Gallagher

administrator

23 Comments

  1. Your positive views of this film mirror mine very closely and your less than thrilled reaction to the Holbrook character also matches mine. When ever I watch the film, I find it a chore to get thru that part.

    If I may, I would suggest that’s it’s not necessary to outline the plot so thoroughly. Once I saw the detail, I zipped down to where the plot points ended. Those experienced with the move don’t need that and those who have not seen it, shouldn’t have the much knowledge of the plot for their first viewing. A general idea of what the movie is about would suffice.

    Frankenheimer also did a great commentary for The Manchurian Candidate. He knew what he wanted to say and he said it. Wouldn’t it have been great if Seven Days had been a Criterion?

  2. The Eleanor Holbrook character in the film is ultimate a composite of two characters in the novel. In the novel, Eleanor Holbrook was a former mistress of married Jiggs Casey who was best friends with General Scott's former mistress and was able to get dirt on Scott that Lyman wouldn't used (in the novel it was Scott getting a tax break for his mistress rather than old love letters). To me the film wisely simplified this, and also by making Jiggs Casey unmarried it dispensed with another nuance that wouldn't have been necessary for the film (Casey is also a stronger character in the film by being a true believer in Scott who feels betrayed whereas in the novel he's a wishy-washy type who never really committed one way or the other to the treaty). But I do think Ava Gardner is really looking her age at this point and that her best days are now behind her (by contrast, just five years earlier in "On The Beach" she is radiant in her swimsuit scene).

    One bit of nuance though that I wish had *not* been lost from the novel is that Lyman learns at a key moment that in fact Scott was right and that the Soviets do intend to cheat on the treaty. The reason this plot point was important was because it allows Lyman to challenge Scott on what he would do to address something like this after seizing power and what Scott reveals turns out to be *exactly* what Lyman himself plans to do. Thus, Scott's motive would essentially have been for nothing except the destruction of the Constitution.

    This is a film I think can be tricky to discuss without intruding political arguments that can border on being off-limits. From a historical standpoint, I think it has to be said that "Seven Days In May" stands out to me more as a comment on a paranoid mentality that existed among early 1960s elites about how the greatest threat to our liberty and freedom potentially lay from the "super patriots" and the military. It is no surprise that the name of General Edwin Walker is invoked at one point but time ultimately proved that Walker was just a flash-in-the-pan figure whose ultimate fifteen seconds of fame is the fact that he was the first man Lee Harvey Oswald tried to kill with the rifle he would later use in Dallas. So from my standpoint, this film earns no points for having any meaningful insights on where America was going at that particular point in time. As to what sort of underlying points can be divined about our present-day society on things that don't have to do with the military, that is a subject best left untouched.

  3. Jack P

    The Eleanor Holbrook character in the film is ultimate a composite of two characters in the novel. In the novel, Eleanor Holbrook was a former mistress of married Jiggs Casey who was best friends with General Scott's former mistress and was able to get dirt on Scott that Lyman wouldn't used (in the novel it was Scott getting a tax break for his mistress rather than old love letters). To me the film wisely simplified this.

    The other difference is that in the novel there is a payoff to the information that Holbrook gets for Casey. That's why I feel that her involvement in the film is almost superfluous. Perhaps I would feel differently if I hadn't read the novel.

  4. Richard Gallagher

    The other difference is that in the novel there is a payoff to the information that Holbrook gets for Casey. That's why I feel that her involvement in the film is almost superfluous. Perhaps I would feel differently if I hadn't read the novel.

    I think they could easily eliminate the Holbrook character from the movie and it would be a better movie. But then it would have been a totally male-dominated movie and might have hurt it's box office.

  5. Johnny Angell

    I think they could easily eliminate the Holbrook character from the movie and it would be a better movie. But then it would have been a totally male-dominated movie and might have hurt it's box office.

    They could have swapped it out for the scenes in which Art Corwin tails General Scott to Mount Thunder, which is a pretty exciting section of the book. But as you suggest the box office rules, and the film was a big hit.

  6. I just finished watching my copy. This was my first time viewing the film, and I have not read the book, so this is a completely new experience for me. With that in mind, the Holbrook character and story line did not bother me at all, although I wouldn't characterize as one of the highlights of the film. Of course, without having read the novel, I cannot comment on what other plot lines could have worked better. As others have said, though, I'm sure part of the reasoning for the character was to create a part for a prominent actress in an otherwise male-dominated story.

    As for my overall impression of the film, I can sum it up in a single word… Wow! I cannot believe this terrific movie has flown under my radar all these years. I thought the performances by both Lancaster and March were superb, and Frankenheimer was able to sustain the tension and suspense throughout the film. The black & white transfer looked excellent on my setup as well.

  7. Richard Gallagher

    They could have swapped it out for the scenes in which Art Corwin tails General Scott to Mount Thunder, which is a pretty exciting section of the book. But as you suggest the box office rules, and the film was a big hit.

    I'm glad you mentioned it was a big hit, because I couldn't remember that. Being a quality move is no guarantee of selling tickets.

  8. Scott Merryfield

    I just finished watching my copy. This was my first time viewing the film, and I have not read the book, so this is a completely new experience for me. With that in mind, the Holbrook character and story line did not bother me at all, although I wouldn't characterize as one of the highlights of the film. Of course, without having read the novel, I cannot comment on what other plot lines could have worked better. As others have said, though, I'm sure part of the reasoning for the character was to create a part for a prominent actress in an otherwise male-dominated story.

    As for my overall impression of the film, I can sum it up in a single word… Wow! I cannot believe this terrific movie has flown under my radar all these years. I thought the performances by both Lancaster and March were superb, and Frankenheimer was able to sustain the tension and suspense throughout the film. The black & white transfer looked excellent on my setup as well.

    Stay tuned. Many films to experience

  9. I just watched about 45' of the film and it looks beautiful, but for one thing. Bright or shiny or white things, a lot of them have the color of a pale gold. Mens collars, documents, walls or columns with enamel paint. Not all the time, not every scene, but very often they are pale gold.

    This is the first B&W film I've watched on my LG 65UH8500. I suppose this could be a calibration problem.

  10. Johnny Angell

    I just watched about 45' of the film and it looks beautiful, but for one thing. Bright or shiny or white things, a lot of them have the color of a pale gold. Mens collars, documents, walls or columns with enamel paint. Not all the time, not every scene, but very often they are pale gold.

    This is the first B&W film I've watched on my LG 65UH8500. I suppose this could be a calibration problem.

    That sounds like the Contrast (white level) is too high on your LG.

  11. Personally I think this is a must own but I will admit to loving political thrillers. This is a great one and comes with a great cast. I am probably thought of as a pain in the ass around here due to my many complaints about the writing in films of the last 20 or more years. Truth is though that is because I grew up watching films like this…which is brilliantly written. It annoys me to no end that so much of what comes out today is boilerplate repetitive nonsense when it comes to the scripts. Rod Serling knew how to compose a script…beautiful, tight, compelling and intelligent writing. There is not a wasted line in this film really and they all work toward creating a fascinating piece of work.

    Where are our Rod Serlings of today? Our Paddy Chayefskys? Would these guys ever even get a script shot in today's environment?

    OK, sorry for going there but if you want to watch a film that is beautifully written, with a tremendous sense of plot, character, pacing, and dialogue…well…here's one. And again, sorry for my lament.

  12. Peter Apruzzese

    That sounds like the Contrast (white level) is too high on your LG.

    haineshisway

    Yes, absolutely a problem with his TV – whites are WHITE, baby.

    I will be checking into it. I was assuming it was my TV.

  13. There was one plot point that bugged me a little about this otherwise terrific film — the Sunday running of the Preakness, which was a critical piece of the plot. The Preakness has never been run on a Sunday — it's always held on a Saturday. I know this is a work of fiction, but it's still seems like lazy writing. Some other event could have been used, or even more simply the timeline for everything could have been moved up one day to account for the race being on Saturday.

  14. Scott Merryfield

    There was one plot point that bugged me a little about this otherwise terrific film — the Sunday running of the Preakness, which was a critical piece of the plot. The Preakness has never been run on a Sunday — it's always held on a Saturday. I know this is a work of fiction, but it's still seems like lazy writing. Some other event could have been used, or even more simply the timeline for everything could have been moved up one day to account for the race being on Saturday.

    I think I've read the director was to blame. He decided he wanted to start the movie on a Monday and belatedly realized that caused a problem with the race.

  15. Johnny Angell

    I think I've read the director was to blame. He decided he wanted to start the movie on a Monday and belatedly realized that caused a problem with the race.

    At least Frankenheimer didn't move the Super Bowl to July for his film Black Sunday .:lol:

  16. Reggie W

    Where are our Rod Serlings of today? Our Paddy Chayefskys? Would these guys ever even get a script shot in today's environment.

    They'd be working in television today. Something like Network would never get made as a feature now, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine it on HBO. In fact, I think most of the big names in film from the '70s would be working in television now – Coppola, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Friedkin, Alan J. Pakula and Frankenheimer.

  17. It is funny how at one point films were thought of as works of art and it was more prestigious to work on films and television was thought to be more throwaway populist entertainment…and now that has flipped.

    If you want to work on something big and meaningful with real impact…work in television. If you want to do fluff, work in film. This is why it does not surprise me at all that David Lynch has said he won't make another film.

  18. Scott Merryfield

    There was one plot point that bugged me a little about this otherwise terrific film — the Sunday running of the Preakness, which was a critical piece of the plot. The Preakness has never been run on a Sunday — it's always held on a Saturday. I know this is a work of fiction, but it's still seems like lazy writing. Some other event could have been used, or even more simply the timeline for everything could have been moved up one day to account for the race being on Saturday.

    To be fair, twice in the film there are signs and reference to the fact that the Preakness is having it's First Sunday Race! So they were aware of the anomaly and made amends for it with this special event signage.

    Funny that I got it in the mail today and watched it… two hours after the actual Preakness race. And I was especially proud that my son home from college who has taken a keen interest in politics and the preservation of our democracy from demagogues (I wonder why) watched it with me. I hadn't seen it since being bored by it watching on television when I was about 12 years old. This was a completely different experience and I was riveted by Serling's always beautifully poetic and passionate dialogue, the fantastic acting by all concerned, and Frankenheimer's ever taught directing. The buildup to the final showdown between March and Lancaster was fantastic, and the suspense and payoff so much better than anything two CGI superheroes destroying a city or a planet fighting each other could ever provide.

    Bravo to Warner Archive giving this perennially relevant film the presentation it deserves!

  19. Hollywoodaholic

    To be fair, twice in the film there are signs and reference to the fact that the Preakness is having it's First Sunday Race! So they were aware of the anomaly and made amends for it with this special event signage.

    Those signs come off as a last minute effort to attempt correcting a major screw-up in the plot that is distracting, IMO. For the entire movie, I am thinking "the Preakness was never run on a Sunday" when it shouldn't even be in my mind. These things tend to bug me, though. Every time we watch the first Die Hard film, I always point out to my wife the screw-up with the guard in the lobby watching the USC – Notre Dame college football game on Christmas Eve. That game would have been played back in mid-November, and there would be no college games played on Christmas Eve anyway — the regular season would be finished over a month ago and the bowl games would not have started yet.

    I enjoy both films despite the screw-ups, though.

  20. Scott Merryfield

    There was one plot point that bugged me a little about this otherwise terrific film — the Sunday running of the Preakness, which was a critical piece of the plot. The Preakness has never been run on a Sunday — it's always held on a Saturday. I know this is a work of fiction, but it's still seems like lazy writing. Some other event could have been used, or even more simply the timeline for everything could have been moved up one day to account for the race being on Saturday.

    In the novel the action starts on Sunday and ends on Saturday.

    Frankenheimer decided to compress the events of the first two days into one day, which necessitated starting the story on Monday because some of the events which happen on the first day of the movie – General Scott testifying before a Senate committee, for example – could not have happened on Sunday. At some point it dawned on him that ending the movie on Saturday would be only six days in May, so the easy fix was to move the Preakness to Sunday.

    The film was released in 1964 but the action takes place roughly ten years in the future, so audiences could think to themselves, "Maybe in ten years the Preakness will be run on a Sunday." I don't believe that there was any thoroughbred racing at major race tracks in the U.S. on Sundays in 1964 – there certainly wasn't in New York, where the tracks were closed on Sundays.

  21. Watching the film 50 years late, most people view it as historic, but in 1964 it was actually supposed to be futuristic. You will notice the date of 1970 on license plates and reports. This is also why there was futuristic technology such as video phones and automated playback of surveillance film. It's also why they were fine with changing the Preakness to Sunday.

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