Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Seven Days in May (1964)


"It was a time of tremendous tension and tremendous fear." - John Frankenheimer

Cold War stories are endlessly fascinating. There is something about the fear of nuclear annihilation and how it alters our perspectives on the future and guides our actions that became the perfect fodder for storytelling. It inspired authors Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II to write their political thriller Seven Days in May. Published in 1962, the book became a bestseller. Shortly after publication, Kirk Douglas’ Joel Productions and director John Frankenheimer's Seven Arts Production purchased the movie rights in a joint deal. The book was highly criticized by the Pentagon but it had one notable fan: President John F. Kennedy. According to Kirk Douglas’ memoir Kirk and Anne, JFK met Douglas at an event hosted by LBJ and encouraged him to make the film. JFK also gave Frankenheimer his approval to film outside of the White House.


In the not so distant future, U.S. President Lyman (Fredric March)  has signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, a move intended to prevent nuclear war, and is dealing with the aftermath of his decision. His approval rating has dropped to 29% and he’s garnered much criticism within the current administration. His biggest critic is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A highly decorated military veteran, Gen. Scott has stirred up the opposition with his patriotic banter and his extreme right-wing politics. His aide Colonel ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) doubts his boss’ intentions and discovers a big secret. In seven days, Gen. Scott and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff will stage a military coup to seize the government and overthrow the President. Two of the president’s closest confidantes, his aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and Senator Clark (Edmond O’Brien) are sent to investigate. Jiggs gets some help from Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), Scott’s ex-lover. She has in her possession letters that will incriminate Scott. Will Jiggs and the President’s team be able to uncover the plot and stop it before the seven days are up?

"The enemy's an age. A nuclear age. It happened to kill man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, a sickness of frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white and blue. Every now and then, a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration." - President Lyman, played by Fredric March







Seven Days in May (1964) is one of the finest political thrillers ever made. Frankenheimer’s film is beautifully shot and directed. Frederic March, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, among others, deliver stellar performances. I’ve watched this film several times but this recent viewing made me appreciate the pivotal March-Lancaster showdown even more than I had before. Every single second of that scene is powerful. If you’re not already a Fredric March fan, that one scene will make you a convert. Lancaster’s Gen. Scott is so calm that it’s incredibly gratifying seeing March’s President Lyman break him down. The film benefits from Rod Serling's terrific screenplay, a high caliber cast of players, amazing sets, a title sequence by Saul Bass, etc. It’s perfectly paced, brilliantly told and it reflects the real tension felt in America at the time. There is so much attention to detail but also a focus on the story at hand. There is no excess. Everything feels just right. In terms of Cold War movies, I’ll take Seven Days in May (1964) and Fail-Safe (1964) (review) over the more popular Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) any day.



Seven Days in May (1964) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection and can be purchased at the WB Shop. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thank you!

The film has been remastered and is presented in 1080p HD. The Blu-Ray edition is crisp, clear and simply stunning. It includes a great commentary track by director John Frankenheimer who generously offered much information about the making of the film. I learned a whole lot from hearing him discuss various topics including:


  • his experience working with the different actors 
  • his collaboration with JFK
  • his background working for the Pentagon and how that influenced the set design 
  • why he preferred shooting in black-and-white 
  • descriptions of the different shots and angles 
  • how they used European cars so audiences wouldn’t recognize the vehicles and date the film


Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of Seven Days on May on Blu-Ray (hey that rhymes)!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)


This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

"I'll be a boy and rough and hard. I won't care what I do."

Bookkeeper Henry Snow (Edmund Gwenn) is in a terrible jam. To pay off his gambling debts he's been dipping into the company finances. When his coworkers catch wind of Henry's transgressions, he's desperate to escape Marseilles for London in an effort to avoid jail time. It seems risky to take his daughter Syliva (Katharine Hepburn) with him. What if they're caught? Sylvia, who refuses to be left behind, cuts off her long braids, dresses like a man and adopts the name Sylvester Scarlett. While on the boat to England, Sylvester and Henry meet con artist Jimmy 'Monk' Monkley (Cary Grant). Monk has a way about him with his cockney accent and ability to charm anyone out of their hard earned cash. The trio join forces to con well-to-do Londoners. While Monk and Henry are perfectly content to live as criminals, Sylvester wants to earn income the old-fashioned way, through honest work. They meet Maudie (Dennie Moore), the maid to a wealthy family and when Sylvester spoils the plot to steal the household jewels, the four to head to the seashore. It's here that Sylvester meets Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) a curly haired artist who makes Sylvester wish she was Sylvia again. When Michael's girlfriend Lily (Natalie Paley) shows up, Sylvia must decide whether to continue as Sylvester or to transition back to Sylvia to win Michael's affections.

Directed by George Cukor, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) was produced by Pando S. Berman for RKO. The story is based on Compton Mackenzie's novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett published in 1918. That story is the sequel to Sinister Street, published in 1914 and offers the origin story of the Michael Fane character. In 1919, Mackenzie followed up Sylvia Scarlett with the novel Sylvia and Michael. Sylvia Scarlett was adapted to the screen by author John Collier and screenwriters Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner. According to the AFI:

After Collier had completed his draft, Cukor brought in Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner to tone down the sexual implications of the story and to write a ten-minute prologue and a fifteen-minute ending that would make Sylvia a more sympathetic and comprehensible character.

Sylvia Scarlett was the first of four films pairing Hepburn and Grant. Both actors are well-suited to their parts. Hepburn is perfect as Sylvester/Sylvia and Grant, who was on loan from Paramount, was in his element as the playful con artist. The film was also an auspicious debut for actress Dennie Moore who doesn't get on screen credit but plays a substantial role as Maudie the flighty maid who dreams of being a singer.

The film was not well received both by critics and by audiences. It was a box office failure and lost a significant amount of money. Hepburn later became branded as "box office poison" until her comeback with The Philadelphia Story (1940) which also stars Cary Grant. Sylvia Scarlett was a pet project for both Hepburn and Cukor. They tried but failed to make amends with producer Berman who was disappointed with the final result.



Sylvia Scarlett suffers from a convoluted plot that doesn't hold the viewer's interest or attention. However, I still really enjoyed the film and found that I was willing to deal with the messy storyline to get at all of the subversive goodness. I've always been drawn to stories that explore gender dynamics, sexual politics and identity and in this regard Sylvia Scarlett delivers. Contemporary audiences will be more apt to appreciate the film's exploration of gender identity. It's truly ahead of its time. We're also more likely to cast a discerning eye on the gendered representations of women as weak and emotional and men as tough and carefree and how the film both relies on those stereotypes and attempts to break them down. I'm not one for remakes but Sylvia Scarlett seems like a prime candidate for a 21st century makeover.




Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Sylvia Scarlett on DVD.com.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Prize (1963)



Directed by Mark Robson, The Prize (1963) stars Paul Newman as Andrew Craig, a celebrated novelist with a penchant for booze and women. Having just won the Nobel Prize in literature, Craig is whisked away to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the honor and fraternize with his fellow laureates. Little does he know he'll be caught up an international web of intrigue. Among the laureates is physicist Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) who mysteriously disappears and is replaced by a look-a-like in his stead. Stratman's niece Emily (Diane Baker) is in charge of the scheme and seduces Craig to keep his nose out of her business. She's got competition from Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer), the representative from the Swedish Foreign Ministry assigned to look after Craig. To complicate things, Nobel winning scientist Dr. Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle) is counting on the handsome Craig to help make her husband jealous. In the lead up to the award ceremony, Craig has several run ins with international spies who want him dead. Will he save Dr. Stratman, and himself, in time for the big day?

The Prize is a Cold War thriller that doesn't take itself too seriously but really should have. It's a convoluted mess of a film. The dramatic and comedic elements clash and on the whole the story feels disjointed. Had they stuck with the more serious elements of the story or completely revamped it into a silly 1960s comedy, it could have worked either way. But doesn't quite work as is. I had never heard of the film until recently and now I know why. It's not a notable film by any means.

It's still fairly enjoyable for several reasons. First there's Paul Newman. The character of Andrew Craig doesn't quite suit him but Newman could really do anything and make it look good. There is a hilarious scene when he's running away from two hit men and he finds himself at a nudist's conference. It's funny and charming and one of the highlights of the film. By the 1960s, Sweden had developed a reputation for being a sexually progressive culture and that's touched upon in this film. While Elke Sommer plays Newman's main love interest, Diane Baker as Emily Stratman is far more interesting as a character. She's duplicitous but you can tell something else is going on to make her that way. Baker plays her with a subtlety that's rare for that era. Sommer's Ms. Anderson is beautiful but quite boring. Baker was far more interesting. .

As much as I love Edward G. Robinson, he doesn't have much to do in the film and the swap between the real Dr. Stratman and the imposter was weak at best. Other notable actors include Kevin McCarthy who plays Dr. John Garrett, Nobel laureate in medicine, Leo G. Carroll as Count Jacobsson and Micheline Presle as the worldly and playful Dr. Marceau.

Shot in Panavision and Metrocolor for MGM, The Prize is visually stunning and looks spectacular on Blu-ray. If you're smitten with the 1960s aesthetic, like I am, you'll be pleased with this offering. The film was shot on location in Sweden and between the costumes, sets and the good looking cast, it's truly a feast for the eyes.



The Prize (1963) is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. When you use my buy link you help support this site. Thanks!

The film has been remastered (1080p HD with DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0). The Blu-ray has subtitles and a trailer but no additional extras.

 Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of The Prize (1963) on Blu-ray for review!

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