Coming off his masterpiece “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962, director John Frankenheimer, then at the absolute peak of his powers, tackled Rod Sterling’s superb, adapted screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Knebel and Bailey) about a military-political cabal’s planned takeover of the United States government, in reaction to the president’s negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The results were superlative.
Representing a peak entry in the American political thriller genre, the film boasts not one but four of the greatest performances of the sixties:
Frederic Marsh as the president of the United States.
Kirk Douglas as USMC Colonel “Jiggs” Casey.
Burt Lancaster as US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Edmond O’Brien as US Senator Ray Clark. (Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor).
It is Lancaster’s General Scott who instigates the coup, while Douglas’ Colonel Casey sticks by the president. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s perpetually inebriated senator is investigating a secret base in Texas, ground zero for the planned takeover.
Douglas and Lancaster are perfect together, two hyper-masculine actors with different personas that interconnect beautifully.
However, the high point of the movie is a stunning confrontation between Lancaster and March, the latter (like Lew Ayers, newly elected president in “Advice and Consent” two years earlier) not being the weakling that Lancaster had bargained for.
The film’s only weak ink is the (luckily) small Douglas subplot with Ava Gardner as an old flame who has returned to his life. Purely there as a love interest, Gardener is sorely wasted, and she seems lost in this very masculine movie.
The superb black-and-white cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks.
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