Two of the Best of 1964

Seven Days In May

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer)

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 highpoint 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.


The Best Man

The Best Man (Franklin J. Schaffner).

This 1964 American political drama, beautifully directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (his greatest achievement, I think) is adapted by Gore Vidal from his 1960 play of the same title. The film boasts three outstanding performances:

Henry Fonda as former Secretary of State and presidential candidate William Russell.

Cliff Robertson as Senator and presidential candidate Joe Cantwell.

Lee Tracy as former President Art Hockstader (Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor).

The action unfolds at the nominating convention center in Los Angeles. Neither Fonda’s Russell or Robertson’s Cantwell can stand each another and neither believes his rival qualifies to be president. Both desperately lobby for the support of the dying former president Hockstader who prefers Russell but worries about his indecision and principles and despises Cantwell but appreciates his toughness and willingness to do whatever it takes.

Both Fonda (who had just played a similar but more ambiguous role in “Advice and Consent” in 1962) and Robertson are superb (I think it’s Robertson’s best performance) and pre-code Warner Bros. stalwart Tracy, in his last film, makes a stunning return to the screen and was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar Nomination.

With Margaret Leighton as Mrs. Russell and Edie Adams as Mrs. Cantwell.

The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of a spectacularly clean and futuristic Los Angeles is by the master Haskell Wexler.



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