“It was a time of tremendous tension and tremendous fear.”
As WoW Report writer, Trey Speegle, reported on Wednesday, Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas left this world at 103 years old. That is a nice long run.
The three-time Academy Award-nominee defied the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s when he gave rightful credit screenwriter Dalton Trumbo on the film Spartacus (1960), giving new life to the careers of many directors, actors and writers accused of having Communist ties.
Douglas never won an acting Academy Award, but he received an honorary Oscar, American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Golden Globe, the Cecil B. DeMille Lookalike Award from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award and National Medal Of Arts. He also wrote ten novels and three engrossing memoirs.
Among my favorites of his film performances: The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946); his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor came in the boxing drama Champion (1949); his Oscar-nominated work in Vincent Minnelli‘s Hollywood melodrama The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) and the Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust For Life (1956).
I especially love his performance in Brian De Palma‘s telekinetic teens thriller The Fury (1978) where Douglas hams it up as a former government agent whose son is kidnapped by a nefarious associate (John Cassavetes) in order to use his psychic powers for evil.
There is also Lonely Are The Brave (1962), a gritty little western about a fiercely independent Korean War vet who roams from town to town and job to job, pushing back against the conventions of modern society. It brought Douglas a BAFTA nomination, though the Academy ignored him.
Out Of The Past (1947) is classic film noir, where Jacques Tourneur casts the usually heroic Douglas in a rare villain role, and he proves to be really good at playing really bad. Ace In The Hole (1951), Billy Wilder‘s scathing satire, has Douglas in most vicious role as a ruthless, hard-drinking reporter kicked out of every major news outlet in the country. The film received an Oscar nomination for writing, but Douglas was ignored for his blistering, bone-chilling performance.
From 1964, John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days In May works as a scary cautionary tale for our current era. It centers on a military coupe, led by General James M. Scott (Burt Lancaster), to take over the United States of America when the liberal President (Frederic March) appears soft on Russia. It’s up to Kirk Douglas‘s loyal Colonel Martin ”Jiggs” Casey to help the Commander in Chief stop this diabolical plot before it’s too late. The film’s smart screenplay by Rod Serling and fantastic performances including by Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, plus Academy Award Supporting Actor nominated work from Edmond O’Brien as an alcoholic senator, makes this a thrill ride worth watching.
Cold War stories are one of my favorite genres; I guess because I’m a boomer. There is just something about the fear of nuclear annihilation that is always fun. Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II wrote the political thriller Seven Days In May (1962), and it was a giant bestseller. Shortly after publication, Douglas and Frankenheimer purchased the movie rights. The book was highly criticized by the Pentagon, but it had one notable fan in President John F. Kennedy. According to Douglas’s memoir Kirk and Anne (2017), JFK met Douglas at an event hosted by Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson and encouraged him to adapt it to film. JFK also gave Frankenheimer his approval to film around the White House.
In November 1961, JFK accepted the resignation of vociferously anti-Communist General Edwin Walker who was indoctrinating the troops under his command with personal political opinions and had characterized former President Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and other public figures as Communist sympathizers. Although no longer in uniform, Walker continued to be in the news as he attempted to run for Governor of Texas and made speeches promoting his extreme right-wing views. In Seven Days In May, fictional President Jordan Lyman (March) mentions General Walker as one of the “false prophets” who were offering themselves to the public as leaders. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald fired rifle shots into the home of Walker in April 1963.
President Lyman has signed a peace treaty with Russia, 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 has gained criticism from within his administration. His biggest critic is General Scott (Lancaster), one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A highly decorated military veteran, Scott has stirred up the opposition with his patriotic rhetoric and his extreme right-wing politics. His aide Colonel Casey (Douglas) doubts the president intentions and discovers a big secret: In seven days, 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 (Balsam) and Senator Clark (O’Brien) investigate. Casey gets some help from Eleanor Holbrook (Gardner), Scott’s ex-lover. She has in her possession letters that will incriminate Scott. The only question is: will Casey and the President’s team be able to uncover the plot and stop it before the seven days are up?
President Lyman (March):
“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.”
Seven Days In May (1964) is one of the best political thrillers. It is beautifully shot and directed, with amazing sets, and title sequence by the great Saul Bass. It’s perfectly paced and reflects the real tension felt in the USA at the time. There is so much attention to detail, yet there is no excess. It stands with the other great Cold War thrillers of the era: Fail-Safe (1964), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Douglas wanted to star, but he also wanted his frequent co-star Lancaster to star in the film as well. Douglas enticed Lancaster to join the film by offering him the jucier role of General Scott, the film’s villain. Lancaster’s involvement almost caused Frankenheimer to back out, since he and Lancaster had butted heads on Birdman Of Alcatraz two years earlier. Only Douglas’s assurances that Lancaster would behave kept the director on the project. Ironically, Lancaster and Frankenheimer got along well during the filming, while Douglas and the director had the falling-out.
Frankenheimer was very happy with Lancaster’s performance, and called the long scene near the end between Lancaster and March, probably his all-time favorite scene. Most of the actors in the film Frankenheimer had worked with before, a directorial preference. Frankenheimer stated that he would not have made the movie any differently decades later and that it was one of the films he was most satisfied with. He saw it as a chance to “put a nail in the coffin of Joe McCarthy“.
It remains a taut, gripping thriller that packs a grim warning. Lancaster underplays his slightly crazed general and makes him seem quite rational and persuasive. It is a frightening performance. Douglas is especially good in the less showy role, but he’s the guy who got the film made. Seven Days In May premiered on February 12, 1964, appropriately in Washington, D.C. It received good reviews and good box-office.
It was nominated for Academy Awards, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. At the Golden Globe Awards, O’Brien won Best Supporting Actor, and March, Frankenheimer and composer Jerry Goldsmith received nominations. Serling was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award.