In the past couple of weeks, critics have united in praise for the Criterion Blu-ray of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, which beautifully reproduces the grainy, high-contrast black and white of James Wong Howe’s cinematography. But while Frankenheimer’s loopy, disorienting thriller gets the gold-star treatment, two of his more mainstream entertainments have slipped out of print. If you have 60 bucks lying around, you can still purchase DVDs of Seven Days In May and The Train, or you can spring for digital copies and save enough for dinner for two. (Regrettably, you’ll lose Frankenheimer’s commentary tracks, but the downloads are DVD-sized and claim higher resolution.)
Seven Days In May, adapted from a popular novel by Rod Serling, is nominally speculative: The book is set in 1974, the movie in 1970. But the central conflict between Frederic March’s disarmament-seeking President Jordan Lyman and Burt Lancaster’s hawkish Joint Chiefs Chairman James Mattoon Scott must have felt bracingly contemporary less than than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. (No wonder J.F.K.’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, gave the filmmakers a tour of the Oval Office.) Where the mind control of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate was science fiction, the clandestine coup planned by Scott, a four-star general, feels all too plausible, especially with the emphasis placed on media as well as military takeover.
Temporally and thematically, Seven Days In May and The Train bridge the gap between 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1966’s Seconds, turning the paranoid thriller to steadily more philosophical and internal ends. Although Frankenheimer’s forte was action, there’s little of it in Seven Days: A dipsomaniac senator played by Edmond O’Brien barreling over a sand dune while escaping a top-secret military facility is about as high-octane as it gets. The movie’s most thrilling exchanges are battles of wit and ideology, as both sides wrestle with the question of whether a republic can, or should, be saved by undemocratic means. Although his character was inspired by the rabidly right-wing general Ted Walker, who protested desegregation and called Harry Truman a pinko, Lancaster plays his part with cold-blooded certainty. He’s a zealot, but not a madman.
As the Lancaster aide who first stumbles on the plot, Kirk Douglas has the movie’s most complex role and gives its greatest performance. Like Lancaster, he believes the president has made a mistake in signing a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, but he’s constrained by oath to uphold the Constitution. When he finally confesses his suspicions to the president, he’s outwardly stoic, but it feels like he might weep at any moment; he can’t get the name of Scott’s covert operation out without stuttering.
Although it’s stuffed with great actors, including Martin Balsam as the president’s closest aide, Seven Days In May doesn’t have the inflated, self-congratulatory importance of an Otto Preminger film, even if Frankenheimer does stage one scene with Lancaster flanked by scale models of nuclear armaments and Douglas framed with an American flag. But he also lacks Preminger’s deft touch with actresses, or with male-female relations of any kind. It’s hard to think of a major director who’s so at sea with such an elemental strain of human interaction. (More than once, I’ve watched Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh’s initial flirtation in The Manchurian Candidate, waiting for the film to reveal they’re speaking in code.) Seven Days’ sole female role belongs to Ava Gardner as a former mistress of Lancaster’s whose intimate correspondence offers one avenue to stopping the general in his tracks. But despite the bedraggled glamour she brings to the part, her scenes opposite Douglas might have been shot on Mars.
The women fare slightly better in The Train, especially Jeanne Moreau as the no-nonsense owner of a small-town hotel in Nazi-occupied France. Perhaps that’s because, with the Allies advancing and a train loaded with priceless art headed for Germany, there’s no time for romance. In fact, there’s little time for anything beyond the ruthless mechanics of life, death, and the country’s national heritage. If that last item seems out of place, it’s meant to, since one of The Train’s underlying concerns is the inherent worth of art. With so many millions dead, and days, perhaps hours, until the end of the war, does it matter if the Germans take a few dozen Picassos with them? Is a crate full of Monets worth a hundred lives, or even one? It was those sorts of concerns that interested the movie’s original director, Arthur Penn. But after the financial failure of The Leopard, Lancaster, who plays a French resistance fighter, felt he needed a hit, so he had Penn fired and replaced with the more action-minded Frankenheimer. “Frankenheimer’s a bit of a whore,” Lancaster told Walter Bernstein, one of the movie’s three credited screenwriters, “but he’ll do what I want.” (As for The Leopard, consider its fate the next time some ambitious new release is derided as a box-office flop, and wonder who will care about its return on investment 50 years hence.)
With the studio in dire straits, Frankenheimer took the opportunity to negotiate: He doubled the film’s budget, got himself final cut and a possessory credit, and reportedly even a new Ferrari. With shooting already underway, Frankenheimer still had to adjust on the fly, and many of the movie’s best moments came from those adjustments. The climactic bombing of a French train yard was staged with real explosives, as new tracks had to be laid and French officials had previously lacked the money for the demolition. Characters were granted memorable deaths when actors’ previous commitments loomed. And the bullet wound that lends tension to the film’s final moments was incorporated to cover for an injury Lancaster sustained playing golf on a day off. Orson Welles is quoted as saying, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,” but The Train had both in spades.
In an appreciation for the Dallas Observer, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that The Train “takes such visible delight in the image of small, desperate men blowing huge things sky-high that it amounts to the very first Joel Silver picture,” but it’s more like the original from which increasingly blurred copies-of-copies continue to be made. For all its cunning machinations—including a climactic ruse it would be treasonous to spoil—the movie still has time to let Paul Scofield’s Nazi commandant pose thorny questions about whether art belongs to those who possess it or those who understand it, and the confidence to let some of its setpieces play out in longshot without forcing the issue. It’s startling to see Lancaster, then 50, doing his own stunts, including an unbroken take where he slides down the handrails of an iron ladder, his feet never touching the rungs as he descends from a train-yard catwalk. Although Lancaster’s character is solely a man of action, the movie embodies the tension between imposing physicality and piercing intellect that plays out across his career.
Though The Train claims a connection to history, it’s a tenuous one: As detailed in Rose Valland’s source book, Le Front De L’Art, the Nazis did indeed load a train full of paintings, but what kept it in France was the Resistance’s cunning use of bureaucratic obstacles—not exactly the stuff of a box-office hit. But by externalizing the conflict, Frankenheimer set a path for others to follow. He called it the last great black-and-white action movie, but it feels more like a beginning than the end of the line.
The Train and Seven Days In May are available for digital purchase and rental from iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and XBox live, and via disc rental from Netflix.