I have recently been on a Cold War era thrillers kick. I go on these...kicks, I mean. I also recently went on a 1970s Hunk Actor in a Paranoid Thriller kick, and watched Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and All The President's Men in about a week's time. It is only slightly ironic that the latter is almost entirely a work of non-fiction - the scariest political thriller of the 1970s was based on one of the scariest actual political disasters of all time.
So, my Cold War era thrillers kick. Early cold war, not late, to clarify. I all of a sudden, one day got a hankering to see Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe. I watched the first and third, and will soon re-watch Kubrick's 'black humor' masterpiece. Although Failsafe - starring Henry Fonda as our Commander-in-Chief - is truly riveting, this oft-overlooked chiller with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster is a real potboiler. It is nearly impossible to spoil the plot, because the 'secret' - that a group of militarists and politicians are plotting a coup d'etat to overthrow the U.S. Government -- is laid bare in the first reel. The rest, is, as the saying goes, 'cutting to the chase'.
And what a chase it is. Let me see, what could be more thrilling than a multi-layered, ingenious plan to replace the President with the Speaker of the House, lead by a group of Hawks who believe negotiating with the Ruskies is, er, what would be the right phrase, "namby pamby"? The ways in which the coup plotters use the very protocols intended to ensure the security of our country to create a web of inter-connected events like the mechanism of a finely made watch clicking together is something to behold, and this cast of crazies is lead by the original He Man himself, Burt Lancaster. I keep thinking Lancaster's General is going to pull his uniform off and reveal Captain America underneath.
Set as counter-point to Lancaster's buttoned-up G.I. Joe is Kirk Douglas, who is outstanding as one of Lancaster's staffers - literally his attache (sometimes seeming like an attache case, he is so obsequious). It is Douglas' character who accidentally uncovers said plot, pieces it together, and must make a compelling case to a hard-to-convince president (played to perfection by Frederic March) and the rag tag coterie of staff members that he thinks he can trust. Add in the always great Martin Balsam and you have a recipe for political thriller heaven.
Why was I not surprised to be reminded that late, great John Frankenheimer helmed this gem? Oh he of Manchurian Candidate fame - the guy practically invented the political/cold war thriller. And let's think for a minute about the qualities that SDiM has in common with perhaps my favorite Black and White spine-tingler starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sintra - well, the only one that fits that category. It starts - as Manchurian does - with a great story and script, and adds some damn fine actors. We've covered this ground already, but to my mind Douglas and Lancaster were two of their generation's most under-appreciated macho men (Tom Cruise, anyone?) and made many fine films in which their acting chops were on display. Think Ace in the Hole with Douglas, and The Swimmer with Lancaster, if you want to see them individually at their best.
Seeing these two on the screen reminds me of the long awaited re-pairing of DeNiro and Pacino - which at times has been great (think Heat) and at others, not so much (think Righteous Kill). It must have seemed as exciting to put these two titans together, and perhaps the sliver screen might not have seemed big enough to hold them both, but under Frankenheimer's sure hand the results are splendid. Cinemetography suits the tense nature of the thriller, using black and white to provide stark images of Pentagon war rooms and white house offices, and music and editing are also superb, as in other great Frankeheimer entries.
If you want to relive, or live through for the first time, real cold war era tension, get thee to Amazon Prime, where you will find an excellent transfer, available in full 1080p HD. You will not be sorry.