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Five Days One Summer (DVD Review)

15 Aug, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive       
$21.99 DVD
Rated ‘PG’
Stars Sean Connery, Betsy Brantley, Lambert Wilson.

Despite the accolades and awards that went to recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release Julia when it first came out in 1977, five years passed until Fred Zinnemann could get what turned out to be his swan song (1982's Five Days One Summer) into theaters. Despite his gentlemanly demeanor, one can only speculate how frustrating this must have been, given all the combined years that the then 74-year-old director had eaten up prepping for The Old Man and the Sea and Hawaii (which other filmmakers took over and completed) and Man’s Fate, which MGM’s equally transitory and tasteless chief of the day James Aubrey pulled the plug on just days before shooting was to commence. There’s also the famous story about how Zinnemann was in a late-career pitch meeting with some young studio suit who asked the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Nun’s Story and A Man for All Seasons (and that’s just the tip) what he had “done” in his career, and Zinnemann replied, “You go first.”

But as it turned out, Summer ended up not just a flop but also a movie barely released, at least in America — and unless I’m really misremembering, one for which I had to give its belated Washington, D.C. premiere when I was programming and heading up the AFI Theater when it was located in the Kennedy Center. Given its "Masterpiece Theater" kind of tone, which is even more in tune today with refined viewer taste than it was 30-plus years ago, I do think there’s an audience for the picture; Zinnemann, in fact, noted that it had become something of a minor cult film in a 1992 autobiographical coffee table book devoted to his career. While the picture isn’t an achievement that’s going to change anyone’s life, it deserves better than it got, and as one astute observer has pointed out on IMDb.com, it’s less leisurely than “measured” in a Merchant-Ivory kind of way (not too long after became popular with upscale viewers).

The literary source is Kay Boyle’s short story Maiden, Maiden — with the added inclusion of a brief but effectively eerie subplot that’s haunting enough even to have made an impression on the film’s detractors. Sean Connery, who’s the only marquee bait here, plays a Scottish physician traveling in 1932 with a much younger woman (Betsy Brantley) presumed to be his wife. From the opening scene on a train, we sense that there must be a little trouble in paradise as the two prepare for a short climbing holiday in the Swiss Alps — a situation exacerbated when the couple meets their hunk-ish young guide (Lambert Wilson). Hunk or not, he basically observes the proprieties, while Brantley (who was once wed to Steven Soderbergh in real life), is demure in a PBS kind of way and no obvious or reckless sex-bomb. There is a most unconventional basis for the Connery/Brantley relationship, but it takes a while for this to be divulged. Almost everything here is under the surface, which can’t have helped the movie’s commercial prospects in the same movie year that gave us, say, De Palma’s Scarface.

With a mostly no-name cast and confined setting, a lot of the budget (which wasn’t minor) had to have gone toward challenges posed by the physical setting and lots of mountain footage that rarely looks fake because it apparently wasn’t. This is the great Giuseppe Rotunno shooting in the Alps, and we’re talking about one who was a favorite of both Fellini and Visconti (The Leopard included) — as well as the cinematographer of Carnal Knowledge, All That Jazz and a slew of movies that looked like a trillion no matter their overall artistic success (The Naked Maja to Sydney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina). This is an interesting picture to observe strictly from a visual point of view — that is, everything from the challenges of sun-on-snow reflections to all the cautionary procedures employed to keep some member of your crew from falling down a glacier. It is, in fact, the latter situation that leads to that aforementioned subplot that sticks in the memory. It involves the discovery of a preserved corpse belonging to an about-to-be wed climber who’d disappeared 35 years ago and his now elderly intended who briefly gets to see him once again looking as he did as a young man.

Ultimately, Summer is perhaps a little too repressed for its own good, with Wilson (who came in hurriedly to the project before he could really get acclimated to climbing) so nondescript that he blunts his own edge of the love triangle. The overriding emotional propellant is a plot twist that’s divulged somewhere between a third to a half of the way in — one of those eyebrow raisers that makes you see everything that happens in a different way. Certainly, this is a more complicated character than Connery usually got to play, and we see the self-assurance that the actor usually projected take on a crack or two. Given that what used to be called “scenic values” are so much of what the movie has to offer, it would be rewarding to see Summer in a fresher remastered print, though given its brutal commercial performance, this just isn’t going to happen — now or in the foreseeable future. But the final films of esteemed directors make an interesting lot, and Zinnemann fans shortchange themselves by letting this one get by, if only on a curio level.

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