Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)

          Although best known as an actor, for extensive work on the London stage and for Hollywood endeavors such as his spectacular performance as Captain Quint in Jaws (1975), the late Robert Shaw was also a novelist and playwright. His most famous literary endeavor was the 1967 novel The Man in the Glass Booth, which he adapted into a 1968 play of the same name. Set in modern-day New York, the story concerns Arthur Goldman, a wealthy Holocaust survivor who spends his days haranguing employees with outlandish opinions about Judaism even as he seems to teeter on the brink of a nervous breakdown. One day, Israeli secret agents break into his home and reveal that Goldman is actually a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity. Next, Goldman is illicitly extradited to the Middle East for prosecution. (During the court action, he’s placed in the titular glass booth for his own protection.) All through the trial, Goldman proudly wears his SS uniform and outrageously lectures the Israeli audience with justifications murdering Jews. The story ends with a bizarre twist that raises as many questions as it answers.
          Although the play of The Man in the Glass Booth was presented in New York with an acclaimed production directed by Harold Pinter and starring Donald Pleasence, changes were made after the piece was selected for production by the American Film Theatre, a short-lived production company that filmed plays for limited movie-theater exhibition. The project got a new director (Arthur Hiller), a new star (Maximilian Schell), and a new script (by Edward Anhalt). Shaw was sufficiently displeased with the alterations that he removed his name from the film’s credits. Setting aside the matter of fealty to its source material, the movie version of The Man in the Glass Booth is a strange experience. Hiller does an okay job of opening up cinematic potential, using intricate sets to create separate spaces and thereby divide long scenes into smaller sequences; similarly, he also employs close-ups to accentuate the weird rhythms of Goldman’s euphoric monologues.
          And if Hiller’s filming is lively, Schell’s performance is positively supercharged—though not necessarily in a good way. Flamboyant, loud, and sensual, Schell’s interpretation borders on camp. One can make a strong argument that Schell chews scenery in proper proportion to the way his character does, but it gets suffocating after a while to watch the actor cackle and gesticulate and scream. Still, many found his work impressive, since he got Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The real challenge of The Man in the Glass Booth, however, relates to the story’s ending, which won’t be spoiled here—suffice to say, the denouement is such a surprise, and such a head-scratcher, that it retroactively colors every preceding scene. Nonetheless, The Man in the Glass Booth offers a unique combination of ideology, philosophy, provocation, and wit—so even at its most questionable, the movie is arresting and sophisticated.

The Man in the Glass Booth: GROOVY

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