Friday, August 12, 2016

The Iceman Cometh (1973)

         Whereas most of the esoteric movies released under the American Film Theatre banner in the early ‘70s were adaptations of then-contemporary plays, this sprawling production puts a 1946 Eugene O’Neill drama onscreen. In some ways, this is a monumental film, because veteran director John Frankenheimer steers an excellent cast comprising several significant Hollywood players. Moreover, while the sets are simple, Frankenheimer shoots scenes as if he’s making a big-budget feature, cleverly employing deep-focus camerawork and shadowy lighting to provide dimensionality and nuance. Excepting the way an unusually long running time makes viewers hyper-conscious that all the action takes place in one location, The Iceman Cometh bears none of the usual signs marking a pennywise stage-to-screen adaptation. However, that running time must dominate any discussion of the picture, since The Iceman Cometh is four hours long, with two intermissions providing respites along the way.
           Amazingly, even this sprawling duration doesn’t include all of O’Neill’s original text, which raises the question of why Frankenheimer and his collaborators didn’t cut even deeper. It’s easy to envision a more condensed version of this same project having even more impact, what with its abundance of fine acting and the innate value of O’Neill’s poetic monologues and tragic themes.
          Set in a New York City bar circa 1912, the story revolves around a gaggle of lost souls who drink themselves into oblivion rather than facing the hopelessness of their everyday lives. On one particular day, the barflies await the arrival of traveling salesman Hickey (Marvin), a bon vivant who enlivens the place with annual visits. Before his entrance, the story introduces several sad characters. Most prominent is Larry (Robert Ryan), an aging political radical now resigned to the inevitable approach of death. Despite his unkempt hair and scraggly whiskers, he comes across as the unsentimental intellectual of the group. Others making their presence known include the bar’s proprietor, Harry (Fredric March), who speaks with a thick Irish brogue; Rocky (Tom Pedi), the rotund bartender who moonlights as a pimp; and Don (Jeff Bridges), a young man whose activist mother was recently thrown in jail, leading him to seek aid from her onetime colleague Larry. By the time Hickey arrives, it’s clear that everyone is mired in some horrific personal crisis. They need the solace of their let-the-good-times-roll friend.
          No such luck.
          Things seem off the minute Hickey walks through the door, and he soon reveals that his wife died. What’s more, he’s adopted a callous new philosophy. In monologue after monologue, Hickey explains that his friends’ “pipe dreams” are merely distractions from the grim reality of life, and should be abandoned. In essence, he’s traded optimism for nihilism and become an evangelist for his new belief system. Revelations ensue, leading to a new tragedy and then, inevitably, to Larry’s painful epiphanies—as the deepest thinker in the group, his reaction to Hickey’s depressing spectacle speaks for the anguish buried inside the hearts of everyone at the bar.
          Setting aside questions of the literary worth—critics and scholars have spent decades debating where The Iceman Cometh belongs in its author’s canon—the film abounds with meritorious elements. Drawing on his experience staging dramas for live television, Frankenheimer uses his camera masterfully, sometimes juxtaposing two characters in tight frames and sometimes defining group dynamics with meticulous tableaux. He also  moves the camera well, especially when he underscores key moments with subtle push-ins.
          The acting is just as skillful. Some performers, including Bridges and March, essay supporting roles with intensity and specificity, providing just the right colors to fill out the painting. Marvin, whom one might expect to be the standout given his flamboyant role and top billing, is good but perhaps not great, playing scenes with exquisite dexterity even though he never quite achieves the desired level of revelation and vulnerability. So it’s Ryan, surprisingly, who provides the soul of the piece. Once maligned as a wooden he-man, he revealed interesting dimensions in his later work, often imbuing villainous roles with cruelty and cynicism. Here, he’s a broken man desperately seeking reasons to put himself back together, then despairing when he can’t find any.

The Iceman Cometh: GROOVY

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Iceman Cometh is one those movies, that I heard about as a kid, maybe saw a still from it in a film or World Book encyclopedia yearbook, but never saw actual footage of. Great reviews, a significant work of art but no commercial potential what so ever.