American Film Theatre

by Michael Barrett

17 July 2008

Three Sisters 

The Iceman Cometh

Moving to the contemporary British character study—oh dear, what are we to make of Simon Gray’s Butley? It’s all Alan Bates (again), all the time. He plays a queer academic who, in observance of the dramatic unities, is finding out his estranged wife is divorcing him on the same day his longtime boyfriend (ex-student, now fellow prof) dumps him and he realizes his career is going into the toilet. The action consists of his being beastly to everyone in the office. One can see why all this verbal jousting in a minimal framework appealed to Harold Pinter, whose directorial debut this is and whose decisions amount to pointing the camera at Bates and giving him all the space he needs to prowl about spitting defensive invective to cover his pain. Even so, Jessica Tandy easily matches him in her brief role as a colleague.

One watches this display with a sense that, like Sunday Bloody Sunday (not to mention The Boys in the Band), the historically “daring” moment for all this witty self-loathing has passed, even if such crises and such people still exist today. Compare with The History Boys for a lesson in the progress of similar material; life can still be a fiasco with less time for self-pity.

Keeping with European material a bit longer, let’s focus on two of the most interesting films here, both products of postwar existentialism and the theatre of the absurd: Jean Genet’s The Maids and Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. I think it’s easily possible for these films to miss their ideal audience. I was about 10 when they came out and I really think that may be an ideal age, though grown-ups might be scandalized to think so.

Both films have strong, simple images. The Maids is richly colorful and strange and beautiful, thanks to the sets and the photography of Douglas Slocombe. If we don’t count Three Sisters, this is the most physically lovely and seductive of all the films, and rightly so. Glenda Jackson and Susannah York are immensely attractive and their ritualistic, anti-realistic behavior can be easily grasped by kids for its “pretend” quality, just as can Ionesco’s idea that people are turning into animals and wrecking the city. Children think of things like this all the time and don’t need it explained to them. They want to parody grown-ups and dress up in the mistress’ clothes like The Maids and they want to charge around the room breaking things like Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros.

I wouldn’t have grasped all the dialogue in The Maids or the implications of sadomasochistic lesbianism, but I would have grasped the concept of taking a pretend game too far to its inevitable climax. The very absurdity and enigma would have appealed to my pre-sophistication more than these qualities sometimes appeal to adults. I didn’t expect the grown-up world to make sense, only to have symmetry. Well, I didn’t see them then. Today, even to adults who aren’t obsessed with everything “making sense”, their staginess can offer a bit of a test, which is generally true of most of the AFT projects, and yet these remain among the most vivid and unshakeable entries.

Both are “absurd” but both make perfect emotional sense, and Rhinocerous practically seems like a work of neo-realism on the topic of the herd mentality and mass enthusiasm for causes and the pressure to conform and “behave” that children feel all the time. We want dearly to conform and be like the others, especially if the others get to smash the furniture, and we want also to be left alone and not have everyone bothering us and telling us what to do. This movie perfectly captures that, never mind its cheap shortcuts.



Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, paired again after The Producers, represent broad comic types, and it’s not difficult to be fascinated by Mostel’s purely physical performance of transformation, all shouts and snorts unaided by make-up. One is fascinated as much by the notion that he’s doing this at all as by any skill, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s unfortunate remark on dogs that walk or women who write. Mostel had experience turning into a pachyderm, having debuted this part on Broadway in 1961. (Sweet heaven, if only someone had preserved on film the 1960 London production with Olivier directed by Orson Welles!)

This film, again, didn’t please many people, mainly because there’s no avoiding its unevenness and the then heavy-handed, now dated political “relevance” (though it is relevant). Tom O’Horgan, best known as the hot Broadway director of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, had previously transferred one of his experimental hits to the screen, Futz (and where is that?), but the evidence here is that he’s stronger at encouraging mayhem than filming it. Still, this is very far from the BOMB rated by Leonard Maltin. A bomb wouldn’t survive the memory test so easily, remaining in our noggins long after the elegant perfections of the Albee or the Pinter have faded. Karen Black is sweet, too.

Come to think of it, York and Jackson also comprise a dangerously toned comedy team, playing in the fields of their shared mind with agreed-upon limits that must be tested. Why are they doing these things? The fact that they’re distantly inspired by a real-life murder case that has been fodder for many French books and movies is neither here nor there; they really do what they do because they do it, because they react to each other’s cues. Their personalities, false becoming real, are created in the moment, just as Witold Gombrowicz pointed out in his play The Marriage when he spoke of Form. His countryman Stanislaw Witkiewicz had pioneered the drama of Pure Form in which people behave not according to naturalistic or psychological forces of cause and effect but because what they do must be striking and theatrical in service to the overall conception, and although Genet wasn’t committing quite that radical a break (he may not have known of Witkiewicz’ work), there’s no denying he’s in the ballpark. But we weren’t going to talk about why these plays are interesting, only why the movies are; the movies are, in this case, because the plays are.

Returning to American drama, John Frankenheimer’s four-hour production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is one of the crown jewels of the series, and a definitive demonstration that no matter how bound to a single set, no matter how talky, no matter how long such a project may be, the results can be riveting thanks to carefully placed direction of camera and actors, especially when those actors knock their roles out of the park. This is a remarkable ensemble piece, though the ensemble is inevitably dominated by a character who doesn’t show up for a while but who, unlike Godot, really does reward those who wait. This is Hickey (Lee Marvin), who comes around to this flophouse annually like a comet to brighten the lives of the barflies and losers who bitch about their pipe dreams. If you made it a drinking game every time somebody mentions “pipe dreams”, you’d be over and out long before the film is.

Anyway, all of this is compelling even though you know pretty much from the beginning exactly what you’re getting: the grandiloquent spelling out of everything, including the title metaphor of “the iceman, death”. It’s all about how people need their illusions to live in this awful world, and thus its message isn’t so different from The Maids or several other films on this list.

But hold on to your pipes, because it turns out this film is remake! Remember when we mentioned that Play of the Week series on WNET back in the first paragraph? It turns out they did a version of this play in 1960. It was directed by none other than Sidney Lumet and starred Jason Robards as Hickey, with Robert Redford in the role played in the remake by Jeff Bridges. (We should mention that the remake also has brilliant displays from Robert Ryan and Fredric March.)  Incredibly, the 1960 version is on DVD, and comparison reveals them to be very close, even to the pitch of certain performances.  In fact, a couple of the actors are the same. The chief difference is that there’s one extra barfly in the earlier version.

Does this mean that Frankenheimer’s direction is influenced by Lumet, his colleague in live TV? Or that both are influenced by producer Landau? Or that there’s only one way to stage and shoot this play for a camera? Both versions are enthralling, and perhaps this tells us that if Shakespeare somehow already wrote for cinema, O’Neill must have already written for TV. And now that we think of it, who are the likes of Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling and their teleplay kin if not the children of O’Neill, all operatic talking heads spinning out their sozzled and heavily underlined moral quandaries in single rooms? Like many second generations, it may seem that they don’t always quite measure up to their master’s virtuosity, but they weren’t after all a poor inheritance.

Whereas the Losey film was one of his lesser efforts of this decade, Frankenheimer’s entry is quite possibly his best. It’s a bit difficult to get a handle on this auteur, perhaps because three-quarters of his work isn’t available. Most of his films are, but in the commentary track to The Gypsy Moths he states that he made over 40 movies and over 150 TV shows. The latter include such tantalizing items as a Turn of the Screw with Ingrid Bergman and a two-part For Whom the Bell Tolls with Jason Robards and Maria Schell. After attracting attention with TV, he grabbed the attention of film critics for a while and then devolved into a string of action flicks redolant of a career in the toilet, plus more TV work.

We can say that, stylistically, he often likes to show speaking heads looming half into the frame, which is surely a holdover from his TV work, and he likes to show bodies moving in space without a lot of cut-ins and close-ups, though he’s not as much of a fanatic about this as Otto Preminger. Thematically, his movies are frequently about sympathy for the recalcitrant rebel/loner alienated from society-as-prison. This is part of what every other Hollywood movie sells us, “freedom,” though his movies have a sourer edge as his rebels often croak. Not only is the established organization within which they define their actions often questionable in its ends and means, but their own success within or against it is also problematic. O’Neill’s play fits like a glove onto this scheme, with Hickey a successful salesman hiding a terrible madness amid a sea of broken anarchists, so this project’s appeal to Frankenheimer is obvious.

It’s time to pull back the curtain on what, in our opinion, is the best AFT movie, as well as the most coherently and organically movie-ish. It’s not a carefully preserved monument of classic theatre. It’s a sensational contemporary hit called The Man in the Glass Booth,  a twisty mindbending thriller written by, of all people, Robert Shaw, the star of Jaws, and directed by Arthur Love Story Hiller. Shaw’s play was adapted by Edward Anhalt, best known for the Becket screenplay; he’s also the one, less felicitously, who adapted Osborne’s Luther.

Oscar-nominated Maximilian Schell plays a wealthy Jew in a fabulous New York penthouse. The first shock comes when he’s arrested as a notorious Nazi war criminal. The resulting trial turns into a game of masks and motivations peeled away with the dexterity of something like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. Handed an actor’s dream role, Schell is dazzlingly mercurial. The bullet-proof booth in which he virtually presides at his trial is a brilliant, protean metaphor: a magnifying glass to focus the heated rays of our attention (or his), a cathode ray tube from which he broadcasts, an aquarium for an exotic species, a screen transparent yet reflective, and of course the crystalline box of his own entrapping identity, whatever that may be.

This film is utterly of its time, when it was meant to push people’s buttons, and it still pushes them. The unmasked Nazi in America was never more popular than in the ‘70s, showing up everywhere from episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo to movies like The Boys from Brazil. It’s also utterly relevant now, since it anticipates today’s Millennial Unreality cinema of amnesiac hitmen and the like, where the fluidity of identity and reality is the key theme. It’s also utterly classic, since it harkens back to the cinema of Orson Welles in its exploration of the masks of power—most notably The Stranger, where a Nazi lives the American dream. But don’t conclude from this analogy that you already know this film’s secrets and revelations, because even when the final mystery is explained, the answer remains confrontational and confounding.

The American Film Theatre box is overall an impressive if only intermittently satisfying feast, and the little making-of extras are helpful without being overbearing. The movies got mixed reviews at the time and they get them now; that’s because the results were mixed. Still, it was a noble, even exciting experiment and it’s too bad it couldn’t continue in a more viable manner because when one sits through all the productions, one is left with two emotions at once. We’re sorry more of them aren’t better, and we’re sorry there aren’t more of them. We’re glad to have had to chance to see these things, warts and all.

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