American Film Theatre

The American Film Theatre was the vision of Ely Landau, a producer with a long history going back to the days when he owned Channel 13 in New York, which aired something called Play of the Week in the early ’60s. Landau’s idea was that most Americans never get to see the seminal works of theatre, at least not with the most famous stars and directors, because they don’t live near New York. So he conceived the idea of adapting these works into films and then — here’s the brave and screwy and needlessly complicated part — of distributing them not through a regular run in cinemas but as part of a season-ticket subscription purchased in advance for showings on specific dates.

In other words, you buy your ticket and you show up at one of the 500 theatres nationwide that will show the movie on such and such a date. Two seasons were produced from 1973 to 1975. A new film showed up each month but only on two days, Monday and Tuesday, a regular show and a matinee. So they were hard to see and have basically been out of circulation since, although some of them did eventually materialize in regular releases.

When I worked at Blockbuster in the ’80s, some of these titles were requested pretty frequently, but they’d never been on tape. In 2003, Kino released them on DVD and it was the first time a generation of viewers had ever had access to them. Now they’ve been reissued; the contents are the same but they’re all in one box with slimcases.

These aren’t “filmed plays” in the sense that usually means, the way that videotaped stage productions of, say, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July or Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth or Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, with the audience there and everything, sometimes showed up on Showtime or PBS’ Great Performances or American Playhouse. It’s not the way Broadway has preserved taped performances of everything for many years now (and why aren’t those available to the general video public, since we mention it?). The videotaped Theatre in America, if anyone remembers that on PBS in the ’70s, is a little closer, since those were on audience-free sets and directed more like talking-head soap operas. (By the way, there was quite a healthy tradition of filmed stage plays and operas in the Soviet cinema, but we digress.)

Landau’s idea, as he explains in one background segment, was not to film a stage production but really to make a movie, on real locations or in studio sets as appropriate, with the camera moving around and doing close-ups and all the rest of it, but otherwise preserving the original play without changing it. He didn’t really care for the idea of “opening up” with new scenes and locations just because you could, much less adding or dropping characters and scenes, as is traditionally done in Hollywood. He wanted the play itself, but made into a movie as if nothing in the script needed changing just because you’d see it on a big screen instead of a live theatre.

He wasn’t a fanatic about this, as we shall see. And there actually are quite a few movies faithful to the play more or less in the way Landau meant, with no extraordinary digressions. For example, there’s Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Anthony Asquith and Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, Morton Da Costa and Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Mike Nicholls and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Peter Brook and Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, and Sidney Lumet and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Some of these movies make some alterations, but no more than some of the examples in Landau’s series. In fact, he was able to find a couple of pick-ups that weren’t made for the series, and it’s ironic if revealing that these are two of the very best: Laurence Olivier’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and John Quested’s Irish film of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come, a play quite well-known in Ireland but not so much in the US.

Clocking in over two and a half hours, Three Sisters was filmed in 1970 using Olivier’s National Theatre Company of England. Olivier’s experience as director and star of three Shakespeare films means he already was an examplar for the kind of movie Landau had in mind, and this filming is as careful and classical as anyone could want. Everyone was comfortable with their roles by the time Olivier worked out how it would be filmed. Although the cast can’t help being excellent in the way of great British theatre (Joan Plowright, Alan Bates and Derek Jacobi are all in this thing along with Olivier), the viewer is especially drawn into the way Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera glides about, showing us the colors of the wallpaper and leading us along a kind of eyeline of performance, such that everyone glances at each other in a way that feels organically cinematic.

A Delicate Balance

Chekhov’s play, by the way, almost invented contemporary realism, since it anticipates and perhaps trumps other playwrights represented here, such as O’Neill. It’s a beady-eyed study of lifestyles of the bourgeois and discontented. It could be called “Waiting for Moscow”, since the sisters incessantly talk about going there in a way that makes it clear they never will. However, we’re not here to analyze why theatrical monuments like this, which have had volumes written about them, are good plays; they’re good because we keep watching them. We shall confine ourselves to trying to understand the difference between good plays and good movies.

It doesn’t have to do with dialogue or changes of scene. On the face of it, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre seems like a theatrical conceit, but it was made for film and feels filmy, perhaps moreso than Malle’s reimagined Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. It seems to be that aesthetic concepts carry their natural form immanent within them, which almost implies that serious changes must occur in the translation from one form to another. By some historical paradox, however, Shakespeare always already seems cinematic, which is why there’s never been a bad Shakespeare film. No matter how stiff or clumsy, no matter how mod or updated, no matter how annoyed the purists, every Shakespeare movie where you can hear the words has come across as a good movie.

Friel’s play, if this isn’t too lofty a comparison, employs a brilliantly theatrical conceit that also happens already to be a brilliantly cinematic one. It’s simply that the hero is played by two different actors who share the space at the same time. One represents the public man who is seen by the other characters and who interacts with them. The other is the private, interior man who gets away with the remarks and actions the world will never know, and this version only interacts with his other self. When employing an innovative formal idea like this, it’s usually best to keep the story simple, and this play is simplicity itself: a “nothing happens” character study that traces the hero’s last night in his old life in an Irish town before shipping himself off to a new life in America the next day.

He sees every mundane thing and every well-known person, especially his reserved father, for what may be the last time, and this is enough to sensitize everything for drama, to lend everything the poignancy and preciousness that Thornton Wilder pleaded us not to take for granted in the last act of Our Town. It’s clear that his callow, restless life isn’t bad but it lacks love, the kind projected outward from himself as well as the kind taken in, and the possibility is that life won’t be better or worse in Philly either. The result is a touching and lovely film suffused by the enervated melancholy of its real locations, a film all the more effective for the fact that it’s not as high-ticket a title as several other family plays here.

You see, in modern realist drama, in what might be called the curse of Chekhov, the common setting is a living room, the common characters are a family, and the common dynamic is a stew of bitter backbiting and recrimination that ultimately gives the lie to Tolstoy, because indeed each unhappy family seems perfectly alike, at least in the theatre. Otherwise all these kitchen sinks and antimacassars wouldn’t seem “universal”. The AFT box gives us no less than three of these.

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is quite arresting in its family-values absurdism and sinister humor, which probably make it the best of the trio. This and another working-class family contretemps, David Storey’s In Celebration, feature a lot of dialogue delivered for the sake of hearing the poetry of accents. Both families have three sons, one of whom is a jumped-up social success who resents his family as much as the vice is versa.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance features an American family of the upper sort delivering a variety of duets, tuttis and arias, also with certain tinges of the sinister and paranoid. Both Albee and Pinter touch ever so gently on the surreal, although perhaps their vision seems less surreal with time. Certainly the certifiable absurdism of Rhinoceros (see below) now appears perfectly coherent, but we get ahead of ourselves.

Lost in the Stars

These three films perfectly exemplify the Landau experiment in its purest form. Storey’s play uses the same cast and director from the drama’s run at London’s Royal Court Theater. The director (Lindsay Anderson) certainly knows his way around a camera, and the actors (including Bates again and the young Brian Cox) know their way around their lines. The Pinter has illustrious stage director Peter Hall recreating his Royal Shakespeare Company production with a cast including Cyril Cusack, Vivien Merchant, Ian Holm, and Paul Rogers towering above all as the kind of abrasive, abusive, foul-mouthed, dirty-minded and shockingly funny patriarch who makes Archie Bunker look like Ozzie Nelson. Albee’s play recreates nothing but brings in the dream cast of Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair under the director of Tony Richardson.

So you’re watching these things, and line by line, scene by scene, you’re totally absorbed, and you come away thinking “Wow, that Scofield is something” or “Gee, that’s Pinter for you” or “Gosh, that Alan Bates is such a bitch”. However, as much as you may enjoy it and be glad you saw it, and as much as you may think you’ll hardly see a more definitive record of this piece, you don’t really catch yourself thinking “Yowza, that was a great movie” as opposed to “That was a great play”. That’s because, to repeat, aesthetic concepts carry their form within them, and these works, not being conceived as films, don’t quite come across as films, which is not after all a serious flaw with them either as plays or films. It’s just interesting and revealing.

Some of the AFT films are much more cinematically conceived and much farther from their theatrical versions than Landau’s formula would suggest. This is especially true of the two musicals, and indeed these musicals would be unfilmable in their original form unless you simply pointed a camera at the stage, so it’s surprising that these particular musicals were chosen as opposed to more regular book-musicals.

Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars is one of the great innovative and powerful theatre pieces in Broadway musical history. Based on Alan Paton’s novel of racial oppression in South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country, it’s a hybrid work that’s in some ways more like a cantata or oratorio with a chorus that functions onstage like a Greek chorus. Here that chorus is offscreen as Stephen Kumalo (Brock Peters, the best element in the film) journeys from his village to Johannesburg in search of his son and wades waist deep in tragedy.

Although shot in real locales that give a documentary-like flavor to the proceedings, these proceedings were conceived (at least by Weill and Anderson) in a non-realistic presentation, and the resulting clash of conceptions makes the dramatic bits seem perfunctory and not as powerful as Alexander Korda’s film of Cry the Beloved Country, which packs a punch this film finally does not. The great title song isn’t staged fruitfully; the old man sings it alone in a church instead of explaining the creation myth to a child outdoors, as the lyrical context would have it. In other words, neither he nor we can see the stars we are lost in. I blame director Daniel Mann, not for re-imagining the theatrical material but for failing to do it even more extensively.

Even less likely to be filmed, and therefore even more admirable in the attempt, is Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, directed by Denis Heroux. This show is the most radically altered in translation from stage to screen. While the original was an intimate revue of songs, the film is a series of elaborate, sometimes surreal music videos almost before such things existed. We don’t have access to the original show, but the Wikipedia entry conveniently itemizes the differences. Basically some songs were dropped, more were added, everything was rearranged and the configuration of the cast was changed.

Brel’s songs, in the tradition of French chanson, deal with simple emotions complexly and address themselves not only to the question of love but to rueful existential matters like loneliness itself. “The Old Ones” is the most poignant punch in the heart. Brel himself comes on to sing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in French, shortly before his death, in the most understated presentation: a long zoom into his eyes. Other notable songs are “The Desperate Ones”, which simply shows a bunch of people smoking pot around a campfire, “Sons of” with way overstated crucifixion imagery, and the anthemic final√© “If We Only Have Love”.

Contemporary reviews complained that while the movie has its moments, it’s a bit much to hold together, and of course some songs are visualized better than others. Vincent Canby in the New York Times observed that the format was similar to the old “Hit Parade TV show, though it’s seldom as witty”. Ouch. Well, this period saw many experimental attempts to expand or innovate the movie musical that weren’t always welcomed by hostile critics in search of relevance or by audiences in search of nostalgia. Although it seems to have disappointed everybody, this is an intriguing and memorable AFT entry.

It turns out that Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo is kind of a musical too, in his semi-cabaret manner. There’s one such number, and also each scene is prefaced by boy-soprano cherubs. This example of his loose “epic theatre”, originally directed by Joseph Losey on Broadway in 1947 with Charles Laughton (!) and now filmed by Losey with Topol, is typical Brecht: each scene illustrates dialectical oppositions lectured by a star-studded British gallery, including John Gielgud, Patrick Magee, Edward Fox and Tom Conti. This film isn’t interesting for any information or insight about Galileo, who is simply used to illustrate the concepts of free-thinking, persecution, capitulation and self-interest.

To the modern viewer, its primary interest lies in its personal meaning for its auteurs, Brecht and Losey. Brecht actually wrote three versions, and this was the second, completed prior to being summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee and choosing to leave the US for East Germany. It’s eerie as well as tragically ironic that he was working so long on a play about selling out to political pressure long before the blacklist, but of course it was inspired by the Nazi era.

Losey would also be swept up in the blacklist and leave the US. So a play conceived as an examination of the effects of fascist power on a man of conscience had a terrifying and prescient relevance for its makers in the land of the free, and it’s appropriate that Losey should revisit the material from the other end of exile. However, all this personal resonance doesn’t necessarily make this a better Losey film than his other ’70s material, and it’s not as interesting as most of them. There’s deliberate alienation for the purpose of detached examination, and then there’s a plodding series of setpieces; a delicate balance indeed.

That balance comes a cropper with John Osborne’s Luther, the other historical bio-pic here on the power of the Church (and by implication all power). This is a modern psycho-political effort starring Stacy Keach and many British characters, including Magee again and Judi Dench as a young nun. This is heavy, finally banal material that Guy Green’s direction does nothing to elevate, and we are left to conclude that AFT chose this early Osborne play because there were already adequate films of Look Back in Anger”, “The Entertainer and even Inadmissible Evidence.

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.