Although Lee Marvin is only moderately effective as Hickey, The Iceman Cometh is a powerful, witheringly complex, brilliantly acted film—the finest achievement of director John Frankenheimer’s career, based on Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play, indeed, the greatest American play ever produced. In the grip of this electrifying work, with its Ibsenian overtones, for four straight hours, I could not even imagine what were my reservations several decades ago when I saw the film for the first time in a movie house. Nor do I believe anymore that Sidney Lumet’s 1960 version, broadcast as part of television’s Play of the Week, is superior. (Both versions are available on DVD.) Frankenheimer’s film is an American masterpiece.
Traveling salesman Theodore Hickman has lit upon Harry Hope’s drinking establishment for the occasion of what is being celebrated as Hope’s sixtieth birthday. It is the summer of 1912. “Hickey” strikes the others there, residents of the flophouse upstairs from the bar and, mostly, perpetual drunks downstairs, as somehow changed; he isn’t as sociable or as funny as he usually is during his sporadic visits. Hickey himself accounts himself transformed; he is now, he claims, at peace with himself, having faced and discarded his “pipe-dreams.” A parody of Jesus, he has made it his mission to pry loose from their illusions his old friends at Harry Hope’s, including Hope, and especially Larry Slade, the former I.W.W. activist who currently dispenses cynicism and philosophizes impotently among his fellow drunks. From all quarters, Hickey meets increasingly hostile resistance.
Frankenheimer refrains from showing the sprawling, dingy bar whole; this presentation reflects the fractured, fragmented lives of the characters. Hope’s place suggests a hellish domain, a storage garage for loose ends and dead-ends. Youth and old age, and every age in between, desperately cling to their illusions amidst a fog of despair.
Three performances are superb: Robert Ryan’s Larry Slade (posthumous acting prizes from the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review), Fredric March’s Harry Hope, whose principal illusion is that he adored his deceased wife (March, the original James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, came out of retirement to play Hope), and Jeff Bridges’ Don Parritt, who, consumed by guilt involving his mother, attaches himself to Slade for dear life. Lamentably, Slade will not be attached-to.
Brits, beware! A corner-cutting hour has been deleted from the Frankenheimer DVD available to you at home.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.