The Iceman Cometh Review

There are a number of ways of approaching the adaptation of theatre to the screen and a decision has to be made whether to remain faithful to the text or open the film up to the screen. The American Film Theatre tried several different approaches with varying results, some plays adapting to the screen more naturally than others. A great deal of care must be taken however with important plays that owe much of their power to the very theatricality of their setting, which is why some adaptations such as Pinter’s The Homecoming, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh remain close to their theatrical staging and still remain powerful screen experiences.

The Iceman Cometh is set in a bar where a gathering of assorted barflies are awaiting the arrival of travelling salesman Hickey (Lee Marvin). Among the characters in the bar are drop-outs of different sorts – jobless, disillusioned revolutionaries, disgraced police officers and old soldiers, hookers and philosophers. They all have rooms in the very establishment where they drink their lives away. Everything is going to be done tomorrow, things will be better tomorrow, they’ll pay their rent tomorrow and get their lives back on track tomorrow. Hickey arrives, as he does every year to celebrate the birthday of the bar’s proprietor, Harry Hope (Fredric March), buying booze for all around. However this year, Hickey has changed. He’s off the booze and wants to save everyone. Not from the drink as much as from the underlying cause of their problems – the pipe dreams that have led to their disillusionment.

Each of these characters have reached a point where alcohol alone can no longer drown out the guilty secrets that torture them – they also rely on each other to support the others’ illusions, holding the bottle to their mouth and repeating the well-worn stories and falsehoods they have built-up around the wrecks of their lives. Hickey wants each of them to face up to their weaknesses, give up on those pipe dreams that prevent them from facing reality and make them walk out of the bar once again. But how will each of the characters react when deprived of their delusions? And what has motivated Hickey’s change of character?

Eugene O’Neill’s reputation remains sacrosanct in American literature – winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and America’s only Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, a director messes with O’Neill’s text and staging at their peril. Frankenheimer knows that no opening-up of the play is necessary, that the strength of the play lies in its characters, the dialogue and the setting and he remains faithful to that. The film not for one minute leaves the dingy interior of the saloon, to such an extent that the viewer is just as ‘in the dark’ as the characters, unable to see or even conceive of any world beyond the saloon. But there’s more to Frankenheimer’s direction than merely following the text – he captures the morning-after-the-party feel of the piece, the deep-rooted disillusionment that cannot be covered by the alcohol-fuelled fog the characters try to hide behind. The film also benefits, as many of the AFT films do, from an exceptional cast that includes many old-timers performing to their best – Robert Ryan, Fredric March and Lee Marvin and a good performance also from a young Jeff Bridges.

The Iceman Cometh follows the AFT releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth and Rhinoceros, as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features. The UK release of The Iceman Cometh appears to be cut by about a full hour, presumably to fit on a single disc, as the original runtime for the film is four hours.

The video quality is not particularly good. The picture is generally soft and a hazy, muddy brown pervades the image, fading blacks and washing out practically all colour from the film. Certainly there isn’t a great deal of scope for colour range within the dingy interiors of a saloon, but the faults go beyond the limitations of the staging. The left-hand side of the picture shows a greenish tone that discolours the image throughout, there is a faint level of grain and shadow detail is non-existent. Image quality is not critical for such a film, but this is disappointing nonetheless.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is clear for the most part, but its limitations show when voices get raised – more towards the later scenes in the film – when the sound crackles and whistles. Overall though the sound is generally adequate, although dialogue is not always clear and the tone is rather low, dull and flat.

There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material.

Interview with Edie Landau (22:26)
The Executive in charge of the AFT, Edie Landau explains how the project came about, how they chose which plays to film, how they got everyone involved, and how the enterprise eventually failed.

Interview with Richard Peña (20:42)
The director of the New York Film Festival and Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre presents a fine overview of the whole American Film Theatre project, enumerating its attributes and identifying particular performances. As both these interviews are already included on other AFT releases, it would surely have been preferable to drop them in favour of the full cut of the film.

AFT Trailer Gallery
This contains a trailer for The Ice Man Cometh (2:37) and a Trailer Reel (4:51) for other titles in the collection.

AFT Cinebill
The programme notes for the film’s presentation contain several useful and informative articles. Quoting O’Neill’s dying words, Born in a hotel room and god-damn-it died in a hotel room! this article provides a biography of the playwright’s colourful life and a chronology of his major works. Love/Hate covers O’Neill’s relationship with film, his early attempts at screenplays and his dislike of almost every performance of his work. In Two Views of The Iceman Cometh, close friend Dudley Nichols explains the bawdy suggestion of the play’s title and its tone, while Brooks Atkinson reviews the original production for the New York Times. Dying of cancer as the film was made, Robert Ryan 1920 – 1973 looks at the actor’s legacy.

Stills Gallery and Posters
The stills gallery contains 17 black & white and colour images including behind-the-scenes shots. One poster for the film is included.

A Letter From Ely Landau
A letter of thanks from the film series’ producer written to potential subscribers of the original presentations.

The AFT – A Short History
An informative piece on the aim of the AFT to provide a kind of National Theatre on film and how its subscription service operated, and eventually failed.

Eugene O’Neill and The Iceman Cometh”, by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, is a good article, providing more detail on O’Neill’s life and works with particular emphasis on the production history of The Iceman Cometh.

The Iceman Cometh is an important piece of American drama that still retains its power and is a gripping account of the lies and self-delusions that people cling to. The compelling power of the piece comes through in the American Film Theatre adaptation, with performances that keep the viewer held throughout the three hour running time. The running time however should be four hours, so it’s disappointing that we have been given a cut-down version of the film, particularly as it spoils the completeness of the collection. The full-length version of the film incidentally is available on the equivalent Region 1 Kino 2-disc set. The quality of the print used for the UK DVD is quite poor, but the film is just about strong enough to not need to rely on the quality much and the extra features are typically illuminating and informative.

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