Is The Arrangement the first movie made about mid-life crises?
If not the first all around, Elia Kazan's 1969 film had to be the first one to be so frank about. Kirk Douglas stars as Eddie Anderson, a high-paid advertising executive who has decided he hates his life. The "arrangement" in question is how his very existence has been set up: good job, good wife, and a little fun on the side. Part of the deal is that if Eddie maintains this lifestyle, if he keeps his bosses happy and the bills are paid, a blind eye will be turned to his indiscretions. His price: forget the dreams of being a writer he had when he was young. Besides, coming up with new ways to sell cigarettes, that's creative, right?
At the start of the film, Eddie is beginning his meltdown, and it comes on in such a way, it will shock and surprise you, so I'll avoid the details here. The catalyst for his change has already come and gone. Her name was Gwen, and she is played by Faye Dunaway, who is so young and sexy in this movie, it's not hard to see why Eddie would lose his mind. Gwen is no simple sexpot, however. She challenged him on his crap, and she pushed him to change. She's the one that planted the idea in his head that he should leave his wife and quit his job and become a person he might actually like. He chickened out, and Gwen dropped him like a hot potato--but not before mashing that potato in a humiliating fashion.
So, Eddie wants to correct this error and tries to get out of his contractual prison via drastic means. Given his liquid value, this isn't going to be an easy thing. No one wants the cash cow to roam free, and at the first sign of trouble, the vultures--his boss, the family psychiatrist, his lawyer (a smarmy Hume Cronyn)--begin to circle around. They think Eddie has lost his mind, and Eddie's not too sure they're wrong. A road trip to visit his sick father (Richard Boone) puts him on the trail of Gwen, as well as a Freudian connect-the-dots journey as he examines where it all went pear shaped.
The Arrangement was obviously a pet project for Kazan. The director of On the Waterfront and A Gentleman's Agreement was known for pushing the social envelope, and The Arrangement continues that tradition. His involvement in the picture was unprecedented, however, in that Kazan adapted the screenplay from his own novel, directed, and produced the movie himself. The vintage trailer on this DVD shows that the studio took the tactic of pushing him just as much as they pushed the film's stars, so he was sitting in a pretty position when the film came out. Made at the tail end of the '60s, the old-school director took full advantage of the changing face of the moral landscape and the relaxed censorship movies were enjoying. Stylistically, The Arrangement is a fascinating clash of old and new. The look of the movie--its art direction, color palette, and shot construction--all have the polish of the Golden Age studio system, while the editing and the sexuality all speak of a new era. I was surprised how much flesh was on display here. Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, and Deborah Kerr (An Affair to Remember) all disrobe, and though Kazan frames these shots from a distance so that the most intimate of details stay just out of focus, you pretty much see everything. It must have been particularly surprising to see Kerr leap naked from the marital bed. The nun she played in Black Narcissus was progressive, but not that progressive. The casting of classic Hollywood stars was smart, equal in merit to Sergio Leone subverting the image of Henry Fonda by making him the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West.
But even more surprising than the sexual frankness is Kazan's daring push into his main character's psyche. The Arrangement is put together as a dizzying maelstrom of tangents and hallucinations. Eddie's train of thought moves in and out of memory, and Kazan goes with him, staying almost entirely in his point of view. Before he finds Gwen, he sees phantom versions of her lurking around corners and skinny-dipping in his pool. When pressed to talk about what's wrong, he engages in detailed visual monologues about what has happened to him. When stuck in a situation that he can't control, Eddie flashes back to other such instances, sometimes reliving the conversation out loud, much to the bewilderment of anyone in earshot. Kazan even tosses in random freak-out images, all leading up to the point where the distressed Eddie is forced to confront the mustachioed villain he has let himself become. (In one scene, when Eddie is selling his idea for an ad campaign that promotes cigarettes as "clean," making people forget the deadlier c-word associated with smoking, Kirk Douglas' slime-ball speechifying foreshadows his son's Oscar-winning "greed is good" lecture from Wall Street. The acting apple stayed close to the tree.)
The editing is meant to unsettle and provoke, to make the confusion Eddie is feeling real for the audience. The back and forth of real time and mental time reminded me a lot of John Frankenheimer's tales of '60s paranoia, specifically The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds. I wouldn't be surprised if Kazan and editor Stefan Arnsten looked to those films (and specifically, the cutting work of Ferris Webster) for pointers. Wherever they got their inspiration from, the effect in The Arrangement is tremendous. The late-'60s snappy cool was probably already feeling retro at the time, reminding people more of Kazan's 1950s counterparts than it would Easy Rider, but I think that's probably part of Kazan's intent. Just as casting Spartacus for the mental breakdown may have messed with the audience's perception of the star, so does the style of the film take apart the myth of the squeaky clean lifestyle Hollywood always pushed. It's not just Eddie's character that has lost his way, sacrificing his desire to tell important stories for the need to make a buck, but it's the whole of mainstream cinema that Kazan is pointing his artistic finger at. Pretty it up all you want, but behind the white teeth and perfect hair, you'll still find the grime of everyday life. It's fitting that the heyday of 1970s motion picturing was just about to get started.
One thing I wanted to note--and though it's not an extra, it didn't fit anywhere in my main review--at one point in The Arrangement, the main character's father talks about immigrating to the U.S. from Greece. Kazan buffs will be surprised to see footage from the director's classic immigrant film America, America illustrating the old man's story. When is that great movie going to finally come to DVD?