The film opened the second and last season of the American Film Theater (AFT), an experimental form of movie distribution that resulted in baker's dozen feature-length adaptations of classic and contemporary plays. The brainchild of Ely Landau, whose early credits as producer included Long Day's Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965), and the acclaimed documentary King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis (1970) earned him a reputation as a filmmaker of considerable taste.
His revolutionary idea was to bring legitimate theater, in cinematic form, to the masses by way of a subscription service similar to a theatrical company's season tickets. Exhibition was limited to 500 movie theaters in 400 cities, movies that Landau promised wouldn't be shown anywhere else, including network television or video, hence their extreme rarity for many decades after. Highlights of the first season of 1973-74 included Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, directed by John Frankenheimer; and Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, directed by Tony Richardson.
But the AFT ran into problems from the start. They were required to "four-wall" those 500 theaters, i.e., rent them independently from theater owners, and because theater owners made most of their money on weekends, banished AFT screenings to just two performances, one matinee and one evening performance, usually on a Monday or Tuesday.
Another problem was in the adaptations themselves. Landau wasn't interested in filmed stage performances - he wanted top film and theater directors to adapt the works in cinematic terms, which pleased neither theater purists nor cinema buffs. Several AFT productions during the first season, particularly Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros and the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical Lost in the Stars, were quite bad and met with hostile reviews.
An extra feature on the new Blu-ray of The Man in the Glass Booth is a short featurette that apparently ran sometime between the first and second season, in which a muttonchopped Landau basically apologies for all the AFT's mistakes (while also thanking himself, the artists, and the movie audience for its successes).
The Man in the Glass Booth exemplifies the challenges (i.e., problems) inherent in the AFT's ambitious, challenges they never fully overcame. Except for other AFT films, it's as unlike any ‘70s film as any ever made but doesn't work for reasons described below.
Schell plays Arthur Goldman, a tyrannical, multi-multi-millionaire developer living in seclusion and paranoia in a luxury Manhattan high-rise. In an early scene his long-suffering personal assistant, Charlie (Lawrence Pressman, from the Broadway version) discovers $2 million in cash hidden under some cushions, which Goldman dismisses as spending money "for a rainy day."
Goldman is Jewish and concentration camp survivor, but his stream of consciousness prattling is laced with jokes and outrageous observations of Jewish life that are in considerably bad taste, quite unlike what one might expect from someone that survived the Nazi death camps. However, because of his extreme wealth, Charlie and his Goldman's chauffeur, Jack (Henry Brown) indulge their obviously crazy boss and his unpredictable mood swings. He begins obsessing about a blue Mercedes that seems to be watching his movements from the streets below.
Soon after, he's kidnapped by Israeli agents and whisked there to stand trial as a wanted Nazi war criminal, the commandant of his old camp, Dorf. The Man in the Glass Booth primarily explores the idea that Goldman, haunted by memories of Dorf, adopts some of Dorf's identity as some kind of coping mechanism, going so far as to admitting Dorf's crimes at the trial. Is Goldman really Dorf or has the psychological and physical trauma endured under him caused Goldman to become Dorf? And does "Arthur Goldman" exist at all, that identity having been passed endlessly among camp inmates to delay execution until, perhaps, the accused long ago suppressed his original identity for decades?
The Man in the Glass Booth is a difficult, frustrating film. Schell, replacing Donald Pleasance from actor Robert Shaw's (From Russia with Love, Jaws) stage play, adapted from his earlier novel, is excellent. However, it's not electrifying in the same way Schell was in his Oscar-winning role in Judgment in Nuremberg (1961). For starters, Stan Winston fitted Schell with technically good but very distracting makeup: bald cap (Schell had an almost mane-like head of thick black hair), close-cropped beard, etc. But more significantly Schell's prolix dialogues, as well as they might have worked on the stage, suffer from the "movie real" look cinema unavoidably presents, combined with the stagey, unreal look of many of the interior sets, which are ugly and shot with the polish of a 1970s TV-movie. Though competently directed by Arthur Hiller, The Man in the Glass Booth is an example of an AFT title that might have been better off had its makers simply photographed a live stage performance, which would better have prepared audiences for the internalized, symbolic, and deliberately unreal (in the usual movie sense) material.
The second half/act of the film is somewhat better, thanks to the surprising presence of actress Lois Nettleton as the Israeli prosecutor. A member of the Actors Studio, she was unique and extremely talented, and she worked steadily in television for more than 50 years. But for some unfathomable reason really good roles were few and far between. She was particularly unlucky in her movies roles, with crummy movies like The Bamboo Saucer and Butterfly clouding her resume.
Video & Audio
Though visually unattractive as a movie, the Blu-ray of The Man in the Glass Booth, in 1.85:1 widescreen, looks fine, luckily so considering it and other AFT titles were for so many decades mired in distribution limbo. No subtitles options are offered, but the mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is fine and the disc is region "A" encoded.
Beyond the aforementioned promo film, supplements ported over from the original 2002 DVD releases are here, including nearly half-hour interviews with Landau and Hiller.
Problematic despite Maximilian Schell's performance, The Man in the Glass Booth is nonetheless ambitious and unusual, as well as thoughtful and intelligent even when it doesn't exactly work. Rent It.