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 Landau promised wouldn't be shown anywhere else, including network television or video, hence their extreme rarity for many decades after. They were produced on modest but not inadequate budgets of around $750,000, with top Hollywood stars working for maximum salaries of just $25,000.
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 a handful of performances at non-peak days and times, typically one matinee and one evening performance on a Monday and Tuesday. Further, the big movie distributors, seeing the AFT cutting into their revenues, pressured theater owners to drop AFT programs, resulting in a lawsuit that helped end the Grand Experiment after only two seasons.
The movies uncomfortably straddle a gray zone between a filmed performance of a play and a full cinematic adaptation. Where a movie like, say, Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975) was opened up enough not to feel like a photographed stage play, lower budgets and a more conservative approach made even The Iceman Cometh, arguably the best of the AFT productions, feel awfully claustrophobic, with the long film confined to a single, two-room set. (However, that feeling of claustrophobia is partly the point in this case.)
The AFT also grew out of an earlier Landau project, The Play of the Week (1960-61), a syndicated television anthology series similarly innovative (and short-lived), whose productions included The Iceman Cometh. That adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, starred Jason Robards, Jr., whose portrayal of Hickey, the central character, beginning with a celebrated 1956 off-Broadway revival, is considered the Gold Standard performance of that character. For the movie, Robards either wasn't available or maybe asked for too much money, and so the role went instead to Lee Marvin. The general consensus among O'Neill authorities is that Marvin is at best okay as Hickey, but that the supporting performances of the ensemble cast, particularly by Robert Ryan and Frederic March, are superb.
Kino's new Blu-ray offers new 2K restorations of both of the 178-minute theatrical release version, and the 239-minute director's cut, on separate discs.
The story takes place in New York's Greenwich Village in 1912, set entirely in Harry Hope's saloon, whose upper floors serve as a rooming house for the drunks and prostitutes that rarely leave it, many preferring to sleep it off passed out right at their tables. The perennially soused and broke patrons include Larry Slade (Robert Ryan), onetime syndicalist-anarchist who left the movement and espouses his cynical brand of philosophy on the other drunks; Willie Oban (Bradford Dillman), a disgraced former attorney and by the looks of things, the alcoholic closest to death; Joe Mott (Moses Gunn), the lone African-American patron, who used to run a gambling house catering to black clientele; Pat McGloin (Clifton James), an Irish cop thrown off the force for graft; General Piet Wetjoen (George Voskovec) and Captain Cecil Lewis (Martyn Green), onetime enemies of the Boer War; Don Parritt (Jeff Bridges), by far the youngest of the heavy drinkers, whose mother, a famous anarchist, was recently arrested; Pearl (Juno Dawson) and Margie (Hildy Brooks), prostitutes working for Rocky (Tom Pedi), the night bartender. The owner of the saloon, Harry Hope (Frederic March), himself an alcoholic, hasn't set foot outside his building in the 20 years since the death of his wife. Partly out of loneliness, he provides free drinks and lodging to his destitute drinking pals.
With Harry about to celebrate his 60th birthday, all anxiously await the arrival of traveling salesman Theodore "Hickey" Hickman (Lee Marvin), his annual bender there guaranteed to produce good cheer, free drinks all around, and handouts to those in need, practically everybody.
But when Hickey arrives, he cheerfully explains that he's given up booze and while insisting that he's not advocating temperance. Rather, he says, he's determined to help his old pals cast off their crippling "pipe dreams." He wants Willie to give up his dreams of returning to law, of Joe resurrecting his gambling business, of Harry plans to venture out of the saloon, etc., by providing them the financial means and personal pressure to force them into realizing these long-held ambitions will never, ever come to pass.
The film of the play gradually peels away at Hickey's own motives and the reasons for his newfound peace, if that's what it is. At the same time, Hickey forces the perennially drunk patrons of Harry's saloon to face demons beyond or irrelevant to their alcoholism.
The story plays out very much like Gorky's The Lower Depths, itself filmed twice, including Akira Kurosawa's excellent 1957 Japanese adaptation. I'm no O'Neill expert, but the basic theme seems to be that we all hold onto impossible dreams to avoid facing the grimmer realities of poverty, solitude, and especially death, much like those who, in the modern variation, happily post cute cat videos on Facebook rather than act or even share information about the encroaching, species-ending threats presented by climate change.
The play, quite shocking and controversial when it premiered in 1947 (eight years after O'Neill completed it) touches on myriad other topics: racism and prejudice, anarchism and informing, graft and murder. But it's mainly concerned with self-deception, how this can slowly destroy us, but also how it can make the unendurable endurable.
Frankenheimer's direction isn't showy. Like Lumet's earlier TV version, he knows where to point the camera, which here limits extreme close-ups to a few key moments, preferring very long takes with three or five characters moving in and out of the frame. This works very well: in several scenes Robert Ryan's Larry is way in the background while two or three others talk in the foreground, yet this allows the audience the chance to study Larry's reactions to things being said even when he's not part of the discussion.
One of screendom's greatest actors, Robert Ryan was dying of lung cancer while The Iceman Cometh was being made (it was shot at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios), and was released several months after he died. Along with On Dangerous Ground (1952), Billy Budd (1962), and The Wild Bunch (1969) and a few others, it's among the best work he ever did. Frederic March had semi-retired following prostate cancer surgery in 1970, and died a few years after this was released yet, as with Ryan, The Iceman Cometh was a perfect career capper.
Many O'Neill purists thought Lee Marvin miscast, and while some aspects of Hickey's character better suited Jason Robards's strengths, for me Marvin comes off just fine*, and in any case the criticisms seem to stem more from Frankenheimer's direction, rather than Marvin's acting. Frankenheimer felt Hickey should be played as sane rather than mentally disturbed, as he's usually depicted, though given the ambiguity of his final scene the reverse argument could also be made.
The three leading performances don't overshadow the many vividly realized supporting ones. Tom Pedi, probably best known to film fans as the loudmouthed subway manager who becomes the first victim in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), originated the role of Rocky in the first Broadway production, then was brought back for both the 1960 TV version and 1973 film. Sorrell Booke, unjustly remembered mainly as "Boss" Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard, was a fine and respected actor who had played Hugo Kalmar, another disgraced anarchist, in the 1960 TV version before reprising it here. Likewise, everyone remembers Clifton James for his broad, comic appearances in two Roger Moore 007 movies, but James had a long career on the stage. Other fine actors like John McLiam and Evans Evans (married to Frankenheimer) also appear.
Video & Audio
The AFT movies were impossible to see for years, apparently owing to unclear rights following their original theatrical runs, and it's not known to this reviewer how and where their original camera negatives were stored. Even restored in 2K, The Iceman Cometh is awfully grainy, especially the opening reel and all process shots like dissolves and fades, and there's mild damage here and there that hasn't been corrected. But all told it's still an acceptable presentation, even when its imperfections call attention to themselves and, for some, make pull the viewer away from the otherwise engrossing drama. Optional English subtitles support the DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono), helpful in catching some of the period slang and terminology. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements repurpose material from the film's DVD release: a long overview interview about the AFT with Ely Landau's widow, Edie; her late husband in a promotional film for the AFT, "Ely Landau: In Front of the Camera"; and trailers for other AFT titles, most of which are now out on Blu-ray.
A difficult but great film with outstanding performances, The Iceman Cometh is a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.