Review: The Iceman Cometh (1973)

>> Monday, January 21, 2008

USA/239m./Dir: John Frankenheimer/Wr: Thomas Quinn Curtis (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill)/Cast: Lee Marvin (Hickey), Frederic March (Harry Hope), Robert Ryan (Larry Slade), Jeff Bridges (Don Parritt), Tom Pedi (Rocky Pioggi), Bradford Dillman (Willie Oban), Moses Gunn (Joe Mott)

In the early 70’s, producer Ely Landau envisioned The American Film Theatre, an experiment in which classic plays would be filmed with top-notch actors and screened during a two-day limited engagement for subscribing ticket-holders. The project ran for two seasons before it folded under a pile of debt and lawsuits. The fourteen films that were produced under the AFT banner ranged in quality from great to lousy, but most critics agree that the best of the bunch was John Frankenheimer’s 1973 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

In a squalid skid row bar in 1912, a group of whiskey-sodden lowlifes and floozies hang out in anticipation of the semi-annual visit of well-heeled salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Lee Marvin). However, when their friend finally arrives, he is more interested in dispensing salvation than the usual free drinks. The newly-sober Hickey is convinced that he can help his drinking buddies--not by convincing them to give up booze but by compelling them to set aside the pipe dreams that he believes are the cause of their discontent. Not only are the regulars at Harry Hope’s saloon uninterested in buying what the salesman is selling, Hickey’s own sales pitch may be just another pipe dream.

Running a full four hours, The Iceman Cometh takes a certain level of dedication from its audience. The story is extremely bleak and O’Neill, an author that could have used a good editor, has a tendency to hammer the same points repeatedly. That said, the film itself is every bit as good as its reputation. Frankenheimer does a marvelous job at making a one-set play visually interesting on film, and the cast he selected couldn’t be better. Lee Marvin brings just the right combination of pitchman and revivalist minister to the role of Hickey, and the supporting cast (who actually receive more screen time than Marvin) are excellent across the board.

Best of all are the performances of Robert Ryan and Frederic March in their final screen roles. Ryan was always good, but March is a revelation in the role of agoraphobic bar owner Harry Hope. With a grizzled look and a believable Irish brogue, March is nearly unrecognizable in the part. It is a completely naturalistic performance--his personal best and one of the best ever committed to film.

In terms of alcohol content, The Iceman Cometh can hardly be matched. Whiskey is guzzled by the gallons, and almost every character is a dedicated dipsomaniac. For its fine acting, direction, and athletic alcohol intake, this film is a “must see.”

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey and champagne

Intoxicating Effects--Passing out, the shakes, boasting, bravado, harmonizing, bickering, public disturbance, staggering, and stumbling

Potent Quotables--HICKEY: Oh, hell, governor. You don’t think I’d come around here peddlin’ any brand of temperance bunk, do ya? Just ‘cause I quit the stuff don’t mean I’m goin’ prohibition. I’m not that ungrateful. It’s given me too many good times. And so if anybody wants to get drunk, if that’s the only way they can feel happy and feel at peace with themselves, why the hell shouldn’t they? Hell, I know that game from soup to nuts. I wrote the book. The only reason I quit is, well, I finally had the guts to face myself and throw overboard that damn lying pipe dream that had been making me miserable and do what I had to do for the happiness of all concerned. Then, all at once, I was at peace with myself, and I didn’t need the booze anymore.

Video Availability--The Iceman Cometh has occasionally been broadcast on television in a truncated version, but the complete 4-hour film is now available as a stand-alone DVD or as part of The American Film Theatre: Collection One (Kino).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Eugene O’Neill’s story of a shattered American family, Long Day's Journey Into Night, was filmed in 1962, featuring Jason Robards as the alcoholic son.


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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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