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The Iceman Cometh
cast: Lee Marvin, Fredric March, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, and Bradford Dillman

director: John Frankenheimer

171 minutes (PG) 1973
inD DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Emma French
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill is an iconic American play, with a profile that has been maintained by everything from Kevin Spacey's landmark stage production at London's Almeida Theatre to pop culture references in films such as Tootsie. Despite dating from 1973, this American Film Theatre production is curiously ageless. Director John Frankenheimer's reputation was secure by the time he took this production on and he handles the material with great confidence.

Inevitably, there is much dialogue and little action. The film's four-hour length ensures that stretches of the film have the character of an endurance test. Filmed entirely within a Hollywood studio set, and within that, the grim interior of one room, in combination with the effective use of lighting the film evokes the claustrophobic dinginess of the bar perfectly. Despite the presence of the prostitutes, it is an intensely male production, and this is conveyed even more powerfully on the screen than in the theatre. Though music does not intrude on the film itself, the oddly jaunty tune over the beginning and end credits jars, perhaps intentionally.

Lee Marvin is superb in the central role of Hickey, the reformed and proselytising homecoming hero. He is well up to the emotional range demanded by the role. His meltdown in the play's final scenes, veering wildly from furious confessional to cloying salesman, is extremely effective. The actor playing Larry Slade, Robert Ryan, a man longing for death, is perfect for the role and is a luminous presence, perhaps the only character that is privy to the truth of all the men's situations throughout. The actor Ryan was dying during the film's production, which adds a sombre, haunting element to his performance. Jeff Bridges, looking shockingly young, puts in a memorable early performance as the misogynistic and jittery Don Parritt, a young man who harbours secrets. These are the standout performances in an ensemble piece where few of the other addled, drunken parts provide much scope for inscribing themselves in performance history.

The DVD extras are extensive, and form an interesting background to what can be a surprisingly difficult drama to grasp, considering its central position in American literature. There is a 20-scene selection, crucial for such a long film. There is also an American film Theatre trailer gallery, the AFT Cinebill for The Iceman Cometh, a stills gallery, a poster and a letter from Ely Landau, written in 1974, to potential AFT subscribers. Though perhaps intended to situate the production clearly as high art, the stills gallery, poster and Ely Landau's letter do not add much value.

There is a more useful short history of the American Film Theatre and a helpful article 'Eugene O'Neill and The Iceman Cometh' by Michael Feingold, chief theatre critic for The Village Voice. The two interviews with Edie Landau and Richard Pena provide some tangential background. The extra features that touch upon Robert Ryan and his fatal illness during filming are moving and, on a broader level, they provide an insight into the cultural aspirations of 1970s' America.
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