Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"The Iceman Cometh" on very strong

Cleveland Press December 8, 1973

Man needs his illusions to cover his nakedness, to shield his heart and soul and no one said it more eloquently or forcefully than did Eugene O'Neill in "The Iceman Cometh."

This work, one of the greatest plays in the American theater, is the third in the American Film Theater subscription series to be shown here.

I had only read the play up to this time, never seen it. This filmed presentation of the play with one small flaw -- delivers all of the power and revelation of the script.

Director John Frankenheimer has done everything right in his handling of the play and has done it without being obvious about it.

But go back to the script and you can see the source of at least some of his handling. O'Neill wrote elaborate stage directions but the stage cannot be as selective as the screen. It can try with lights and shadows what film can accomplish with closeups and cutting.

O'Neill's last line in the script is a stage direction: "They pound their glasses on the table, roaring with laughter, and Hugo giggles with them. In his chair by the window, Larry stares in front of him, oblivious to their racket."

The film ends with that implied closeup of Larry.

And that brings us to another strength of this film version. Larry is the most philosophical of the drunks. He knows the value of illusion as he plans to sit in the grandstand of life waiting for death.

Larry is played by the late Robert Ryan and if this movie were important for no other reason it is a triumph because it preserves on film the acting of Ryan in a role worthy of his talents.

He has speeches that most good actors would find difficult to handle. He makes them sound easy and natural in spite of their theatrical eloquence. He plays the part from within, pain and suffering and sometimes joy marked in his eyes and the lines of his weathered face

"Iceman" is the story of derelicts who can fall no longer. They live and drink in Harry Hope's Last Chance Saloon. Harry Hope himself is as lost as they are, a one time politician who hasn't stepped outside in 20 years.

A cop thrown off the force, the brilliant son of an embezzler, a disgraced British officer, the Boer commando who had been cowardly in battle, the ex-journalist, tarts and bartenders and the human refuge who wander in -- these are the occupants of Harry's bar.

Each has his pipe dream. Tomorrow will be better, tomorrow will mark the return of lost wealth and lost dignity. Today they are simply victims of circumstance waiting for that wonderful tomorrow.

What makes their immediate situation bearable is the expected arrival of Hickey, a traveling salesman who comes around once a year to stand drinks all around.

Hickey arrives and nothing is the same. He has reformed. He has shed his illusions and he is about to help them shed theirs. They'll be happier for it he assures them with the smugness inherent with those that insist others do the right thing.

One by one he goes to work on them, forces them to face reality, almost destroys them.

They return to their illusions when Hickey tells them how he shed his and they realize that he hasn't really. He has killed his wife and convinced himself that he did it out of love. He knows that he will go to the chair. He more than they has resigned from life.

The play is somber but not without humor. It is alive and earthy and dramatic. O'Neill sees inside of people and while he opts for illusion over reality he -- like the disillusioned Larry -- is cursed with the ability to see both sides.

There have been many plays and movies about drunks, all of them pretty bad or at best unconvincing. O'Neill's play is the exception -- maybe because he understood derelicts so well and because he could make them universal.

In addition to Ryan there are great performances by Fredric March as Harry, squinting though his glasses, snarling through his tightly clenched false teeth; Bradford Dillman searching the depths of the embezzler's son; Martyn Green as the English officer; George Voskovec as the Boer; Moses Gunn as the black gambler.

Lee Marvin plays Hickey and it is an unfortunate bit of casting. When he comes on he is perfect as the glib salesman. But he remains glib throughout. There is no building in tension, no tragic intensity which the role needs. Marvin is merely good in a company of actors that is never less than excellent.