The Iceman Cometh

In Wheeler Auditorium

Admission: $2.50

“Eugene O'Neill's great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome, dark-toned color. A filmed play like this one doesn't offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don't go to it for that; you go to it for O'Neill's crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and - as with most filmed dramas - if you miss the ‘presence' of the actors, you gain from seeing it performed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in the theatre. The characters are drunken bums and whores who have found sanctuary in Harry Hope's flophouse saloon; each has a ‘pipe dream' that sustains him until Hickey, the salesman - the ‘iceman' - who attempts to free them all by stripping them of their lies and guilt, takes life out of them. The play is essentially an argument between Larry, an aging anarchist (Robert Ryan), and Hickey (Lee Marvin); Larry speaks for pity and the necessity of illusions, Hickey for the curative power of truth. They're the two poles of consciousness that O'Neill himself is split between. Larry, a self-hating alcoholic, is a weak man and a windbag, but Ryan brings so much understanding to Larry's weakness that the play achieves new dimensions. Ryan becomes O'Neill for us; he has O'Neill's famous ‘tragic handsomeness' and the broken-man jowls, too, and at the end, when Larry is permanently ‘iced' - that is, stripped of illusion - we can see that this is the author's fantasy of himself: he alone is above the illusions that the others fall back on. He is tragic, while the others, with their restored illusions, have become comic. Yes, it's sophomoric to see yourself as the one who is doomed to live without illusions, yet what O'Neill does with this sophomoric conception is masterly. And Ryan (who died shortly after) got right to the boozy, gnarled soul of the play. The film is marred by the central miscasting of Lee Marvin (he's thick, somehow, and irrelevantly vigorous), but it isn't destroyed. Though the characters are devised from the thesis and we never lose our awareness of that, they are nevertheless marvellously playable. Fredric March interprets Harry Hope with so much quiet tenderness that when Harry regains his illusions and we see March's muscles tone up we don't know whether to smile for the character or the actor.”

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