I greatly admire Frankenheimer, a director often regarded by many critics and cinephiles as a stubborn craftsman with a few rather remarkable achievements (“The Manchurian Candidate” being the standard example), but whose body of work as a whole lacks the kind of stylistic consistency and personal commitment most often to be found in an authentic master or auteur. No other single Frankenheimer film I’ve seen would serve better to debunk such claims as this nearly forgotten masterpiece called The Iceman Cometh, which ranks very high in my account of the director’s filmography.
A recent experience of rewatching this cinematic rendition of Egene O’Neill’s play was for me so strong and memorable that I cannot help but write down some brief thoughts on it. This is basically a filmed play of overheard conversations (its model being clearly, I think, Wyler’s The Little Foxes); it’s just extraordinary how every single line of O’Neill’s text, even the most subjective sorrowful monologues, is strongly intertwined with their particular listeners: Frankenheimer’s framing and mise en scène take a lot of freedom with the source material precisely in obliging us to listen to characters through their peers, relying on the great skill for creating compositional tension that’s a signature of his visual style.
Frankenheimer’s greatest films are stories revolving around radical personal destitution in which the characters are reduced to the bare essential of their mere reactive existence with no more purpose than engaging in extreme dangerous activities; it’s not by accident that he is one of the first great (and unfortunatly often forgotten) modern action directors with a particular interest in a very archetypical form of action hero: the “emptied” anonymous outcast who reactes energically to extremely dangerous situations (The Train is quite a landmark in that respect). Even psychological “individuation” is in itself a form of imprisonment (Seconds, his most accomplished masterpiece, is all about that). I think Robert Ryan’s Larry Slade is just the ultimate incarnation of this type of existential outcast Frankenheimer was so fond of: in this case, a tired old ex-anarchist whose very disilusion might be paradoxically the utmost pipe dream of a ‘foolosopher’ ghastly scapegoated in the end, but not at all redeemed. I cannot help but ask “What’s left of this man?” when the camera closes to his face in the last shot of the film. I get no answer but the very last image of Robert Ryan ever captured in a movie before his own death.