John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh”


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.

Fernando Costa

Advertisements

Gaze as memory and fantasy: Franco’s faux raccords in “Venus in Furs”

[vimeo 114532166 w=600 h=350]

A brief note just after seeing (for the very first time) Jesús Franco’s outstanding erotic thriller Venus in Furs (aka Paroxismus, 1969). One of the early scenes is a pretty good summation of the film’s main stylistic and narrative procedures. We are presented to a fancy high society party of motionless figures; among them, Klaus Kinski’s character, taking a glass. Music all around and suddenly a cut to Jimmy (James Darren) playing his hornet.

VENUS 01 VENUS 02 VENUS 03

Jimmy’s shot is highly disruptive, it just seems displaced from the whole context with its low-key lighting and the red wall, but the soundtrack seems to emphasize a sufficient sense of spacial continuity. Back to the main action, Kinski is driven to a woman, Wanda (Maria Rohm), that enters the place, and here things start to get really complex, because Franco cuts back to Kinski in a completely different space, with the red background, and two new characters at the party are shown in the same way. Jimmy also notices the woman; the camera zooms in as he is apparently looking at her.

VENUS 04 VENUS 05VENUS 06 VENUS 09

Only much later in the movie, we find out that this last shot of Jimmy was not from the actual party (which took place in Istanbul), but from a club in Rio de Janeiro where he will meet the same woman again.

VENUS 10

Jimmy was at the same time (and indistinguishably) seeing, remembering and fantasizing his first encounter with her in Istanbul, which will be somehow reenacted in Rio as a turning point for his predicament. Only by the very end of the film, after Wanda’s final revenge, it’s revealed that the shots of Kinski and his collaborators against a red wall come indeed from a room where they stare at her dead body instead of her entrance in the party (or maybe both circumstances, in their eyes, are just one and the same). Whether this disconcerting scene in the red room is real, imaginary, spiritual or whatever is ultimately irrelevant by that point. One single scene and how it resonates in the whole movie exemplify quite well Franco’s highly intelligent and often ambiguous use of faux raccords to render situations and environments into ambiguous mindscapes of sexual obsessions. Venus in Furs would be a very perfunctory piece of screenwriting if it wasn’t for Franco’s attention to visual motifs (most notably the color red) and patterns of repetition and discontinuity throughout the film; it’s an imagistic texture that greatly trancends its bare source material. So a rather routine Vertigo-like suspense story can become an authentic cinematic experience of loss of reality in obsessive fantasy and desire.

Fernando Costa

VENUS 12