Lee Marvin and the Iceman

30 May

(I/we have finished a first draft of the play, but more on that in a later post.)

I’ve spent the last few days watching John Frankenheimer’s version of The Iceman Cometh, one of the great plays by Eugene O’Neill. (The whole film is available on youtube.) It’s a massive, towering film from the 1970s, and largely forgotten. Which is strange, because the movie is bewitching and strong, and it’s the last film of both Frederic March and Robert Ryan. Ryan gives what is probably the performance of his storied career. March plays an Irish man and mostly gets away with it. 


The play follows a group of drunks, hustlers, whores, pimps and busted out railbirds, as they argue, fight, and pester each other through two days in a sawdust bar called Harry Hope’s Saloon. Their hero is Hickey, a hard-drinking, good-time salesman coming into town for a party. Hickey is fun; Hickey is light-hearted; Hickey is generous; Hickey is content to be a drunk. But when he arrives, they discover he’s fallen into a strange, punishing philosophy of sobriety. He’s smart and insightful, but without booze his intelligence bends itself to talky analysis. Hickey spends the bulk of the play attempting to heal his old friends, forcing them to confront their inner demons. He wants them all sober. His cure is worse than the disease, though; his attempts to help lead to desperate ruin.

Iceman is considered O’Neill’s best play, sort of tied with Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both are bleak, brooding, emotional roller coasters with tons of alcohol and plenty of screaming. Iceman, however, has just a touch of dark magic—a metaphysical undercurrent. Hickey’s speech-making seems to magically remove the alcohol’s ability to numb their sadness, and like Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, the characters can’t seem to leave. Something compels them to stay. 

Even trimmed the film is almost three hours. (The play often tops out at four.) Frankenheimer keeps the camera moving, and his technical skill is so high the movie doesn’t really feel like a play. It feels, strangely enough, like a well-shot, high-brow distant cousin of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the grotesque physical decline of the drunks and the deathly pallor of their faces. At times it feels like a procession of the tubercular and the deranged. The corners of the film are smudged with perversity. (Frankenheimer did a similar thing with Seconds, his bizarre little foray into cult moviemaking, following an old man transforming into Rock Hudson through an obscure medical procedure.)


Lee Marvin plays Hickey, and he’s superb, revelatory, playing the role in a laid back, relaxed fashion. He sometimes plays the pushy salesman, sometimes the doomed preacher. Marvin always had an amazing face—oblong and pointy, strangely fleshy with a skull beneath his skin that seemed to harden even as his face became doughy with age. He made some bad films, but he was always reliable. Like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and Robert Mitchum, he was a pro who bent his lines inward, towards his own personality. He came to the fore (often over-) playing villainous cowboys. Anyone unsure of his acting chops should check out Point Blank, where he plays a murderous, implacable idiot too stupid to take advantage of the chaos he’s created. It’s a brilliant performance, underplayed and deadpan, a study in near-total bewilderment.

Sidney Lumet directed an earlier version of Iceman for TV. I watched this, too. Jason Robards, another fine actor, plays Hickey for Lumet. Robards delivers his lines in the rat-a-tat stage style that so many theater actors use: histrionic, elongated, full of facial tics, and on film, pretty wretched. His words, his thoughts, his memories, they move faster than most people think, and the result is that stagey quality I’m sure most playwrights despise. Marvin is tougher, more natural, subtler, a building tension in his lines. (Jeff Bridges plays the Robert Redford part, and he’s light years better at the role. Redford is all childish vulnerability; Bridges plays it angrier, inches away from murder.) With Robards the lines seem like, well, lines. With Marvin you sense the dissolution of his own identity.

He is Hickey. And he is damned. 


One Response to “Lee Marvin and the Iceman”


  1. Reading: Durant, O’Neill, Mitchell. « simoneandthesilversurfer - July 29, 2012

    […] the basis for the cast of his second best play, The Iceman Cometh. (I wrote about the film version here.) Iceman is a powerful, if at times punishing experience, but the denizens of the bowery dive come […]

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