A landmark film. One of the great hits of the 1950s, with an all star cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine. One of the things that makes the film legendary is that it contains some of the best screen moments of that astonishing cast: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing on the beach, Sinatra’s Maggio dying in Prewitt’s arms; Prewitt on the trumpet playing through tears at Maggio’s funeral, Fatso’s sadism, more evil for being so unaware and perfectly embodied by Borgnine. With the the exception of Donna Reed — whose TV super-stardom in The Donna Reed Show superseded the meanings her persona accrued here — these are roles the cast would continued to be remembered for even up to now.
There are many legends that accrue to the film: how Joan Crawford dropped out over a silly dispute regarding her wardrobe; what Frank Sinatra had to do to get this role: Did he make an offer that couldn’t be refused? Was there a horse’s head under Harry Cohn’s sheets. However he got the role, what he did with it became one of show-business’ legendary come-backs. His work remains terrific.
The shot on the beach, which you can see below, marked an era. It was considered shocking partly because Deborah Kerr is on top, and remains amongst the sexiest embraces ever filmed.
The film is tightly directed: every shot counts; and it remains emotionally affecting, partly through always siding with the underdog (Di Maggio, Prewitt, the prostitutes and adulteresses of this world), partly through evoking the depths of unhappiness that love can bring, such as in the beautiful scene below.
The film also offers more spectacular pleasures, again unusual in that it focusses on male bodies in various states of undress, such as Burt Lancaster below:
and Burt Lancaster in motion is always a joy to watch, like everybody’s idealistic embodiment of G.I Joe, at least if that were any longer a possibility:
David Greven, commenting on the initial posting of this piece, argues that, ´There are many things to recommend this movie, but for me it has always been about Clift primarily and his absolute and utter integrity as an actor. Sinatra lends fine support and is indeed probably better than any other time, but Clift is the mesmeric centre of this film´.
And perhaps it´s true that he deserves more attention here. In her review of the film, Pauline Kael writes, ”Montgomery Clift´s bony, irregularly handsome Prewitt is a hardhead, a limited man with a one-track mind, who´s intensely appealing; Clift has the control to charm –almost to seduce — an audience without ever stepping outside his inflexible, none–too-smart character’. She sees the conflict between (Prewitt´s) status and his determination to have his rights (as) the mainspring of the action, and later argues that Prewitt´s fate gets ‘buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift´s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster. It was almost as if the public wanted to forget Prewitt´s troublesome presence’ (5001 Nights At The Movies, p. 204).
One could, however, see this in a different way, as David Thompson perceptively does in his review of the film. It´s not that Prewitt´s fate gets buried, it´s that ‘this complicated romantic story is so wonderfully aimed at December 7, 1941. The sudden collapse of urgent personal stories in the name of war is what is most impressive about this picture, and most true to the mood of 1941. In a world war, millions of ordinary people put their lives on hold. In turn, the quality that a nation brings to its war is exemplified in part by the stubbornness of Prewitt and Maggio and the expertise of Sergeant Warden in getting things done. …Definitive popular cinema, (p.314, Have You Seen….)
Clift is divine in From Here To Eternity, with some unforgettable moments. He´s beautiful and affecting in everything he does, and the trumpet scene is gorgeous and moving, And Prewitt is indeed the mainspring of the action, his inability to bend is what sparks everything. But Lancaster is undoubtedly the centre of the film narratively, structurally, and he too has two unforgettable moments, both which I´ve included here. The love scene on the beach (obviously) but also the moment in the car with Kerr where they talk of the unhappiness their love brings them, which is just lovely. There´s also a thing about film acting, about embodying, rather than traditional notions of acting, the way his body is used, when he bends down to kiss Kerr say, or when he breaks the bottle to take on Fatso, that are superb and under-appreciated.
Everyone agrees Clift is great in this, a legendary performance. There are now several books about Clift and he is widely considered one of America´s greatest actors. Elisabetta Girelli, for example ,sees From Here to Eternity as a film that ‘crowns the peak stage of Clift´s stardom’ (loc 1851 Kindle, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star) and offers a fascinating queer reading of the film based on Clift´s performance and the film´s uses of his presence. If indeed the praise for Lancaster and Sinatra upon the film´s first release buried Clift´s achievements, this is certainly no longer the case. Indeed, I find that critics and scholars (though not audiences) find it harder to appreciate what Lancaster brings, which to me is just as great albeit in a different way. He always embodied and always performed for an audience, and as his career developed he learned to also *act* a character: all of those things are entwined but each is also a distinctive aspect of what a screen actor brings to film drama. And one of the things that distinguishes this film from so many others is how marvellous all of the leads are, each in a different way, as, for example, the way Kerr looks as she says she´s never felt that way before. Superb.
The film also succeeds in dramatising a solution to real contradictions. The army is horrible throughout; sadistic, petty, punitive; until Pearl Harbour, where everyone heeds the call to arms, even at the cost of their lives. It’s a lovely film that well evokes passion, sadness, various kinds of love, including depths of non-sexual feeling men can really have for each other. It’s a rare film in that every kind of coupling is defeated, most of our heroes die, love is impossible. But of course everything important alters once war begins: everything changes then, and thus perhaps now has a renewed resonance.
The set-piece of the bombing of Pearl Harbour remains spectacular. The scenes leading up to it, with Zinnemann cleverly putting characters in front of dates (the 6th) or names (Pearl Harbour) subtly lead up to that moment. It’s a film where rhythm and pacing have been carefully through through. Everything’s measured, including the explosions: here, it works.
It’s a beautiful adaptation of James Jones, probably much better than the book deserves, and miles above the TV mini-series with Natalie Wood and William Devane.
The film won the award for Best Film and Zinnemann, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Oscars. Burt Reynolds won the New York Film Critics’ award. One of the great hits of the era, with the shot of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach embracing through the tide one of the most famous in the history of cinema.
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.
The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .
Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12). Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).
We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular. They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.
Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.
What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.
Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).
She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).
Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’ (p.31).
She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).
But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).
She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’
Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott, ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).
The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.
There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).
In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).
A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.
Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.
From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011),Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly(Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.
Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World
The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer, or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.
The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows fromThe Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.
‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.
The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories(Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.
When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.
Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.
Second Scene: Anti-Thesis
The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman,when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.
I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?
‘You gotta feel something for somebody’
When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski. ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.
The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage – thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement
A Visual Relationship to Noir
The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).
Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites
Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.
The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.
From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.
The Second Turning Point and Descent
Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).
Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.
One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.
Detour into Franco
I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful(Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.
This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).
Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .
Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly, the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning. But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.
From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind). Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.
It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.
The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.