A long, wide-ranging and informative discussion with scholar Adrian Garvey on the career of James Mason , the subject of Garvey´s interest and research for over a decade now. We touch on various aspects of the particularities of Mason´s career and achievements but with a particular focus on his work in the UK in the forties, and then in the United States in the 50s. The conversation ranges from the differences in his level of stardom in the UK and the US, his choice of projects, the quality of the people he sought out to work with, how a star becomes a lasting star in spite of never quite becoming a box-office star in America, what his star persona was in the UK and how that was re-deployed but also re-inflected in America. We touch on the directors he worked with: Reed, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Minnelli, Nicholas Ray; we compare his career to that of other British stars of the period and after– Stewart Granger, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Richard Burton, Peter O´Toole, Richard Harris, Alec Guiness…. A must-listen for anyone interested in James Mason.
I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).
Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful
A few weeks after returning from Lisbon I’m still in thrall to the memory of my visit to the ‘Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema’. It took us a while to find. We originally thought that it might be the building on the majestic Avenida de Libertadores that is also part of the Museum and that was then holding Saturday screenings of children’s films as part of a festival of children’s cinema taking place throughout the city.
The Cinemateca itself is housed in a grand building just off the grand boulevard, on Rua Barata Salgueiro. When we went in the afternoon to buy the tickets – I was eager to see Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night on celluloid — the ticket-seller apologised for the price, €5 instead of the normal €3. It was more expensive because it was considered a special event: the great Bernard Eisenschitz, surely one of the world’s foremost authorities on the work of the great American director, was giving nightly introductions to a series of less celebrated Ray films: On Dangeous Ground (1952), Bitter Victory (1957), Wind Across the Everglades (1958) and We Can’t Go Home Again (1971-1980).
We would be missing Víctor Erice, the celebrated director of El espíritu de la colmena/ The Spirit of the Beehive – in my view one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema – who would be arriving the following week to introduce and discuss Ray’s Party Girl (1957). The reason for Erice’s visit was not accidental. As José Manuel Costa, Director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema noted in his introduction of Eisenchitz, Erice had been the programmer of the Cinemateca’s previous retrospective of Ray’s films in the 80s, around the time he wrote his full-length study of Nicholas Ray’s work with Jos Oliver, Nicholas Ray y su tiempo/ Nicholas Ray and his times (Madrid, 1986).
It was a thrill to listen to Eisenchitz on They Live by Night later that evening. He wore his learning lightly, spoke with humour, without notes and whilst looking directly at audience in the sold-out screening. He was very illuminating on the credit sequence, the film’s ending and the meaning and affect of the film, particularly as they relate to the presentation of Farley Granger. I felt lucky to be there.
But to say all of the above is merely to say that the Cinemateca is doing an excellent job at what it was set up to do. It has a superb programme, with distinguished guests sharing their knowledge of cinema with a local audience. It has an archive, a library, a publication arm that’s clearly as cutting edge as any (a two volume collection on Queer cinema caught my eye), a superb if slightly expensive bookshop, permanent and temporary exhibits on some aspect of cinema.
The Cinemateca Portuguesa has all you’d expect of a great film institute and something I’d never much thought of, took it for granted really, until it was lost: The Cinemateca offers a public space in which cinephiles can meet, study, exchange ideas, work on projects. It has a cheap but pretty café where people were hypnotised by their laptops alone, working on projects with others, just waiting for the film to start; all without the pressure that the table might be needed by someone who could spend more. It made me conscious of the encroachment on public spaces by private interests that we suffer from in England and elsewhere. That public spaces are no longer public, that in film institutes they at best have to pay for themselves; at worst generate profit to help fund the institute; and in having to do so, they lose an important reason they were originally set up for: as places were ideas could be nurtured, exchanged, circulated.
That the building itself was also beautiful, with a grand Art Deco-ish double stairway leading from the cinema up to the café bookshop and through various exhibits, was a bonus. The programme, the events, the space to think and discuss, the possibility of pursuing art and knowledge — and all in such a beautiful setting – it felt ennobling.
I had a fantastic cinephiliac moment at the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museo do Cinema in Lisbon. As I was walking into the cafeteria with a friend, I noticed that as part of the permanent exhibition and hidden behind an old projector there was a poster for Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954), but rather different than the one originally designed to advertise the movie upon first release in America.
There, as we can see above, what was advertised was Joan Crawford, billed above the title and in lettering that seems even larger than that of the title itself. The tagline at the top trumpets ‘Joan’s greatest triumph’. The image of Joan Crawford occupies almost all of the left hand side of the poster. She’s wearing trousers but the light emphasises her bust. Joan is imaged as a ‘pistol-packin’ mama’, but a glamorously made-up one, and with romance evident beneath and between her legs, against a backdrop of a canyon cliff rising towards her crotch.
Joan Crawford was not only instrumental in selling the film but the driving force behind it being made at all. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan delineates how ‘Crawford was considered the picture’s de facto producer’ (p.244), how she not only owned the rights to the novel but had bought them before publication and may ‘indeed have commissioned it’(p.246) with Roy Chanslor first writing the novel as a lengthy treatment in the film.
In the bottom quarter of the poster we see a lot of other things the film promises: Sterling Hayden with a gun, a posse with Mercedes McCambridge, small but dead-centre in the lower section of the poster’s composition. We also see fire and explosions. Below the title are the other famous people in the film in order of importance and in relatively small print, amongst them Hayden and McCambridge but also Scott Brady. That the film is in ‘Trucolor’ is also advertised; as is the fact that the film is a Republic Picture, in yellow and on the bottom right. This might have been unwise as Republic was known as the cheapo studio even though this was one of its priciest products, ostensibly budgeted at $2 million. That Nicholas Ray directed is shown in half the size of the co-stars billed under the title and a mere fraction of the size of Joan Crawford’s own billing. This is significant because it is so unlike the poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa.
If the original poster promised a ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ western with Joan controlling the kissing and the banging, the later poster offered something else: a ‘Nicholas Ray Film’. As you can see in the poster above, Nicholas Ray is billed first, in lettering that seems the same size as the title but in a font that makes it seem less; the title of the film seems twice as large as the name of the director. Thus the poster conveys a particular message, which could be relayed as: the director, the film, the image; the dialogue or one of the most exchanges of dialogue in a superb scene from one of the most famous films by one of the greatest directors. The scene is of course, the famous ‘Lie to me’ scene; a gorgeous composition with Joan Crawford as Vienna, carefully framed and looking onto Hayden, occupies much of the centre of the poster. The image gives more importance to the stars than the billing in the poster does, in which Crawford is billed below the title and on the right, thus after Haydn: she might be rolling over in her grave now at the very thought.
Underneath is the dialogue (which I’ve taken from the film itself), some of the most famous in the history of cinema:
Johnny: ‘Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: ‘All these years I’ve waited’
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t returned
Vienna: I would had died if you hadn’t come back’.
Jonny: Tell me you still love me like I love you
Vienna: I still love you as you love me
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
One could say that comparing the two posters indicate a shift in the appreciation of the importance of the director versus that of the stars. However, as we know from the tortuous billing of The Towering Inferno in the 1970s right down to the discussions of how much money James Toback can raise on the names of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned (only 4-5 milion) stars remain central to the whole commercial cinematic apparatus. It would perhaps be more true to say that the posters for Johnny Guitar are addressing two different types of audience, one commercial, contemporaneous with the film and seeking to highlight what might attract it; the other, a later cinephile audience seeking art and film history. Does this shift over time and in terms of audience address not carry within it a soupçon of sexism? It’s almost like Joan Crawford and all she once meant has to be buried so that ‘Nicholas Ray’ can acquire its own set of meanings; auteurism, so founded on particular sets of specialised knowledges, as a kind of unwitting and socially unaware sexist erasure.
What incurred that moment of Cinephilia at the Cinemateca Portuguesa was not just the reference to the film, although that is potent in itself: I admire what David Thomson called its ‘bold incursion into camp’ and even remembered Truffaut’s assessment: ‘a string of preciosity, truer than truth…The bold, violent color (by TruColor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.’ However, at the Cinemateca there were also posters for so many other films that had meant as much to me just next to it (see the lovely one for the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat below).
What thrilled me at the Cinemateca was the memory of how Almodóvar had deployed the exact dialogue displayed in the poster in one of the most famous scenes in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her lover has just left her. She’s got something important to tell him and he won’t let himself be found. They’re both actors who dub films. She’s at the studio dubbing Joan Crawford’s part in Johnny Guitar, her absent lover has already over-dubbed Sterling Hayden’s voice with his own.
As you can see above, Almodóvar starts with the mechanics of the film projector, cuts to an over-head shot that places the light thrown by the projector in the very middle of the frame, amidst the darkness of dimming lights, and creates a dream-like tone of feeling, of sadness and longing, that Pepa ads her voice to, that she voices but that also speaks her (and by turn Almodóvar and many of us).
In a stimulating round table on Cinephilia and the work of Jacques Rancière, Erika Balsom cites Serge Daney’s notion that ‘Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema’. That’s what we see in Almodóvars integration of the ‘Lie to me’ scene into the very narrative of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As her absent lover whispers in her earphones what Johnny (Hayden) is telling Vienna (Crawford), ‘Lie to me. Tell me something nice’, the camera resting on Carmen Maura’s face, lined, lived-in, so much more human than the architectonic iconicity Crawford’s conveys. But we do not see Crawford. Indeed, as you can see in the clip, we do not see Johnny Guitar in this moment of the film. It’s only the dialogue, the dialogue from the Johnny Guitar poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, overdubbed so that it’s what Pepa and her lover, who cannot say this to each other in ‘life’, may do so through film. Johnny Guitar speaks Pepa’s relation to the world through cinema, and indeed, I would argue, as we can see through so many of his films, Almodóvar’s.
Later in the Rancière round-table, Balsom cites Raymond Bellour’s notion that the film body is a body that flees from us and we’re always left trying to recapture it through different kinds of practices. Not just a love of cinema but a set of practices that happen after and that try to recapture this lost experience. Perhaps that is what Almodóvar is doing in Women on the Verge. For me, the sight of the poster ignited a concatenation of old memories and new questions: What did the poster advertise? Who was it made for? Did Almodóvar see it? Were those bits of dialogue generally famous with a cinephile audience? Were they also part of a shared queer culture of the moment? My cinephile moment was not just an attempt to recapture the feeling of seeing this moment in Johnny Guitar, or in Women on the Verge, or in the relation between the two, though it was all of that; it was also a spark to action: to realise there’s more to discover and to know; a moment of trying to recapture something lost that simultaneously leads to the accretion — perhaps creation — of something new.
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.