In the early 80s, pushing 70, But Lancaster top-lines and gets a star entrance in Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The film, based on a true story, is about Cattle Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Little Britches (Diane Lane) but Burt’s Bob Dooley is the legend, the lodestar, who they want to emulate and with whom they want to join. He’s no longer the romantic lead, but the film’s protagonists have their own non-sexual romance of and with him, and so does the film.
Mannerisms in actors are usually seen as a negative. That an actor resorts to old tricks and lacks the imagination to inhabit character in different ways. But what if those gestures of body and face, those stances that indicate bursts of energy are part of what audiences love and look forward to in an actor’s performance? In Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Burt’s mannerisms bring up whole eras of audience affection, evoke authority, and are shortcuts to character and a base with which to create something new. He’s too old in the film to play the romantic leading man but the film has its own romance with him, his stardom and his own legend that feeds into that of his character’s. And displaying his body is still part of what he does as an actor and a star, even if pushing 70, it’s now filmed through mist (Pauline Kael said he looked like an old water buffalo). Perhaps that’s why he was still top-billed and headlining in vehicles guided by intelligence and social purpose into his 70s and almost right through the 1980s.
One of the reasons I pay no attention to all the Kael haters is that I vividly remember Kael’s review forty years after I read it, and this was a movie I’d never been able to see up to now. And now that I have seen it and re-read it, I agree with so much of what she says. And she’s so funny saying it. On Rod Steiger: ‘Rod Steiger is probably more contained than he has been in years. The last time I saw him—doing his padre number in “The Amityville Horror”—his spiritual agony was enough to shatter the camera lens.’
Pauline Kael is worth quoting at length: ‘here are some remarkable performances—Lancaster’s and Diane Lane’s, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen début of Amanda Plummer. (Actually, everything about this picture is unheralded. It was finished over a year ago, but nobody wanted to release it, because a couple of other Westerns had failed. It wasn’t really released: it was just dropped into a Broadway theatre for a week, to plug up a hole before “Outland” arrived.) As Bill Doolin, Lancaster (who made this film before “Atlantic City”) is a gent surrounded by louts—a charmer. When he talks to his gang, he uses the lithe movements and the rhythmic, courtly delivery that his Crimson Pirate of 1952 had when he told his boys to gather ‘round. The great thing about Lancaster is that you can see the face of a stubborn, difficult man—a man who isn’t easy to get along with. He has so much determination that charm doesn’t diminish him. In his scenes with Diane Lane, the child actress who appeared in New York in several of Andrei Serban’s stage productions and who, single-handed, made the film “A Little Romance” almost worth seeing, Lancaster has an easy tenderness that is never overdone, and she is completely inside Jenny’s childish dependency. And when he’s by himself, naked, soaking at the hot springs (where the marshal traps him), he’s a magnificent, sagging old buffalo. Lancaster looks happy in this movie and still looks tough: it’s an unbeatable combination’.
The film itself is charming and a bit ramshackle. It’s unusual to see a film about women’s desires to be outlaws, one set in a period where those dreams were being shut down along with the frontier, and yet the film doesn’t makes those desires as central to the narrative as it should, constantly cutting to the bigger stars, Lancaster himself of course, but also Rod Steiger and Jon Savage — whatever happened to him? He seemed to be everywhere in this period — and even Scott Glenn (why didn’t he become a bigger star? He’s sexy, charismatic and so good here and in practically everything he did in this period). And the questions I ask above in relation to Savage and Glenn are even more worth asking regarding Amanda Plummer, a debut to compare to Hepburn’s writes Kael, and yet it seems American cinema of this period did not have the space for such an electric and original presence. Its loss. But this is a film that allows us to enjoy and mourn the magnitude of that loss.
According to Kate Burford, ‘critics would note that Larry Pizer’s cinematography glowed like a Frederick Remington vision’ (loc 2903), except for the clip of Burt’s entrance I’ve extracted above, where one can barely see anything.
In her extraordinary book on Lancaster, Kate Buford includes excerpts from a truly illuminating interview with Amanda Plummer on Lancaster’s acting in Cattle Annie that is worth extracting here in its entirety:
A bit of trivia: Steven Ford, son of the American President Gerald, appears in a small role as a man of the law and is very good.
Les innocents aux mains sales/ Dirty Hands is an ingenious thriller by Claude Chabrol with a glorious opening: Romy Schneider plays Julie Womser, a St. Tropez housewife saddled with a rich but impotent husband (Rod Steiger as Louis Womser). As the film begins, she’s sunbathing nude, a kite falls on her bum, a cute man (Paolo Giusti playing Jeff Marle) chases after his kite, she asks him to remove it and offers herself to him. She brings him home; the husband’s there, drunk; they make out anyway; and in what seems a nanosecond, they’re planning his murder. I won’t go into the plot because it’s full of clever twists and continues to surprise until the end. Suffice it to say that it’s an elegant, almost minimalist chamber piece, with outstanding use of sound and the zoom lens so typical of that period.
What I want to focus on here are the clothes. The 70s are often seen as something of a sartorial joke; and that may be true of men’s fashion, particularly when we look at old family photographs of ourselves wearing psychedelic prints, long pointy collars, flares and platform shoes. But it’s a glorious period for women’s fashion, so influenced by vintage forties clothing with it’s variant on the platform, the knee-length suit, the cinched-waisted gowns etc. And as the 2015 exhibit, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2015 demonstrated, ‘No two designers defined and dominated the decade more than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. They were the era’s most influential and celebrated clothing creators, becoming celebrities in their own right. Both have been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and exhibitions.’
I have already in this blog commented on St. Laurent’s clothes for Romy Schneider in Max et les ferrailleurs and César et Rosalie. I here simply want to explore the various looks developed by Romy Schneider, Chabrol and St. Laurent in Les innocents aux mains sales and how they function as aspects of the mise-en-scène to evoke something about the type of woman Romy Schneider’s Julie Womser is, how she’s feeling, how she’s hiding what she’s feeling; how they express what’s happening to her; how the clothes serve the storytelling, characterisation and mood in the film.
After her nude introduction, we’re shown Romy Schneider in a sexy, hip-hugging black dress; elegant, with a jewelled strap but also showing lots of flesh. What’s evoked is wealth, elegance a sexyness that remains distanced , sober and sheathed, but that nevertheless is offered up to Jeff Marle on a white shag rug as soon as her husband has drunk himself into a stupor
Look 2: The kaftan, such a staple of 70s clothing, particularly St. Laurent’s, here conveying elegant couture casual; perfect for St. Tropez and the opposite of what we associate with Demis Roussos. It’s the setting where the husband surprises her with the gift of the car that is to play such an important part in the plot subsequently.
Look 3: The murder
How does a murderess look? Well, a chignon helps. Here Julie/Romy is dressed in black, the collar a hint of the sexuality that drives the passion and edges it into murder. Note too the cut of the dress, the bit of leg and the heels, which seem as much of a weapon as the chignon.
Look 4: The Sleepless Night. Light blue on a darker shade of blue for ‘une nuit blanche’ when she thinks she’s murdered her husband, can’t sleep and gets ready to make up her lies, dress them into view, and lie convincingly to the police.
Look 5: A Kaftan for The Morning After a Murder. This evokes and might be a precursor to St. Laurent’s famous Russian and Chinese inspired collections of the late 1970s. See also look 7.
Look 6 and 7 : Changes to Call the Police, in a darker shade of blue, closer to her sheets than her nightgown in Look 4, but then returns to Kaftan though this one is slightly different than the one above whilst clearly aiming to recall it. Romy’s Julie clearly’s got a collection in her closet
Look 8 and 9:
She returns to look 2, where her husband had bought her the car, but this time to receive a letter from her lover; and then goes to meet with her bank manager and the police at the bank but in the same dress she called the police in earlier but now wearing a black widow’s cape. The looks are clearly associative, symbolic, meant to unconsciously render situation and character whilst also recalling situations and events (here she’s wearing the kaftan she wore when she received the car that was her husband’s token of love but which we’re here told is how her lover drove away the husband’s body. Love turned to murder via money and passion)
Looks 10 and 11, Turbaned in black and wearing a respectable and elegant grey tweed to meet her husband’s friend and business manager, where she once more meets with the police who are getting suspicious of her. When she goes to see the judge she wears the same sober and elegant colour scheme but in a different outfit (see image three, below right). It’s like at this point in the plot the looks, colours, even textures of the character are seeping into one another.
I also want to bring in here some of the associations turban sand berets have for us: Frenchness, as we can see below with Michèle Morgan; a Parisian variant of it we associate with the ‘we’ll always have Paris’ flashback in Casablanca with Bergman and Bogart; the intelligence and coolness we associate with De Beauvoir (here with Nelson Algren; the turban was a signature look for her as it avoided having to do her hair, clearly not a problem for Julie/Romy); and lastly the underworld of noir femme fatales evoked by Bergman’s take on Dietrich in Arch of Triumph (Lewis Mileston, USA, 1948)
Look 12: At her nadir, when all the evidence points against her plotting with her lover to kill her husband; Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier film her in silhouette in a flowing dress, with a flowing scarf; when she comes in we see her all in black, like the unfortunate black widow she believes herself to be. Then, when her husband tells her what happened we flash back to her making love to her lover, the glittering strap being all that’s needed to associate this scene with the beginning (Look 1) where she had sex with her lover and which we now know her husband watched. Now she offers herself to her husband in an echo of the first time she offered herself to her lover, naked and in the sunshine; here enclosed in darkness and distance. At the end, he pays her, like the whore he believes her to be.
Look 13: After her husband returns and pays her to have sex with him, Julie makes herself up to be her version of an elegant whore, with St. Laurent seeming to draw inspiration from Lauren Bacall’s look at the end of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944) and Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932). The Dietrich reference also recalls how in her biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich by her Daughter, Maria Riva recounts how hard Dietrich worked at her looks, that she designed them in consultation with Von Sternberg and Travis Banton, and how her performances were powerfully based on the progression of ‘looks’ that had a narrative and dramatic function in the film, particularly as ‘put on the scene’ by Von Sternberg as part of his mise-en-scène
Look 14: In black now, still trying to pretend she’s the innocent and respectable widow but the mise-en-scène showing us the situation is not as as clear as it seems. The grey tweed jacket she wore when she went to see her lawyers is hanging nonchalantly from the chair she’s sitting in and later revealed to be accompanied by a matching skirt:
Look15: In most of the last half-hour of the film Romy’s half black/half tweed turns into full black, eventually accompanied by a crochéd shawl of the sort you’d expect rural peasant widows to wear (and echoing the cape she wore in Look 9 when she first went to meet the authorities). It’ s in this dress that the plot and the actress goes through a whole series of events: she’s discovered not to be a widow, the lover she though dead returns, she gets raped in that dress, and she discovers that when she was thought to be guilty there was no sentence whereas when she’s known to be innocent there is. She does a lot of running — seeking help, fleeing danger — in this dress; and the hem seems to be weighted so that it moves beautifully, in sync and as a result of Julie’s turmoil and distress. It’s the ‘little black dress’ in motion and in performance as put into the scene by Romy Schneider and Yves St. Laurent
Still in black, after she’s been rescued from a rape, and comforted by a red and black tartan blanket, of the sort one associates with Canadian lumber jackets, kilts, homey blankets, and worn like a shawl.
Telling her lawyer (the wonderfully cynical and funny Jean Rochefort), ‘when I tried killing my husband, nothing happened to me, now I try to save him and I’m been punished’. Her look is entirely calm, sophisticated (the hairstyle), demure (the heavy scarf/collar) and as we can tell not only from the cut and fabric of the clothing but from those earrings, rich. However, the chignon seems to bear witness to murder.
Look 17: Suffering chic-ly in minimalist modern interiors that evoke wealth, richness (the gold cigarette lighter on the otherwise empty table), anomie and lonelyness and before the great finale where the darkness calls out her name.
Undressing and Dressing:
In a way the whole film is about dressing and undressing Romy Schneider. She’s a mystery the film 9and the audience) is meant to uncover. We first see her in shades, a reflection of the audience’s desires, a morsel eager to be eaten. The film, then often films her in shadow, partially, in silhouette (see image two below)
The film undresses Julie/Romie only to dress her up in various guises, so she performs different types of femininity for her husband, her lover, the police, the judge, and the audience. She’s often shown having agency over this costuming/construction, the clothes part of her masquerade, the body a kind of currency with which she pays and rewards, both part of the way she performs the various aspects of Julie’s character into being. The most telling point is when her husband returns, pays her to have sex like the whore he thinks she is, and she curls her hair and dresses in white in that Bacall/Dietrich echo is that is the only moment we see her in white in the entire film.
In between displaying her body, selling it or having it raped, the film dresses her mostly in black, with various types of accents; shiny for the lover, sober and sleeklined for the murder, enclosing blue when she talks to the police, or framed by grey tweed at the solicitors, or accented by different shawls. The only moments of colour and brightness are the kaftany casualness with the husband or the moment where she contrasts in binary whiteness to accept that she’s prostituted herself to her husband and is wiling to accept the bargain. It’s really quite extraordinary what a look at the uses of clothing in a film can reveal about character, story and storytelling, not to speak of the performer’s art (which I have not quite done so here though Romy Schneider is glorious). It’s a gorgeous wardrobe by Yves St. Laurent, expressively worn by Schneider and beautifully deployed by Chabrol.
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.