The Iceman Cometh (1960)

Genres - Drama  |   Run Time - 210 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Producer Ely Landau was luckier than most of his colleagues; an innovator in both the film and television worlds, he got to take two bites of the apple when it came to Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, fostering versions in television and film with two of the top directors of the day, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer. The Frankenheimer version is the more widely known, as it was done as a feature film and has been shown on television in edited form; the Lumet version was done in 1960 for WNTA, the original licensee of Channel 13 in New York (before the era of public television), which Landau ran as part of National Telefilm Associates. Image Entertainment has released the Lumet version, which is fascinating to watch alongside the Kino International release of Frankenheimer's film -- two cast members, Tom Pedi (who was also in the original 1947 production) and Sorrell Booke, are in both versions in the same roles, 13 years apart. Lumet got a dream cast here, starting with Jason Robards Jr., who recreates his success as Hickey from the 1950s off-Broadway revival (which is where the play became a success, in the hands of director Jose Quintero). Also present are Myron McCormick as Larry, and such names as James Broderick, Robert Redford, Roland Winters, and Michael Strong.

Done as part of WNTA's "Play of the Week" series, The Iceman Cometh was a major television "event" in its time, getting the seal of approval from The New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson, who introduced both halves of the presentation (it was done in two nights, a week apart). Lumet didn't have Frankenheimer's relative luxury of assembling a cast from the best film and theater actors across three generations, or shooting in color or having the time to assemble a film in a proper editing facility -- this was done live for the cameras. It's more bracing, if less graceful, than the Frankenheimer version; the tension between the actors and the movement of the cameras combine to give the material an edge that will surprise those only familiar with the film. Lumet proves adept at moving his actors and cameras in what is essentially a dramatic ballet. Those who know his film 12 Angry Men will love this production and the opportunity to experience the excitement that attended the broadcast. This is also a wonderful showcase not only for Robards, whose portrayal of Hickey was one of the highlights of his career, but also for Myron McCormick, a much-loved stage actor whose film work (including No Time for Sergeants) was only a shadow of his true dramatic range, his talent captured here about as well as it ever was.