The Iceman Cometh ★★★★

You're right, Larry; bad luck come in the door the day Hickey come.

We are shaped by the past, ruled by the future, yet imprisoned by the present. We pine for yesterday, we strive for tomorrow, but today we're stuck thinking about where we've been and where we're going. And since every day is technically 'today,' how long ago, really, was 'yesterday,' and will 'tomorrow' ever truly get here?

John Frankenheimer's The Iceman Cometh (adapted from the play by Eugene O'Neill) examines the inescapable eddy of 'now' experienced by a group of disparate drunks with many and varied pasts yet sharing the same plan for 'tomorrow' - movement. Whether they plan to move up in the world, move sideways to another bar or similar situation, they all dream and desire to move forward in any direction (or at least claim to). God knows for how many 'todays' they've been singing the same tune.

All this changes when Lee Marvin's Hickey arrives. A source of great anticipation to the patrons for the carefree atmosphere he always evokes on his semi-annual visits, this Hickey is a changed man. He's given up the drink, and explains that he will do what all the sots cannot - get them to move on. Yes, move on - like a literal Angel of Death or Charon, Hickey pushes them, kicking and screaming, into tomorrow and out of their booze-filled purgatory. Marvin does a great job, but as quietly vicious as Hickey is, I can't help but think the character might have benefited from a more silky-smooth and slimy portrayal than the almost brusque and forceful one he's given in this iteration.

Be warned that The Iceman Cometh is a 4-hour long film. It is a full hour before the bar actually opens and Hickey arrives - before then, we are treated to hushed conversations in dim lighting of the drunks establishing their characters, pasts, and hopes for the future while they talk off last night's drunk. However, at least for me, O'Neill's language is lyrically conversational and absorbing, Frankenheimer's camera moves and changes shots often enough to keep the eyes engaged, and the performances - especially Robert Ryan's stolidly tragic Larry - are obviously tinged with dialogue meant for the stage but manage to crackle with bitterness and melancholy and make each of the players a different kind of miserable; as much as Hickey's overt goal is noble (to inspire these louts to take the next step and better their lives), the actors manage to turn Hickey into a terrifying villain - a freight train running them over or forcing them off a cliff.

The Iceman Cometh will not be for everyone due to its length and non-stop dialogue, but as a tragedy of the highest order and with an applicability to anyone who has ever felt stuck in the 'now', O'Neill and Frankenheimer have delivered an astounding study into the terrible power that the fear of tomorrow and regret over the past can have over people.