More than 25 years have passed since Ely Landau, a TV producer then best known for getting O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into permanent celluloid form, envisioned a nation of theatergoers subscribing to cinematized versions of the world’s great plays. Amazingly lucky as well as amazingly persistent, Landau not only succeeded in jumping over all of the innumerable obstacles—logistical, financial, and even legal—to the company he baptized American Film Theatre, but also managed to keep it going for two full seasons before changes in taste, technology, and the money supply finally caught up with him. Along the way he even managed to turn out at least one masterpiece, Peter Hall’s film record of his own stage production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, with a cast that includes four of its original London (and Broadway) performers.
The Homecoming, which will be screened at the Walter Reade this week as part of a six-film retrospective of AFT’s first season, was in some ways Landau’s most daring pick, an outré and elliptical work that academics have since nibbled on interpretatively for decades. The film makes clear that Hall and his actors, after two-plus years of living through the work onstage, were way ahead in the explication game, especially Paul Rogers as this Pinter clan’s malevolent patriarch and Ian Holm as Lenny, its sociably smarmy resident pimp. The leached-out color and the impassive glide of David Watkin’s camera bind the piece in what has to be called definitive form, with one of the cast’s two newcomers, Cyril Cusack as the sniffily distant uncle, adding a final touch of gloss.
Seen today, few of Landau’s experiments emerge so fully, in part because none of them had The Homecoming‘s unparalleled onstage break-in period, but most often because either the director, the script, or a key performer lacked the intensity of vision that still makes the Pinter film a nerve jangler today. Hall reconceived Pinter’s play in filmic terms; most of his colleagues opted, more cautiously, for a talking-heads approach that now looks like fairly exciting, high-class TV. Some of them tone the color spectrum low, attempting to cue the audience into a black-and-white-equals-serious mood. In John Frankenheimer’s version of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, the actors’ faces seem pale blobs against a film-noir saloon that we virtually never see whole. Instead, we see a fairly dazzling array of performances, built by Frankenheimer cunningly and steadily. O’Neill’s dead-end alkies, trapped in the same hell, seem repetitive if they’re not carefully varied. Frankenheimer makes the best of them glow like gems in the sodden darkness, till it hardly matters that Lee Marvin’s blocklike Hickey and Jeff Bridges’s manically overexplained Parritt look fake next to them.
Something similar happens in Joseph Losey’s treatment of Brecht’s Galileo, where the lively script, colorful production, and largely strong supporting cast are vitiated by the sub-Anthony Quinn frenzies of Topol in the title role. In Guy Green’s film of John Osborne’s Luther, Stacy Keach’s fire-breathing, sinewy performance is the glowing core; the vitiating factor is Osborne’s squishy, sub-Shavian text. Arthur Hiller’s rendering of The Man in the Glass Booth—the sextet’s only unwatchable item—dies in the crossfire between Maximilian Schell’s gratingly overstated performance and Robert Shaw’s factitious script. To round things off, there’s Albee’s A Delicate Balance, a fiesta of eminent heads spewing gilded verbal darts, its close-ups of curling lips backed by Tony Richardson’s direction with an unending panorama of tchotchkes and fabrics that would make this the cinema equivalent of a decorator’s swatchbook if the performances—notably Katharine Hepburn’s and Kate Reid’s—didn’t slice so cleanly through the kitsch. Though little of AFT’s output stands alone as film, it’s still worth cherishing for the fierce bits of great acting it preserved, like scorpions petrified in amber.