The year is 1912 and Larry Slade (Robert Ryan) is the only customer awake in this bar, as it is early in the morning and the rest of the patrons have drunk themselves into oblivion the night before. He used to be a major player in revolutionary politics, but now has settled for living the rest of his life with a bottle never too far away, and indeed the rest of the customers each had their own pipe dream they hoped to fulfil, yet have wound up looking at the bottom of a glass every evening, trying not to think about what could have been had they been able to succeed at the most difficult game to play: human existence. These men have been defeated, but then enters another who holds out a hope for this life, young anarchist Don Parritt (Jeff Bridges), who has sought out advice from Larry: will this reawaken the old man's fervour?
Nope, is the answer to that after four hours of adapting the classic Eugene O'Neill play, though you could also see this in a three hour cut, which begged the question, if you were up for committing yourself to sitting through this titan of the stage here in movie form, why would you settle for the shorter version when you could go the whole hog and experience it for the full stretch? Of course, some did not have a choice, but there was an interesting story behind what must have sounded like a deeply uncommercial project even in 1973 when it was first released. It was part of the American Film Theater efforts, an independent drive to get classic plays shot and released to subscribing patrons who would rather see big movie stars act out these works than more dedicated theatre performers, or, if that novelty did not appeal, because this was the only way they had access to the material.
A noble enterprise, yet doomed to failure thanks to the eccentric manner they were put on show, apparently designed not for convenience but for making it as difficult as possible to see the things unless you were available on a couple of specific evenings of their distribution. It will come as no surprise to learn the whole affair was a complete disaster financially, in spite of them getting over a dozen of these plays completed before the cameras and into the cinemas, they tried to give them a more conventional distribution after that initial mess, but it was too late and it went down in history as one of the more baffling examples of self-sabotage in film. Mind you, not everyone who actually saw these movies was convinced the AFT had even made a decent fist of them, as the purists were wont to complain about the staging and even the casting. One exception was The Iceman Cometh, which was deemed unfairly screwed over by the company.
That was down largely to, if we're being honest, sentimental reasons: it was the last film of both Robert Ryan (who was not only playing a dying man, but was afflicted by terminal lung cancer at the time) and Fredric March (an old school star demonstrating fire remained in his belly for his final bow). They were both very fine, bringing out the pathos in their characters while also leaving us in no doubt of their thwarted hopes that would never be achieved, but then most of the actors here were adept at that (as opposed to the actresses, who were left as stick figure objects of weary desire). Lee Marvin, as the iceman Hickey, a traveling salesman who before has lifted everyone's spirits, was not the first choice for the role, as Jason Robards Jr was regarded as owning the part in one of the great matches between actor and material in American theatre; for whatever reason (a recent car accident, or ironically his own alcoholism) he was not available, but Marvin proved himself an excellent dramatic performer, pulling off the famous monologue at the end with aplomb, if a little touch of melodrama too. Director John Frankenheimer did nothing to open this out, leaving an intense, sepia-hued examination of useless men drowning their sorrows until they realise even drowning doesn't help. For all its quality, it remained best seen on the stage.