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The Arrangement (1969) is first and foremost a vanity project, for director Elia Kazan, who wrote the novel the film is based on, which in turn was based to some degree or another on his own pampered life in Beverly Hills, his own male-menopause breakdown, and his own specific feelings about then-contemporary pop culture. This is no small thing to consider. Imagine if you had a nervous breakdown - would you fictionalize it as a novel and then make a Hollywood movie about it yourself, starring Kirk Douglas as you?
Probably not, but the true measure of autobiography in The Arrangement is actually unknown; we know from Kazan's memoir A Life that Kazan actually only fantasized about being liberated by an actual nervous collapse; that the "villain" of the piece, the overbearing wife played by Deborah Kerr, is in no way based on Kazan's first wife (who died in 1963) but rather on LA wives he'd met; that Kazan was a committed adulterer quite familiar with the life-upsetting intoxications of illicit relationships. In any case, no American director from the middle century was as interested in and eloquent about nervous breakdowns and emotional collapse, a narrative track that appears in at least six of his most prominent films. So then the strange and monolithic nature of this movie cannot be laid at the door of plain old Tinseltown narcissism, except that it absolutely can - the film positively pulses with it.
Structured as though Douglas's tortured hero is some kind of ubermensch around whom the rest of pathetic humanity swarms, The Arrangement is more than anything a testament to its maker's rampaging solipsism, most likely the same self-focus that spurred Kazan to name names to the HUAC hearings in 1952, an act that for many defined the man's ethos forever. Even odder, then, that Kirk Douglas would take this plainly Kazanesque role, after helping bust the McCarthy-era blacklist by buying the rights to blacklistee Howard Fast's novel Spartacus and then secretly hiring blacklistee Dalton Trumbo to write the script in 1959. If not exactly forgiving, Hollywood has always known how to forget unpleasant realities when a promising project beckons, and by the late '60s Douglas was an aging star with few other substantial projects coming his way.
In any case, Kazan's film is in many ways a symptom of its day - and of old-school Hollywood culture's awkward assimilation into the new media environment of Easy Rider (1969), Woodstock, Vietnam, Bob Dylan and Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The Arrangement is in every square inch a bulldozing, crass, fulminating monster of a movie, embracing garish Los Angeles materialism even as its hero, Eddie Anderson (Douglas), practically goes insane in reaction to its emptiness. It's a film about the rejection of modern culture that wallows in it at every turn. It is, helplessly, a searing portrait of LA.
Anderson is a moneyed advertising executive who cannot, in the film's absurd first minutes, escape his own idiotic cigarette ad, contrived as a run-around the then-recent Surgeon General's edict about lung cancer. He shows small signs of cracking, and soon impulsively crashes his car under a tractor trailer driving to work. From there the real storms start, as everybody in Anderson's life, from Kerr's narrow-minded wife to a phalanx of therapists, lawyers, bosses and relatives, tries to get him back in the box he was in, and from which they all benefitted. The two predominate crises emerge, once Anderson resumes speaking: his heedless attachment to a gorgeous but also self-centered ex-girlfriend (Faye Dunaway), and his conflicted loathing for his hospitalized Greek-immigrant father (Richard Boone, who was actually a year younger than Douglas).
To express this ordinary human calamity - and The Arrangement may be the first of many American films about male menopause, if you're not counting William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936) - Kazan employs everything and the kitchen sink, including mixing flashbacks into the present, jump cuts, associative montage, even bits of surrealism, all of it stirred into a widescreen modishness that may have been less an intentional style (it doesn't look like any other Kazan film) than simply an attempt to accommodate changing times. You see this in the filmographies of many directors that gained eminence during the '40s and '50s and then tried with big-budgets and borrowed design ideas to blend into the new landscape - Otto Preminger and Joseph A. Mankiewicz pop to mind. The fake hipness is both depressing and eloquent about that discomfiting passage in American culture, when suddenly everyone over 30 (including Kazan and his protagonist) found themselves increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the world.
Certainly, Kazan's deftness had always thrived in tales of city life, immigrant conflict and proletariat tribulation, not on the sun-blasted highways of LA and the overdecorated manor houses of Beverly Hills. But the unbridled, narcissistic neediness that saturates The Arrangement might represent Kazan's most self-revealing cinematic moment, his instant of nakedness as an artist and as an Industry survivor. The aging cast - all except Dunaway's petulant minx, whose barbed and suspicious manner represents the movie's only non-Anderson-focused point of view - is similarly revealed. Douglas, largely thanks to his extraordinary face and capacity for enraged intensity, always played larger than life characters, but here, he's close to how he was apparently in real life - an affable, boyish, sometimes silly man, with no more inclinations toward godliness than Bob Hope. Kerr might be the film's saddest note, however, thoroughly passing into a fussy English matron stage, and yet trapped inside a controlling Hollywood socialite character writhing in sexual dissatisfaction. We've seen this lust-vs.-propriety tension in her before, in Black Narcissus (1947) and particularly in The Innocents (1961), but more than that, it reveals Kerr, as an actress always restricted by her own inherent and inescapable British prudence. Perhaps excepting her youthfully sexy place in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Kerr always worried, and seemed to disapprove of everything around her, particularly anything impulsive and chaotic like sex, and that disapproval itself always seemed to haunt her, as though her characters could never understand why they couldn't enjoy life as others did.
Her personality was too tightly wound - which makes her anxious adulteress in From Here to Eternity (1953) a truly memorable character, and her possibly deranged governess in The Innocents a heart-stopping study in repression. Did she ever realize this about herself? (Maybe not: the same year as The Arrangement, she let herself be pressured into a 48-year-old nude scene, in John Frankenheimer's The Gypsy Moths). For Kerr, being cast as Kazan's most hated kind of Hollywood housewife may have been an inevitable revelation, a moment when the character's urgent, fearful whine became her own.
By Michael Atkinson