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The Arrangement

The Arrangement(1969)

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The promotional artwork for Elia Kazan's 1969 drama The Arrangement warned, "If your wife insists you see it together, be careful." It was a clever come-on for a hard-to-sell property, but the fact of it is, if your wife (or anyone else) wanted to see this immensely sad picture it most likely was not because they were cheating on you or assumed you were cheating on them, but rather a sign they were experiencing a mid-life crisis and could use some loving support, a friendly shoulder to cry on, perhaps some professional psychiatric assistance.

Adapted by Kazan from his own novel, the film tracks the total psychological breakdown of advertising executive Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas). In the hands of comic author David Nobbs and actor Leonard Rossiter, this material fueled a classic 1970s Britcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin; here the tale of a man so disenchanted with the "good life" he seeks release in extramarital sex, attempted suicide, and "dropping out" altogether is played not for laughs but an anguished nod of understanding: I hear you brother, things are tough all over.

Casting Kirk Douglas in such a role was a stroke of brilliance. He of the chiseled good lucks and uber-manliness exudes so much self-confidence that to see him weak, doubtful, and lost is shattering. The very beginning of the film establishes the empty nature of his marriage to Florence (Deborah Kerr). They share a house and a name but nothing else. He drives off to work, haunted on the radio by the ubiquitous ads he concocted for Zephyr cigarettes, a promotional campaign that sits just barely this side of outright lying. Eddie realizes his life is no more honest than Zephyr's PR. Even his name is a fake, one more cloak thrown over a life's worth of choices he rejects.

One stunning and well-staged suicide attempt later, and the film cracks apart just as his own psyche does: splintered into hallucinations, flashbacks, dream sequences, fantasies, half-remembered fragments, and even a Batman inspired "fight scene" stitched together in a stream-of-consciousness montage. "I don't know what one thing has to do with another," says Eddie, apologizing for the seeming-randomness of his tale, but it is our job as his audience, his judge, to find those relationships and make sense of a senseless life.

The one thing holding him together is his secret passion for Gwen, played by Faye Dunaway. Kazan comes awfully close to insulting Dunaway in the vintage making-of short presented as a bonus on the DVD, at the least damning her with faint praise, yet her credible and nuanced performance is the keystone of the film. Gwen is ostensibly just a secretary and sex-toy for the office, but in truth she is the firm's strongest and most professional asset. Eddie's affair with her teaches him a vital lesson, that there is often a sizable gulf between what something is and what it appears to be.

That lesson is thrown into stark relief by the appearance of Eddie's ailing father, Sam Arness, played by the craggle-faced character actor Richard Boone. Sam is an old-world Greek merchant, an emotionally withdrawn papa, and a paranoid con artist to boot. For Eddie to come to grips with his complicated, unhappy relationship with his father further reveals how the bonds of love can tie the wrong people together for the wrong reasons, or connect families that have no business being families in the first place.

The Arrangement hails from one of America's most celebrated film artists at the leading edge of Hollywood's Golden Age of Arthouse Experimentation. At the end of the 1960s and through the first half or so of the 1970s, the once dominant Hollywood studios fell into operational disarray, and handed over unprecedented artistic freedom to filmmakers to make daring, uncompromising films aimed at sophisticated audiences. Eventually, the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars reminded Hollywood's moguls of the benefits of making mindless pulp aimed at popcorn-munching crowds, and the likes of The Arrangement were relegated to the moldy shelves of history, but at least DVD can salvage these lost gems for contemporary audiences mostly starved of such fare on theater screens.

The presentation has a sumptuous look, shot in the epic vistas of Panavision and the vividly colorful hues of Technicolor, a look modern eyes associate more with lavish MGM musicals than somber psychodramas. This thing is as lushly appointed as an actor-driven character study is ever going to get-one more example of what an anachronism The Arrangement is in today's movie culture.

Fans of TV's Desperate Housewives will find much of this film surprisingly familiar, as it covers a lot of the same terrain. The language regarding "turning off" and "dropping out" may ring a little dated to today's ears, but the underlying essence of the story is timeless. For more information about The Arrangement, visit Warner Video To order The Arrangement, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Kalat