(Dir. Sidney Lumet) (1962) (Written by Eugene O’Neill)
As Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This look through the microscope at “the four haunted Tyrones” is a masterpiece of denial, perhaps the first important dysfunctional family drama of the 20th C. O’Neill (16 October 1888 – 27 November 1953) wrote his, a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood”, in a haze of drink, depression and clarity, in the late thirties, touching largely upon his own operatically-soapie family, dedicated to his last, controlling wife, Carlotta; dedicated to her almost as a confession. You can find traces of this classic in quite a few galvanising pieces by later modernists, in particular and memorably, Edward Albee.
It’s a play written for (and about) actors, and in this film it is served magnificently by a great actor’s director, and four splendid performances:
James Tyrone is the overbearing pygmy-tyrant (Ralph Richardson). He denies his dying authority and abdicated responsibility, and the effect of that failure on his wife and sons. He deflects this guilt, and salves his deep pain by spending nothing but upon the organisation of his own comfort, and ferocious negative energy, treading on their souls. Richardson’s is a brilliant, sly, arch, gigantic performance, encapsulating the work of a great performer, and of his life’s work.
Mary Cavan Tyrone (Katherine Hepburn), shaking like a leaf, hooked on morphine, is desperately concerned for her damaged brood, denying her refuge and the dying light. Mary is the central character in this story and here, Hepburn gives a peerless (possibly her finest) performance, matched only by her role in Albee’s A Delicate Balance.
James Jnr. – Jason Robards Jnr. gives us a piece of himself: barely suppressed intensity helped along with a vat of alcohol. James knows and concedes he is a drunk, but is in denial about his casual fecklessness, his jealousy, and waste of talent.
Edmund – Dean Stockwell, going from Compulsion to Consumption, coughing his lungs out, and looking white as Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost, is as sensitive as the rest of them, has fled to escape and deny the nest, only to find disease and return, to embrace a much greater world of malady. He denies that anything going on has to do with him, but he gets a special pass in this case because he’s dying (in elegant, Hollywood style), of TB.
“The always drunken” family eke out the night till Mother appears, as in a spectral dream, to confess that she “fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”
Lumet sets his 1912 New England summer house (“as lonely as a dirty room in a one-night stand hotel”) in glorious, dreary, wintry black-and-white, and avoids giving-in to fake dynamism, film’s false insurance against a charge of staginess. And he rubs-it-in by having sweet layers of a tasteful piano composition, by Andre Prévin, overlay Mary’s soliloquy, speaking on a range of things lost, including her “crippled [piano] fingers.”
What these four need is: a decent doctor; the Betty Ford Clinic, and to sit down and play Cards Against Humanity together. They lack these resources, for good or ill, and we despair, genuinely and utterly, as they fall down the drain. A superb film of a theatrical masterpiece, O’Neill’s greatest rage against “the closed-shop, star-system, amusement racket” that has won, and now rules, most of the world.