It might have been better if director Elia Kazan had handed over the screenwriting chores for this adaptation of his bestseller about the midlife crisis of advertising man Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas). Anderson’s attempts to juggle wife Florence (Deborah Kerr) and mistress Gwen (Faye Dunaway) coupled with growing disgust at selling a new brand of cigarettes, Zephyr (“The Clean One”), in a way that pointedly avoids their cancer potential, leads to a suicide attempt.
During convalescence he determines to quit the advertising world and go back to his first love, writing, but in fact he ends up sabotaging his career. Florence represents impossible seduction and conscience. Slinky, in dark glasses, hot-tempered rather than submissive or demure, she accuses him of self-deception in his job. The picture flits back and forth between his various choices – different job, return to wife, settle down with mistress, or what seems his ideal world, cossetted by both Gwen and Florence.
Gwen is an excellent study of the modern woman (of that fast-changing period, I hasten to add), who needs a man for sex but not necessarily love, and can use the opposite gender as ruthlessly as any man. What she actually requires in her real life is quite different to what she seeks in the fantasy love she enjoyed with Anderson, sex on the beach, the buzz of controlling a high-powered man. Florence could be seen as an old-fashioned portrait of the adoring wife except for capturing so well the bewilderment of betrayal.
Kazan conjures up some wonderful images: the tension before the suicide attempt as Anderson plays chicken between two trucks, Gwen emerging wet from the pool to eat dangling grapes or with her legs up on Anderson’s desk, Anderson’s mother lighting votive candles in her house before using the same match for her cigarette, Kerr’s futile attempts to win back her fallen husband, Anderson flying solo.
In parts well-observed and directorially savvy, quick cuts between the present and the past, however it sinks beneath its own self-indulgence. My guess is that author Kazan could not bear to kill off a single one of the characters he had created for his acclaimed novel and the upshot is a vastly over-populated picture, few of whom cast any real light on Anderson’s predicament. So we are not only introduced to mother, dying father, brother, sister-in-law and analyst but priest and a bucket of clients and guys from the office. And there are some plot oddities – Anderson gets time off apparently to write journalistic pieces – and what is clearly intended as hard-hitting satire of the advertising world does not come off.
Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) is the standout as Gwen, living life according to her own rules, and with an unexpected vision of domesticity but Deborah Kerr (Prudence and the Pill, 1968) does pain like nobody else and is extremely convincing. Strangely enough, I didn’t go much for Douglas (Seven Days in May, 1964). He could have been leading a cavalry charge for all the range of emotions he exhibited. Douglas is no Montgomery Clift (Wild River, 1960), James Dean (East of Eden, 1955) or Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954) who was Kazan’s first choice. Kazan had not made a picture in six years and it had been eight years since his last hit Splendor in the Grass (1961). Not quite out-of-touch in concept and delivery, nonetheless it was shunned by the Oscar fraternity.