American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Elia Kazan's "The Arrangement" is one of those long, ponderous, star-filled "serious" films that were popular in the 1950s, before we began to value style more highly than the director's good intentions. It isn't successful, particularly not on Kazan's terms (he sees it, doubtless, as a bitter sermon on the consequences of selling out). But it does draw nourishment from the remarkable performances of Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway.
They're the best things in the film, achieving effects even when Kazan's script is at its most uncomfortable. And it is an uncomfortable, awkward script, laboring the obvious and ignoring the rest. Kazan considers the tragedy of a talented man (Douglas) who sells his soul to an advertising agency and then nearly kills himself trying to buy it back. His crisis comes when his mistress (Dunaway) denounces him and his "value system" and causes him to re-examine his empty life and empty wife (Deborah Kerr).
This is, indeed, exactly the story you might have expected in a 1950s movie; but it's not the story so much as Kazan's tone that goes wrong. He gives Douglas endless scenes of anguished self-analysis, hysterics, blame, guilt, disintegration. By the time he's analyzed the cause of his crisis (it's his mother's fault, naturally), we feel we've been through it ourselves a time or two. This is particularly the case since Kazan skips around in time so much; just when we think we're getting somewhere, he slips in a flashback and we're back where we started.
Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway, however, move through this confusion with so much self-confidence that we become involved with their characters, and the movie almost works. Douglas has been around so long and made so many movies (this is his 49th) that we almost forget to judge him freshly; and yet this isn't a "Kirk Douglas performance" but a piece of acting, finely wrought out of the materials Kazan supplied him with, and sustained despite the handicaps Kazan was equally generous with.
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