Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s seventeenth film, “The Arrangement.” The review below was first posted on November 13, 2017 and has been slightly revised.
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Boone
Warner Bros., 1969, 125 minutes
Following the release of his previous film, “America America” (1963), director Elia Kazan turned to writing fiction. His semi-autobiographical novel, “The Arrangement,” was surprisingly the highest-selling fictional work of the year when it was published in 1967. Kazan adapted the novel to the screen two years later.
Middle-aged Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising executive living a very comfortable, upper middle-class lifestyle with his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr), in a sprawling Southern California home complete with servants and an in-ground pool. But Eddie secretly despises the “arrangements” and the compromises he’s made in his life and unsuccessfully attempts suicide on the highway. While convalescing, Eddie has flashbacks of his unsatisfying career and of the young, outspoken, co-worker, Gwen (Faye Dunaway), who goaded him to follow his own desires and whom he partnered with in an extramarital affair. Following his recovery, Eddie reluctantly returns to the job he hates, but finds he cannot tolerate it and surrealistically buzzes the company office tower in his private plane as his final parting shot.
As Florence wonders WHAT is going on with her suddenly unhinged husband, Eddie is summoned to New York City to be with his ailing father (Richard Boone). He uses the opportunity to visit Gwen, who had moved to the Big Apple primarily to get away from the conflicted Eddie. Although Gwen has a new boyfriend, Eddie is undeterred. Meanwhile, Florence chases Eddie to New York to keep close tabs on her increasingly unpredictable husband.
Eddie sneaks his father out of the hospital in the middle of the night according to his wishes and brings him back to the old family homestead. The old Greek is suffering from dementia and insists Eddie take him to the bank for a loan to restart his oriental rug business. At the house, Eddie has painful childhood flashbacks of his domineering and abusive father.
After the family absconds with the father and commits him to a nursing home, Eddie walks in on a meeting with Florence and her lawyer, Arthur (Hume Cronyn), as they draw up divorce papers. Eddie is arrested after setting fire to the old family home (symbolizing the extirpation of the painful childhood memories). Eddie is subsequently committed to a mental institution where he’s satisfied to stay, but Gwen prods him into leaving and moving forward with his life. The father dies and the family gathers at the cemetery; Eddie and Gwen are together while Frances appears to have found a new partner and provider in Arthur.
While the film is not completely autobiographical, it does draw very heavily on the director’s life experiences. Kazan later wrote extensively on his troubled relationships with his father, his first wife, Molly Thatcher, and his spirited mistress and second wife, actress Barbara Loden. He had also experienced a bit of a personal, water-shed crisis after becoming extremely dissatisfied with his role as a theatrical director while desiring to be a writer.
Kazan admitted later that alpha-dog, Kirk Douglas, was entirely wrong for the role of troubled Eddie. His take-charge personality could not be concealed from the camera. Dunaway is bit over-dramatic as the strong-willed mistress. Kazan originally envisioned Barbara Loden playing the part of Gwen, which would have equated to the former-mistress-turned-wife portraying herself. Boone is spot-on as the overbearing father and Kerr is okay as the painfully long-suffering wife.
Kazan employs a number of questionable techniques in this film which serve as distractions. There’s some cartoonish “Ka-pow” graphics straight out of the then-popular Batman television show. The conflicted Eddie is made to debate his successful and sales savvy alter-ego within the same scene and adult Eddie is featured as an in-frame observer in flashbacks to his youth. There’s plenty of additional flashy editing that was “cutting edge” hip in the late 60s.
“The Arrangement” was not well-received by the public. Kazan later blamed the film’s failure on some “missing key elements” from the novel that had to be left out of the script for brevity’s sake. Excuses aside, this film has only a few redeeming qualities, but Kazan fans will appreciate the many references to his own personal life, which he would later elaborate on in great detail in his fascinatingly candid 1988 autobiography. “The Arrangement” was one of the first films dealing with “finding one’s true path,” a theme that would later preoccupy Hollywood and the culture in general. The 2007 DVD offers no commentary although the trailer and a short but interesting promotional documentary are included.
Additional thoughts from a believer
We’re all aware of the fabled, “mid-life crisis.” We’ve seen others go through it to some degree and, if we’re old enough, we’ve seen it in ourselves. A person reaches their forties or fifties and is confronted with their mortality. They ask themselves, “Is this all there is to life?” After working hard for so many years to please others by conforming to family or societal expectations, some resolve to please only themselves with the remaining time they have. Sometimes they go to sadly comical, stereotypical extremes, like the 55-year-old guy who buys a high-performance, red convertible sports car and dumps his wife for a 30-year-old girlfriend.
The protagonist in “The Arrangement” is suffering through a “mid-life crisis” on steroids. Will he find true and lasting happiness and fulfillment as a struggling writer living with his former mistress? Methinks not. Much of “The Arrangement” reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:1-2). Without Jesus Christ as your Savior, life is empty, life is meaningless, life is hopeless. Accept Christ as your Savior. Christ can save you from the coming judgement for your sin and give your life everlasting meaning in Him.
Kazan went on to write five more novels, but none would reach even a fraction of the popularity of “The Arrangement.” He began divorce proceedings against Loden in 1978, but dropped the suit when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Lodan succumbed to liver cancer in 1980. Kazan’s “post-arrangement” life was as unfulfilling as what preceded it.
The runway is definitely in sight, my friends. There’s only two more Kazan films left to re-review.
Trivia: “The Arrangement” is actually something of a sequel to “America America.” Eddie is the nephew of the protagonist of the 1963 film, Stavros Topouzoglou. In “The Arrangement,” the much-older Stavros is shown covetously eyeing the shoes of his dying brother, eliciting memories of the importance of a pair of shoes in the earlier film. Grizzled actor, Richard Boone, who portrayed Douglas’ father in the film, was actually six-months younger than his co-star.