Of all the directors who came to prominence during the “classic” years of the studio system, the only one who really successfully embraced the ‘60s style of filmmaking was probably Stanley Donen. That said, Elia Kazan came close with his 1969 film The Arrangement, a film that’s perhaps more interesting for what it attempts than for what it achieves. Kazan’s story of a successful businessman (Kirk Douglas) in the midst of one of the most extreme midlife crises ever put on the screen is nothing if not ambitious. Actually, The Arrangement, along with Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), mark the beginning of the movies’ penchant for dramas depicting middle-aged men in the throes of some kind of meltdown brought on by the realization that their “American Dream” ain’t what it was cracked up to be. Here it’s a case of the American Nightmare. In the case of Douglas’ Eddie, this meltdown begins where others might end—with him driving his Alfa Romeo underneath a truck in a pretty spectacular suicide bid. It’s only after that—starting with his recovery—Eddie can be seen to unravel.
Kazan crafts the film in a manner that is at once both very much of its era (OK, so he’s a couple years out of date with the Batman TV-show references) and strikingly unique to itself. The sometimes heavy-handed satire (the barrage of commercials for Zephyr cigarettes, the easy shots at upscale suburbia) is nicely balanced by the almost surrealistic manner in which Eddie is presented as living as much in a past he can’t escape as the present. Often Kazan will switch time and even characters in mid-scene, or have Eddie seem to respond to something in the present that in the next shot is revealed as being in the past.
What anchors the film in place are the performances of Douglas, Deborah Kerr as his wife and most especially a positively glowing Faye Dunaway as the mistress who causes Douglas’ character to question the shallowness of his life in the first place. At 125 minutes, the film overstays its welcome a bit, but it’s never less than fascinating.