Film Studies: The sad face in the madhouse

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The Independent Culture

One of the intriguing moments in the enterprising season of American films of the Seventies at Edinburgh - it's called They Might Be Giants - could be the appearance of Alan Arkin, a regular figure on screen and yet in so many ways still unknown. Arkin is in his early seventies now, and his is one of those names familiar to filmgoers yet not in a way that has left his face immediately recognisable and endearing. Indeed, for most of his life, Arkin has been able to play with his own appearance and neutralise his effect so that you don't always place him. He can be very funny, quite intimidating, and he's still mysterious, as if somehow someone had gone through the entire process of offering up his image to the camera and stayed secret. If you had the part of a great spy no one quite remembered or could describe Arkin might be your man.

This reputation depends in part on Little Murders, a very disturbing play about life in New York, written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer in 1967. In New York itself, it played exactly seven performances, and it would have died away but for a very successful run at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was filmed in 1971, directed by Arkin himself (he also has a hilarious cameo as a detective). It is a cult film now and exactly what you need to see if you don't yet credit how outrageous and bold American film-making could be at that moment.

Arkin himself had started professional performing in a folk-singing group, the Tarriers (they had hit records) and after that he joined the Second City satirical group. He also had a big Broadway success in Enter Laughing, Carl Reiner's play about a would-be actor. The word on Arkin was that he was scary brilliant, but just a little scary too, because he was about as uningratiating as any young actor around. And so he started two trends in his own career: to be funny-strange, or to be nasty. In the late Sixties, he got two Academy nominations for best actor as the lead Russian in The Russians Are Coming! (1966) and then as the deaf-mute in the adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968). Two nominations in three years was a tremendous arrival, and you'd have to say that Arkin's later career has not matched up to that high promise.

But neither of those films did especially well, whereas for his success - Wait Until Dark, in which he terrorizes Audrey Hepburn (as a blind woman) - he was scarcely recognisable and so terrifying as to be hateful. What he needed was a big part in a likeable role, and it looked as if he was at home at last when he won the very desirable role of Yossarian in Mike Nichols' film of the Joseph Heller novel, Catch 22 (1970).

Few films were more eagerly awaited. Catch 22 was both a great read and an important novel, and Yossarian was the heart of it, the long-suffering mind that witnesses the increasing dementia of the war in Italy. We might have guessed that the adaptation would not be easy - and that Yossarian is a sort of Candide figure. Everything happens to him, but he is low on energy or reactive force. Indeed, what many readers of the novel most looked forward to was the presentation of some of the bizarre minor characters. Well, Arkin's was a sad face in a madhouse, the film flopped - in terms of those very high expectations - and no actor in it suffered more than Alan Arkin. The word went around the business that he didn't bring enough to the party to justify lead roles. He was a character actor. It may have been crushing for a moment but, in the long run, it was the making of him.

So let's celebrate the ways to treasure Alan Arkin: playing the arrogant movie director in Hearts of the West; as Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; very funny opposite Peter Falk in The In-Laws and in Joshua Then and Now; enjoying a fantastic ping-pong double act with Ed Harris in the film of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross; directing a short film called Samuel Beckett is Coming Soon; Four Days in September; Gattaca; Varian's War; Thirteen Conversations About One Thing; And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, directed by Bruce Beresford; and even now as a very funny grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine.

I cannot help but think it would be bitter-sweet to hear Arkin's version of how he passed from being an acclaimed lead actor to a gem for which we must search in minor and offbeat films (some of them made for television). At the same time, he has three sons who act, and he has published a few books - about his own experiences with yoga, and children's books. He has eyes that do not believe he will be recognised, and sometimes that is all it takes to lead your life in the city as if you had no claim on celebrity. Alan Arkin is an actor in that tradition of craftsmanship and dedication that likes to fill in small holes. He has seen bigger, louder names come and go, and he must have realised that they have less to offer. But he has never once yielded to the enormous plea for affection that led an actor like Rod Steiger from genius to vulgarity.

Alan Arkin keeps his own secret, and he might still surprise us some day.

'Little Murders' will be screened at 5pm on Tuesday at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, after which Alan Arkin will be interviewed. For information tel: 0131 623 8030 or visit