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Home Film ArticlesMovie Reviews The Fixer (Movie 1968): Simplistic Anti-Bigotry Narrative

The Fixer movie Alan BatesThe Fixer movie with Alan Bates: Near the peak of his popularity, Bates delivers a woefully inadequate – and eventually Oscar-nominated – performance as the title character in John Frankenheimer and Dalton Trumbo’s drama about systemic anti-Jewish bigotry in Czarist Russia.
  • The Fixer (movie 1968) review: Starring a badly miscast Alan Bates as the titular handyman, John Frankenheimer and Dalton Trumbo’s turgid adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s Czarist Russia-set novel about the perversity of anti-Jewish hatred is an exemplar of what not to do in a Social Problem Film.
  • The Fixer synopsis: In the early 20th century, a Jewish handyman (Alan Bates) is unjustly imprisoned for the murder of a (Christian) Ukrainian boy.
  • The Fixer received one Academy Award nomination: Best Actor (Alan Bates).

The Fixer (movie 1968) review: Alan Bates’ hamminess, John Frankenheimer’s heavy-handedness, and Dalton Trumbo’s preachiness wreck drama denouncing anti-Jewish bigotry

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

While discussing The Fixer – the big-screen version of Bernard Malamud’s National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 novel[1] – director John Frankenheimer declared in a 1969 interview that he felt “better” about it “than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

Considering some of Frankenheimer’s previous output – the much admired The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds – it’s hard to believe that he was being anything but a good P.R. man for his latest release: An overlong, overblown, and overwrought contrivance, The Fixer carelessly misuses most of the talent involved while sadistically abusing the patience – and oftentimes the intelligence – of its viewers.

Frankenheimer himself is responsible for much of what goes wrong in this potentially gripping tale about the travails of “apolitical” Jewish handyman Yakov Bok (Alan Bates) – based on real-life Jewish brick-factory worker Menahem Mendel Beilis – who is jailed for the brutal murder of a Ukrainian boy in early 1900s, Czarist Russia-controlled Kyiv.

The director’s camera setups look like pure 1960s kitsch (e.g., quick cuts from extreme close-ups to medium shots), the movie’s pacing feels deliberately sluggish, and the inept handling of actors is a major letdown – especially when one thinks of, to name a few, Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, Ava Gardner in Seven Days in May, and Eva Marie Saint in Grand Prix.

Dalton Trumbo disappoints

Regrettably, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – whose credits include William Wyler’s Roman Holiday,[2] Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and his own unapologetically subversive anti-war drama Johnny Got His Gun – turns out to be an even bigger disappointment.

Whether or not stemming from Malamud’s novel, among The Fixer’s narrative problems is the lack of context for the sociopolitical roots of eastern Europe’s relentless cruelty against Jewish people – including the movie’s bloody depiction of a pogrom – in addition to numerous gaps and inconsistencies.

For instance: Taking into account that the Russian authorities have no qualms about killing the obstinate Yakov’s attorney (Dirk Bogarde), why do they choose not to shoot their prisoner in the back while “he was trying to escape”?

Monologues and speeches

Moreover, we are supposed to take at face value Yakov’s declaration that he could not have murdered anyone because that would have gone against the tenets of his religion.

Never mind that, had they so wished, any of the murderous Christians seen in The Fixer could have lied about their actions by coming up with that very same excuse.

Worse yet, neither John Frankenheimer nor Dalton Trumbo trusts their audience to grasp the motivations of the film’s characters through the actors’ gestures and facial expressions.

Thus, as if to compensate for its narrative holes, The Fixer feeds us a steady diet of explanatory monologues and speeches in which we are told bit by bit what goes on inside the characters’ minds.

Botched Alan Bates showcase

Most of these monologues are delivered by leading man Alan Bates, as The Fixer is set up as a showcase for the respected film and stage actor then near the peak of his popularity following leads in prestigious productions like Michael CacoyannisZorba the Greek, Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl, and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

As Bates’ contracts apparently stipulated that he had to take his clothes off at least once in each of his films, in The Fixer we do get to see him in the buff in one scene. But naked or clothed, the eventual Best Actor Academy Award nominee never comes across as anything but a well-educated Englishman.

Granted, Yakov is supposed to be a literate man who is well versed in Spinoza and who speaks flawless Russian (that he learned by reading pronunciation books), but none of that explains how this Yiddish-speaking Jewish peasant/handyman came to sound like someone who took diction lessons at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Bates’ excessive grimacing and his calculated high-pitched exclamations serve only to further alienate the actor from the role.

Dirk Bogarde an exception

Most other performances in The Fixer are just as graceless.

One can’t expect anything else from professional hams like Ian Holm and Hugh Griffith (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ben-Hur, 1959), but Elizabeth Hartman (Best Actress nominee for A Patch of Blue, 1965) is surprisingly grating as Griffith’s libidinous daughter.

The single exception in this scenery-chewing orgy is Dirk Bogarde as Yakov’s effete defense attorney. In what amounts to a supporting role, the Victim and The Servant star creates an impressively restrained characterization that avoids the ever-present pitfalls of self-parody.

The Fixer Alan Bates Ian Holm David WarnerThe Fixer movie with Alan Bates, Ian Holm, and David Warner: Though wholly unconvincing as a peasant/handyman in The Fixer, three years later Bates would be wholly believable as another “lower-class” character, the British tenant farmer in Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between.

Is The Fixer anti-Christian?

Dirk Bogarde’s acting aside, the chief point of interest in The Fixer is the fact that it’s derived from an actual case.[3]

In the film, however, Yakov isn’t just a real-life-inspired victim of systemic bigotry.[4] Instead, the Jewish man is none too subtly portrayed as a Christ-like figure who, because of his devotion to the truth, is tortured, beaten, and raped by the representatives of a barbaric (ironically, Christian) society.

Now, does that make The Fixer anti-Christian?

Certainly not. The vicious persecution of Jews throughout Christian Europe is a historical fact.

Having said that, there’s no question that The Fixer has an anti-Christian bias. One flagrant illustration: The sequence in which a pathetic Orthodox Church leader nearly faints when he sees the prisoner Yakov dressed in full Jewish regalia.

The Passion of the Christ double bill

And yet if one looks beyond the filmmakers’ nearsighted views on bigotry, The Fixer demonstrates that human beings can become martyrs for their causes irrespective of their religious background (if any), and that the perpetrators of the most horrific cruelties can be followers of any “peace-loving faith.”

The Fixer, in fact, would make a perfect double bill with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – which, as it turns out, has been accused of being anti-Jewish.

After all, both films deal with a form of sociopolitical control known as “religious intolerance,” while emphasizing in graphic detail the horrors of human suffering at the hands of other human beings belonging to hostile faiths.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

We are all political beings

Lastly, The Fixer has one crucial message worth remembering: We are all political beings.

Whether or not we follow politics, whether or not we cast ballots, whether or not we reach out to our representatives, everything we do – or don’t do – has political consequences.

It is thus unfortunate that despite its historical value and the filmmakers’ best intentions, The Fixer is an all-around failure.

There’s surely something deadly wrong with a movie during which I was rooting for the martyred hero to confess to a murder he didn’t commit so my suffering would come to an end.

The Fixer (movie 1968) cast & crew

Director: John Frankenheimer.

Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo.
From Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel.

Alan Bates … Yakov Bok
Dirk Bogarde … Bibikov
Georgia Brown … Marfa Golov
Hugh Griffith … Lebedev
Elizabeth Hartman … Zinaida Lebedev
Ian Holm … Grubeshov
David Opatoshu … Latke
David Warner … Count Odoevsky
Carol White … Raisl Bok
George Murcell … Deputy warden
Murray Melvin … Priest
Peter Jeffrey … Berezhinsky
Michael Goodliffe … Ostrovsky
Thomas Heathcote … Proshko
Mike Pratt … Father Anastasy
Stanley Meadows … Gronfein
Francis De Wolff … Warden
David Lodge … Zhitnyak
William Hutt … The Tzar

Cinematography: Marcel Grignon.

Film Editing: Henry Berman.

Music: Maurice Jarre.

Producer: Edward Lewis.

Art Direction: Béla Zeichán.

Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins.

Production Companies: John Frankenheimer Productions | Edward Lewis Productions.

Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Running Time: 132 min.

Country: United States.

The Fixer (Movie 1968): Simplistic Anti-Bigotry Narrative” notes

Accusations of plagiarism

[1] Descendants of Menahem Mendel Beilis have accused Bernard Malamud of plagiarizing Beilis’ memoir The Story of My Sufferings, whose English-language edition was published in 1926.

Update: Co-edited by a grandson of Beilis, a 2011 reprint of The Story of My Sufferings titled Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis includes the essay “Pulitzer Plagiarism: What Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer Owes to the Memoir of Mendel Beilis.”

Roman Holiday credit

[2] Upon the 1953 release of Roman Holiday, Dalton Trumbo – one of the Hollywood Ten – didn’t receive credit for the movie’s “original story.”

Ian McLellan Hunter was his front.

The Life of Emile Zola

[3] The Fixer has several elements in common with William Dieterle’s 1937 Best Picture Academy Award winner The Life of Emile Zola, based on Zola’s involvement in the anti-Jewish Dreyfus Affair in late 19th-century France.

Paul Muni was cast as Zola; eventual Best Supporting Actor winner Joseph Schildkraut played Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

‘Blood libel’

[4] Without any evidence connecting Yakov to the boy’s death, locals believe him guilty merely because of his religion.

At least as early as the Middle Ages, European Jews were falsely accused of practicing ritual murders known as “blood libel,” with Christian boys as their victims.

John Frankenheimer quote about The Fixer is found in Gerald Pratley’s The Cinema of John Frankenheimer.

The Fixer’s external scenes were shot in Budapest.

More than a decade after The Fixer came out, Ian Holm would be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Hugh Hudson’s 1981 period drama Chariots of Fire, which also features anti-Jewish bigotry.

The Fixer movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Ian Holm, David Warner, and Alan Bates The Fixer movie images: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Fixer (Movie 1968): Simplistic Anti-Bigotry Narrative” last updated in May 2023.

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1 comment

Doug B -

I disagree with practically everything you say. But I cannot attempt a fuller response, since I have not seen the film in 40 years. If only this splendid film were available on Region 1 DVD.


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