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The Fixer Movie: Miscast Bates + Simplistic Anti-Bigotry Narrative

The Fixer movie Alan BatesThe Fixer movie with Alan Bates as the woefully inadequate lead in John Frankenheimer and Dalton Trumbo’s 1968 big-screen version of Bernard Malamud’s novel about systemic anti-Jewish bigotry in Czarist Russia.
  • The Fixer movie (1968) review: Starring a badly miscast Alan Bates, John Frankenheimer and Dalton Trumbo’s turgid adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s Czarist Russia-set novel about the evils of anti-Jewish hatred is an exemplar of what not to do in a Social Problem Film.
  • The Fixer earned Alan Bates a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

The Fixer movie review: A miscast Alan Bates + heavy-handed direction + simplistic narrative wreck anti-Semitism drama

While discussing his The Fixer movie adaptation – from Bernard Malamud’s National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 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.

For The Fixer is an overlong, overblown, and overwrought contrivance that, in spite of its “social conscience,” carelessly misuses most of the talent involved while sadistically abusing the patience – and oftentimes the intelligence – of its viewers.

John Frankenheimer himself is responsible for much of what goes wrong in this potentially gripping story set in Czarist Russia-controlled Kyiv (externals shot in Budapest) in the early 1900s, when an “apolitical” Jewish peasant and handyman, Yakov Bok (Alan Bates) – inspired by real-life Jewish brick-factory worker Menahem Mendel Beilis – is imprisoned after refusing to confess to a murder he didn’t commit.

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

Dalton Trumbo disappoints

Veteran Dalton Trumbo turns out to be an even bigger disappointment.

The formerly blacklisted screenwriter – 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 – opts for preachy lectures in place of actual dialogue.

The result is a pompous history lesson about what is supposed to be human’s inhumanity to human, but that comes across instead as a narrow account of Christians’ inhumanity to Jews.

Whether or not also found in Malamud’s novel, problems abound in Trumbo’s narrative, including the fact that the sociopolitical roots of the relentless cruelty displayed in The Fixer – such as the bloody depiction of a pogrom – are never quite made clear.

Among the story’s other gaps and inconsistencies, there’s never even an attempt to explain why the Russian authorities didn’t simply shoot the obstinate Yakov in the back while “he was trying to escape.” After all, they have no qualms about killing his attorney.

Lowest common denominator

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 or facial expressions.

Thus, as if to compensate for its many 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.

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 – and notwithstanding his Best Actor Academy Award nomination – he 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.

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 all the dangerous 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 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 based on an actual case.[3]

In the film, Yakov 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 (Christian) society. More than a miscarriage of justice, the treatment of this innocent Jewish man at the hands of the ardently anti-Jewish authorities of Czarist Russia is revolting.

Now, would that in itself make The Fixer movie anti-Christian?

Certainly not. The relentless persecution of Jews in 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 has been accused of being anti-Jewish.

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

We’re 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 the filmmakers’ best intentions and its historical value, The Fixer is an all-around failure.

There’s surely something deadly wrong with a film 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 (1968)

Director: John Frankenheimer.

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

Cast: Alan Bates. Dirk Bogarde. Georgia Brown. Hugh Griffith. Elizabeth Hartman. Ian Holm. David Opatoshu. David Warner. Carol White. George Murcell. Murray Melvin.

The Fixer Movie (1968) Review” 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] Blacklisted at the time, upon the release of Roman Holiday Dalton Trumbo didn’t receive credit for the film’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.

The Fixer Movie” endnotes

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

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

The Fixer Movie: Miscast Bates + Simplistic Anti-Bigotry Narrative” last updated in September 2021.

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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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