‘The Fixer’ movie review: 1968 anti-Semitism political drama wrecked by cast, direction and its own good intentions
In 1969, director John Frankenheimer declared that he felt “better about The Fixer than anything I’ve ever done in my life.” Considering Frankenheimer’s previous output – Seven Days in May, the much admired The Manchurian Candidate – it is hard to believe that the director was being anything but a good P.R. man for his latest release.
Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (itself based on the real story of Jewish brick-factory worker Menahem Mendel Beilis), The Fixer is an overlong, overblown, and overwrought contrivance that, albeit “socially conscious,” carelessly misuses most of the talent involved while sadistically abusing the patience – and at times the intelligence – of its viewers.
John Frankenheimer overindulges in 1960s kitsch
John Frankenheimer is responsible for much of what goes wrong in this potentially gripping story set in Czarist Russia, in which an imprisoned “apolitical” Jewish man, Yakov Bok (Alan Bates), refuses 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 major letdown – especially when one remembers, for instance, Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate and Ava Gardner in Seven Days in May.
Dalton Trumbo screenplay: Huge disappointment
Dalton Trumbo, however, is an even bigger disappointment. The formerly blacklisted screenwriter – whose credits include William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, 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.
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 several other gaps and inconsistencies, the screenplay never even attempts 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 certainly had no qualms about killing his attorney.
‘The Fixer’ filmmakers make sure their message gets across
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 – without anyone reaching the realization that any of the murderous Christians shown in the film could have come 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 gaps, 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.
Miscalculated 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 such Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba 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 in spite of his Best Actor Academy Award nomination – he never comes across as anything but a well-educated Englishman.
Granted, Yakov is a literate man who is well versed in Espinoza and who speaks flawless Russian (that he learned by reading pronunciation books), but none of that explains how this Yiddish-speaking Jewish peasant 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 only serve to further alienate the actor from the role.
Dirk Bogarde effective in effete role
Most other performances in The Fixer are equally over the top. One can’t expect anything else from professional scenery-chewers like Ian Holm and Hugh Griffith, but 1965 Best Actress Oscar nominee Elizabeth Hartman (A Patch of Blue) is surprisingly grating as Griffith’s libidinous daughter.
The single exception in this orgy of miscasting is Dirk Bogarde as Yakov’s effete defense attorney. The Victim and The Servant star creates an impressive, reserved characterization that avoids all the dangerous pitfalls of self-parody.
Dirk Bogarde’s acting aside, the chief point of interest in The Fixer is the fact that it is based on an actual case. In the John Frankenheimer-Dalton Trumbo 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 rabidly anti-Semitic authorities of Czarist Russia is both horrifying and revolting.
Now, is The Fixer anti-Christian? Doubtlessly. The clearest example is the sequence in which a pathetic Orthodox priest nearly faints when he sees the prisoner Yakov dressed in full Jewish regalia.
On the other hand, if one looks beyond Frankenheimer’s and Trumbo’s nearsighted views on prejudice, 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-Semitic. 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 other faiths.
We’re all ‘political beings’
Lastly, The Fixer has one important message worth remembering: We are all political beings. Whether or not we follow politics, whether or not we cast ballots, everything we do – or don’t do – has political consequences.
It is thus unfortunate that despite the filmmakers’ best intentions and the film’s historical value, The Fixer is an utter cinematic 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.
Dalton Trumbo, ‘The Life of Emile Zola’
 Blacklisted at the time, upon the release of Roman Holiday Dalton Trumbo did not receive credit for the film’s original story; Ian McLellan Hunter was his front. The bittersweet 1953 romantic comedy starred Gregory Peck, Best Actress Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn, and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Eddie Albert.
The Fixer has several elements in common with 1937 Best Picture Academy Award winner The Life of Emile Zola, based on Emile Zola’s involvement in the blatantly anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair in late 19th-century France.
Warner Bros. distributed the William Dieterle-directed drama starring Paul Muni (as Emile Zola), and featuring Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut (as Captain Alfred Dreyfus), Gale Sondergaard, Gloria Holden, and Donald Crisp.
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. Thomas Heathcote.
The Fixer movie cast information via the IMDb.
Ian Holm, Dirk Bogarde, and Alan Bates The Fixer images: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.