John Frankenheimer's The Fixer is a film based on Bernard Malamud's semi-biographical 1966 novel of the same name which was inspired by the real life trial and controversy of Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Jew in Tsarist Russia falsely accused of having murdered a Ukrainian boy named Andrei Yushchinsky, with the ritual murder of blood libel being presented as the alleged motivation.
It features a great and sensitive Oscar nominated performance from Alan Bates as the Beilis inspired character of Yakov Bok, an apolitical 'fixer' (decorator, repair and odd job man) put through the wringer of Russia's anti-semitic society and its subsequent Kafkaesque legal system for a crime he did not commit. His only ally is Dirk Bogarde's compassionate defender, but there is only so far he can go to give Bok the justice he so deserves.
Unfortunately The Fixer is a film of two halves. The first half is a great set up which sees Bates mistaken for a Christian by an act of Good Samaritanism (is that a word? It is now) He goes along with this dishonesty, enjoying the perks of an untroubled, honest and respected working life previously unknown to him as a Jew until his real identity is revealed. From there a tissue of lies threaten to swamp him; he's charged with raping the daughter of the man he helped when in fact he spurned her advances (and only because she was menstruating - there's actual a very wicked funny line in this scene; as Bates heads towards the bedroom naked, he glances down to his groin and, realising its circumcised state would betray him for the religion he is, declares it 'a stool pigeon' before wrapping a towel around himself) of stealing money from his employer and celebrating Passover and lastly, and most damning of all, of ritually murdering a Christian boy he had chased off the land he worked on.
The second half is all about the three years Bok spent in prison awaiting trial and suffering unspeakable cruelty and hardships whilst Europe petitioned the Tsar on his behalf. It is this half of the film that becomes, naturally enough, a really bleak slog. Gone here are the amusing, wry monologues Bates was given in the first half and instead Frankenheimer and his scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo repeatedly hammer the audience over the head with their message; this is wrong. Yes, we know it is. They also become fascinated with the Christ like parallels with Bok's torturous imprisonment. We know this because they s-p-e-l-l it out for us time and time again. Message movies are all well and good, but when the makers constantly have to point out the message it makes for a rather arduous and patronising experience - as if they think we're too stupid to understand for ourselves. Frankenheimer should have had faith in not just his audience but in his cast, specifically Bates who delivers something really credible here.
There's also a small but important role for Carol White (watched this week in Dulcima, Never Let Go and, once again last night, Poor Cow) but the script offers her little to do except look tired and emote - rather than act - an awful lot. A great shame. The rest of the cast is filled out by the likes of Ian Holm, Murray Melvin, Elizabeth Hartman and David Warner.
Interestingly the Beilis family, led by his son David, despised The Fixer, or more specifically Malamud’s novel , claiming they the fiction had turned their dignified well liked family man into “an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer.” Despite Malamud's claims that Bok was not Beilis it is generally agreed that the actual truth has become difficult to separate from his fact based fiction, as is so often the case.