When idealistic minor author Leslie Braverman dies suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 41, his four best friends decide to attend his funeral. The quartet of Jewish intellectuals drawn from the four corners of Manhattan consists of public relations writer Morroe Rieff from the Upper East Side, poet Barnet Weinstein from the Lower East Side, book reviewer Holly Levine from the Lower West Side, and Yiddish writer (and chronic complainer) Felix Ottensteen from the Upper West Side.
The men have been friends since their youth. They agree to meet at Christopher Park on Sheridan Square, a Greenwich Village landmark, from which they travel in Levine's cramped Volkswagen Beetle. Due to confusion and bad directions from Braverman's widow, the men attend the wrong funeral but finally arrive at the cemetery in time for the burial. There is an extensive running discussion along the way about everything from philosophical observations regarding death to the relative merits of classic comic book characters, all while maintaining a strongly Jewish comedic tone emphasizing irony and sarcasm.
Rieff, who emerges as the central character, periodically experiences absurdist fantasy episodes or daydreams involving his own mortality, eventually delivering a soliloquy to a vast array of gravestones bringing the dead up to date on what they have missed lately.
The character Leslie Braverman never actually appears, by flashback or otherwise, and is known only through descriptions and references to him by other characters. (Braverman's coffin is shown briefly, with him presumably inside, at the cemetery.) While Braverman is dead from the outset in both the book and the movie, there are occasions in the book but not the movie where his own words are quoted, often at considerable length as from a letter.
The Warner Bros.-Seven Arts release was filmed on location in Manhattan, the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, and Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing. The movie is notable for its gritty but romanticized and picturesque portrayal of New York City as it was in the 1960s, showing elevated train tracks and bodegas and using numerous aerial shots. In the meeting scene at Sheridan Square, the office of The Village Voice newspaper, a landmark there for decades until a later move, is visible. A scene where the mourners stop to use a pay telephone takes place in front of one of the legendary Big Daddy's Restaurants then located on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. The scene of a traffic accident between the Volkswagen Beetle and a Checker cab takes place at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and the Town Hill Restaurant nightclub on the corner, notable at the time for its live entertainment, can be seen prominently in the background.
Literary inspirations and allusions
Dalkey Archive Press editor Jeremy M. Davies, in connection with reprints of Markfield's books, has called him "The Joyce of Brighton Beach," suggesting by analogy a comparison between Markfield and this quintessentially Jewish neighborhood and the essential literary synergy between James Joyce and his native Dublin, but also suggesting other connections. The structure of Markfield's To an Early Grave, and therefore of the movie based upon it, is to some extent a comic parallel of Joyce's novel Ulysses, specifically "Episode 6" (which is commonly known as the "Hades" chapter) where protagonist Leopold Bloom and three friends travel in a carriage to attend the funeral of Patrick "Paddy" Dignam who has died in a drunken stupor. The fantasy or flashback experiences of Morroe Rieff mirror Joyce's stream of consciousness writing style. In turn, Joyce's Dignam character is generally regarded as an echo of Elpenor in the Odyssey from ancient Greece.
Stanford University professor Steven J. Zipperstein, writing about the author Isaac Rosenfeld, has stated that the character of Leslie Braverman was modeled on the real-life Rosenfeld, who died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1956. Zipperstein notes that Rosenfeld's premature death in failed circumstances is mentioned prominently in the memoirs of many who, like Markfield, were in the Partisan Review literary circle, including Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and William Phillips. Rosenfeld has also been acknowledged, according to Zipperstein, as the model for the character of King Dahfu in the 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow; Rosenfeld and Bellow had been friends since their teenage years.George Segal ..... Morroe Rieff
Jack Warden ..... Barnet Weinstein
Joseph Wiseman ..... Felix Ottensteen
Sorrell Booke ..... Holly Levine
Jessica Walter ..... Inez Braverman
Phyllis Newman ..... Myra Mandelbaum
Zohra Lampert ..... Etta Rieff
Godfrey Cambridge ..... Taxi Driver
Alan King ..... The Rabbi
Anthony Holland ..... Max Ottensteen, son of Felix Ottensteen
Producer ..... Sidney Lumet
Original Music ..... Peter Matz
Cinematography ..... Boris Kaufman
Film Editor ..... Gerald B. Greenberg and Ralph Rosenblum
Art Direction ..... Ben Kasazkow
Set Decoration ..... John Godfrey
Costume Design ..... Anna Hill Johnstone
In her New York Times review, Renata Adler described the film as "a movie about New York Jews, which—by some unlucky mixed perspective of affection and satire—turns into a pogrom . . . Sidney Lumet gets a chance to explore some Brooklyn neighborhoods and to show some Orthodox Jews in their relative Old Testament purity (the movie seems to be, in part, a lampoon of Reform Jewry, a bit intramural for a picture of this size) . . . In the end, though, with The Group and Bye Bye Braverman, [he] has probably exhausted the cinema possibilities of drawing people together out of separate lives to attend funerals in semisatirical circumstances. It hardly ever works in fiction, and it does not seem the best vehicle for his movies at all."
Pauline Kael described it as "a crudely affectionate comic romp. The movie is often gross and it's sloppily thrown together, but the characters' rhetoric has some juice in it . . . It's a low-comedy situation played for emotional wallowing as well as for laughs."
Time said it "has a lot to talk about, and nothing much to say . . . As the story's central character, actor Segal shows flashes of a comic talent hitherto unexplored by Hollywood. But what picture there is for stealing is burgled by Wiseman with his portrayal of a stereotypical litterateur."
According to the Time Out London Film Guide, the film is "a little unfocused but bristles with Jewish wit and fine performances."
The film was released on DVD in April 2009 as part of the Warner Archive series.