Nether Regions 02.08.12: Death of a Salesman (1951)
Posted by Chad Webb on 02.08.2012
The first installment of 2012 tackles the first film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, starring Frederic March as Willy Loman. Does this version deserve a release on DVD? Check out my review to find out….
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951)
Starring: Frederic March, Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Dunnock Written/Directed By: Laslo Benedek Running Time: 115 minutes Original Release Date: December 20, 1951 Missing Since: 1951 Existing Formats:OOP DVD and VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
Since its original production in 1949, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman has become synonymous with what constitutes a brilliant play. Although firmly rooted in 1950's culture and morays, this saga of the Loman family has never lost its power. The material comes close to defying any negative treatment whatsoever, which might seem insane, but that's fairly accurate and speaks volumes to the relevance and poignancy of Miller's prose. To date there have been seven film adaptations, and arguably the most famous of those is also the version that is most difficult to find.
Over two years after the initial stage run, Columbia Pictures released the first big screen adaptation of the play, directed by Laslo Benedek and starring most of the original Broadway cast. Lee J. Cobb was slated to assume the role of Willy Loman, but was replaced by Frederic March after the studio communicated worries regarding Cobb's alleged past left-wing political affiliations. A version featuring Cobb would eventually see the light of day on home video. More on that later. The other alteration from the original stage line-up was Kevin McCarthy stepping in for Arthur Kennedy as Biff Loman.
The Loman men during happier times.
Despite picking up five Academy Award nominations and receiving critical acclaim, the American public wanted nothing to with Death of a Salesman in movie theaters. It was a huge box office failure, but even before its release, trouble had begun brewing. Shortly before it was going to officially hit theaters, Columbia had attached a 10-minute short entitled Career of a Salesman to air prior to the film. In their eyes, this portrayed a typical American salesman and attempted to defuse the notion that Miller's splay was anti-American. Miller would sue the studio since he took the short as an attack on his work. He argued that a salesman was not the wonderful position the media painted it as. Eventually they removed it, but the damage was already done as people and businessmen went out of their way to avoid a negative portrait of the American salesman.
Despite a revival of the play planned for February of 2012 starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield which I definitely will try to see, I have not seen a stage version of Death of a Salesman. So I made the decision to start the adaptations from the beginning and watch them all in order up until the 2000 film. This way I could see them in the order they were released, but still acquire the best possible overview of each interpretation. Laslo Benedek's 1951 edition is exceedingly potent with superlative acting and clever direction that made intelligent use of sparse sets. Despite an undeniable vivacity, Benedek's approach does falter from some tonal issues, though that does not take away from the fact that these adaptations got off to an excellent start during a period when Americans were afraid to face its message.
The story follows aging salesman Willy Loman (Frederic March), whose better days at the job are well behind him and he now has trouble supporting his family as the bills pile up. Willy's disappointing career plagues him to the extent that he becomes delusional, which is worse whenever his indecisive son Biff (Kevin McCarthy) is around. Biff, once a star football player, did not graduate high school after failing math as is now a 34 year-old man who has not found a stable occupation and has no idea what his place in life is. The woman of the house, Willy's wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock), continues to stand by her husband through thick and thin, trudging through the deteriorating relationship between Willy and Biff. Meanwhile, the other son they raised, Happy (Cameron Mitchell), does indeed work for a living, but spends his time obsessing about what girls to chase and how blow his paycheck than moving up in the world or helping out his struggling parents. As Willy loses his grip on reality, he drifts back and forth from the past to the present revisiting where he went wrong, including one crucial moment that reveals what led to the breakdown with Biff.
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with 411 colleague Leonard Hayhurst about the best roles an actor could play. One of the names he suggested was Willy Loman, which is more than a fair pick. Like Hamlet, each performer brings a distinct interpretation to the role. Some of them fit like a glove and others don't mesh. Frederic March lies somewhere in the middle, though he's certainly the most dynamic person to ever undertake the burdens that comprise Willy Loman's life. March had already established his greatness by 1951 with two Oscars under his belt for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Best Years of Our Lives. Death of a Salesman would be his final Academy Award nomination.
March instills an unpredictable gusto and magnetism into the role which others did not. He commands the screen in every frame with big popping eyes, a bombastic voice, and a crazy ear to ear smile. March's approach is best suited for the rants in which Willy talks to himself, confusing the years gone by with the cold unpleasantness of present day. But because March is a consistent and dedicated actor, his angle of Willy as almost insane confounds the quiet, intimate scenes. Arthur Miller was unhappy with the film on the whole, and one of the reasons was that he thought March portrayed Willy as a lunatic. I would tend to agree with his assessment of March, especially after analyzing other versions of the character. Willy is meant to be viewed as a victim, not a total psycho, and that point might not be clear to those who have only seen this film. March is fabulous in his own way, but also misguided.
As memorable as Frederic March is, he is outgunned by Kevin McCarthy as Willy's spectacularly indignant son, Biff Loman. McCarthy is absolutely superb, truly taking us to the heart of Biff. He captures both facets of Biff with unfettered passion, the naïve worship of his father from his high school glory youth and his retreat from adulthood in as the tale begins. McCarthy plays Biff exactly as it was written, the healthy All-American boy with handsome looks that has a doomed future ahead. Despite being recognized more for his horror exploits, specifically Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy earned his only Oscar nomination as Biff, which he described as a favorite of his films. He rightly lost out to Karl Malden from A Streetcar Named Desire that year, but to date no one has been able to top his Biff.
Mildred Dunnock also picked up an Oscar nod as Willy's long-suffering, loyal, and pressured wife Linda. She would reprise this role for the Lee J. Cobb film, but I would say she's slightly better here, steering clear of the minor exaggerations during a few key moments. It's difficult for any of her successors to compete with this exceptional, ingrained turn. She hits all the right notes. The rest of the characters are relegated to the background due to the overwhelming performances of the leads. Cameron Mitchell is a bit hokey as Happy more than the philanderer he is intended to be, but in general he is fine. Howard Smith as Charley, Royal Beal as Ben, and Don Keefer as Bernard are all perfectly acceptable in a supporting capacity. I have to say, the "nerdy" version of Bernard must have been a precursor to the formulation of Steve Urkel.
Willy having a heart-to-heart with the successful Bernard.
Death of a Salesman is about the failure of the American dream, the notion that a businessman who is "well-liked" and attractive will acquire the ideal existence, wealth, and every material possession they could hope for because they deserve it. This of course is an imprudent idea of the American Dream, dissimilar from the thought that hard-working folk who don't complain obtain success. Willy believes that superficial qualities, most notably the likability factor, are the key to great triumphs in life, which is why he criticizes Bernard in one flashback. Or listen to how he speaks so gleefully of his funeral as an event swarms of people will flock to. Once the crushing reality sinks in that there is a difference between his Dream and his life, Willy becomes unstable. To this end, Willy is a victim of the American Dream, the fantasy that these simple steps will result in your wishes coming true. The fundamental problem with Laslo Benedek's Death of a Salesman is that this crucial theme is cloudy compared to the apparent goal of depicting Willy as seriously zany.
On one hand, Laslo Benedek's direction is genius in that he utilizes the limited set design with class, allowing the cast to shine and express the substance. The integration of special effects as Willy's psychological decline causes him to blur the line separating the past and present is creative, intriguing, and clear. He also has no trouble conveying a sense of location, such as when Happy and Biff observe Willy talking to himself at the beginning of the play. Other films attempted to spice this sequence up, but it simple and effective in this adaptation. Obviously Death of a Salesman is a drama, but Benedek oddly shoots it with a mood akin to a thriller. Take the ending for instance, which is accompanied by Alex North's rising, suspenseful score. Benedek emphasizes Willy psychological conflict, which shifts focus away from other relevant themes of abandonment and betrayal. Bendek would move mainly to television for the last half of his career. Before that however, he directed Frank Sinatra in one of his worst efforts, The Kissing Bandit and a solid vehicle of Marlon Brando, The Wild One.
Benedek and screenwriter Stanley Roberts afford Miller's play an honest, satisfactory adaptation quantity wise. The pacing was smooth, not choppy, and the cuts were not glaringly noticeable unless of course, you're Arthur Miller. Enough has been written and essayed regarding the symbolism and themes within Death of a Salesman, but it remains a singularly paramount achievement. What stirs me is the corrosive relationship between Willy and Biff, the climax of their ill-feelings towards one another, and how the story addresses that dilemma by the conclusion. Death of a Salesman is an important, emotional, and profound piece that everyone should experience at some point in their life. I'm not sure this is the adaptation I'd recommend though, despite its many pros. It might be wiser to seek out a stage version, but in case you're wondering what the very best movie translation is, I have gives short blurb reviews on each below. And if you want a fitting companion piece, check out the documentary Salesman by the Maysles in 1968. On a side note, this has never been commercially released on DVD, but somehow TCM made a copy of some DVD available. The print is very poor, and I'm not exactly sure where TCM got this, but I looked again upon writing this article and discovered it is no longer for sale there. Keep your eye out in the future though. Perhaps Criterion will acquire it.
Final Rating = 7.5/10.0
Death of a Salesman (1966-TV) - This version stars Lee J. Cobb, who originally played Willy Loman on stage, along with George Segal as Biff, Mildred Dunnock once again as Linda, and the recently deceased James Farentino as Happy. For my money, this is the best adaptation of this play to the big/small screen. Cobb is the ideal Willy, knowing precisely when to shout and scream or be quiet and subtle. He's an amazing actor and this is one of his finest performances. George Segal is also quite excellent as Biff, holding his own with Cobb, and Dunnock is of course wonderful as Linda. You can also see Gene Wilder as Bernard. Alex Segal directed this, known mostly for TV movies such as this and teleplays. They music is reserved for the background and the sets are minimal. This is an actor's showcase. Final Rating = 9.0/10.0
Death of a Salesman - 1985 TV - The other popular telling of Miller's play is this Golden Globe winning TV movie from 1985. Personally, I was not big on this version. Dustin Hoffman is a superb actor, but he wasn't right for the part of Willy Loman in my opinion. His approach to the character is unusual for sure, but way too light and happy. I like Willy to be appropriately depressed. Hoffman comes across as goofy for most of this. I will give credit to John Malkovich however, who is outstanding as Biff, taking the character in a whole new direction, more of a dreamer in many respects. Stephen Lang is Happy, and with Malkovich, they are probably the #1 duo as the Loman brothers. They had the best chemistry of each adaptation. Most seem to focus on highlighting Biff only. Kate Reid is Linda and she's fine. This version uses more detailed sets, which are unnecessary, and the music is incredibly overbearing, attempting to make this a nice family picture for some odd reason. Volker Schlondorff directed this. Final Rating = 6.5/10.0
I tried to get my hands on a copy of the 2000 movie recorded from Broadway starring Brian Dennehy, but alas I was out of luck on that front. I have included a YouTube clip of his permance though, which is quite excellent from what I can see.