Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Dream

Film: Death of a Salseman (1951)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Certain stories become legendary. In American theater, there are few more well-known and respected stories than Death of a Salesman. The story is on of a man crushed by the weight of his life and the extent of his own failures. Needless to say, this is not a happy story. In a lot of ways, Death of a Salesman depicts the opposite of the American Dream. This is the tale of a man who wanted nothing more than that dream but was ground down by life, but missed opportunity, by his own bad decisions, and by his own blindness to the realities around him.

Willy Loman (Fredric March) is the salesman in question. Now in his 60s, Willy is still a traveling salesman. He comes from a world where a smile and a firm handshake were all that were needed to seal a deal. Back when he started his life on the road, sales were made because of personal connections. But the world has changed and left Willy behind. Older and no wiser, his drooping sales have put him back on full commission.

Willy’s troubles are not limited to his job, but they fuel all of the frustrations he has. His wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) has discovered evidence that Willy has contemplated suicide. Equally troubling is the mounting evidence that Willy is literally living in the past, having delusional conversations with his dead brother Ben (Royal Beal) and reliving past events. This tendency to live out past events and to try to recapture past dreams is exacerbated by the return home of his two sons.

Elder son Biff (Kevin McCarthy) was a promising high school athlete, but nothing seems to have panned out for him following those years. He moves from job to job and, at the time the play starts, works as a farmhand on a ranch in Texas. For Willy, Biff is nothing by failed potential. Willy vacillates between unending praise for his son and bitter anger and resentment toward him. Second son “Happy” (Cameron Mitchell) is a womanizer who works as the assistant to the assistant For all intents and purposes, Happy is a womanizing creep, devoted to making it in the business world much like Willy has always tried to do.

I’m not going to analyze Death of a Salesman much here. As one of the most important and well-known dramas in American theater, this is a play that has been analyzed and re-analyzed to death. Every line and every nuance of this play has been looked at by somebody in the past; each exchange between Biff and Willy, each moment of Willy’s desperate retreat into the past, even the very names of the characters (Loman equating to “low man,” Happy being happy only on the surface and miserable below the surface) have been subjected to scrutiny by people far more versed in those nuances and far smarter than I. I won’t waste your time.

What I’ll do instead is talk about the main performances, three of which were nominated for Oscars. I’ll start with the one that wasn’t: Cameron Mitchell’s turn as Happy Loman. Mitchell, along with Mildred Dunnock and Howard Smith, who plays next-door neighbor Charley were all members of the original cast of the play. Mitchell is good. He’s got the role down well and is capable of telling all of Happy’s lies and stories while showing some of the character’s pain and frustration below the surface.

This was Kevin McCarthy’s only Oscar nomination in a 60-year career and one of his first major roles. I like Kevin McCarthy and always have liked his work, even when he’s playing a cartoon villain in a B-movie. It has been argued before that Death of a Salesman is much more Biff’s story than Willy Loman’s, since Biff is the one who changes the most by the end of the play. I can see that, and McCarthy is up to the task here. McCarthy had the ability to be completely forthright in a role, a talent on display here.

Mildred Dunnock, also part of the original cast, isn’t in the film much, but she leaves a large impact where she is. Linda Loman is intended to be the long-suffering wife of Willy. Dunnock manages to be both browbeaten and hopeful in the same moment. She takes Willy’s verbal abuse and his constant downgrading of her input in everything and still manages to be one of the few rays of humanity in the film.

But it’s Fredric March, nominated for Best Actor, who is the main concern here. March, when given the right material, was capable of a particular sort of on-screen mania. It makes this an interesting performance, and one I can only imagine is substantially different from the way Lee J. Cobb played the role on stage. March’s Willy Loman leans far closer to insanity than I’ve seen the role played before. Much of this comes from Benedek’s direction. Here, rather than simply imagining the past, Willy actually experiences the past, acting out past events. While perhaps not precisely insanity, this performance reflects a certain sort of dementia that comes across as tragic. March was great at this sort of manic character, the one who needed to be right about everything all the time. It’s a match for his performance in Inherit the Wind, which is one of my favorites of his.

Sadly, this version of Death of a Salesman is difficult to locate. Playwright Arthur Miller distanced himself from this version, mostly because of the depiction of Willy’s interacting with his past memories. Other versions have taken its place and this original film has never been released on VHS or DVD. It’s a shame because this is a unique vision of this drama, and it’s won worth finding if you know and love the story.

Why to watch Death of a Salesman: One of the classics of American theater.
Why not to watch: If you know this story, you know how depressing it is.


  1. I just saw this on YouTube and came here to see what you thought. I really enjoyed your review. I thought March was terrific. Have you seen the version with Dustin Hoffman? It's worth seeing if you get the chance. John Malkovich plays Biff. It's been years since I saw it but I remember really being impressed by it.

    1. I've heard the Hoffman version is a good one, but I haven't seen it. For me, there's only so much Death of a Salesman I can take in a year. I like a good downbeat story, but this one is pretty crushing.