Death of a Salesman (1951)

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If you’ve read Arthur Miller’s Timebends then you know he was not happy with the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman, with most of the original Broadway cast (Mildred Dunnock, Kevin McCarthy, Cameron Mitchell), and Fredric March in the lead role of Willy Loman. (March had been Miller’s first choice for Willy in the original production, but it hadn’t worked out, and they had gone with Lee J. Cobb, who gave a performance which is still legendary). Communist paranoia was ratcheting up and Columbia Pictures was nervous about Death of a Salesman‘s strong critique of the free market and capitalism and the so-called American dream. In many ways they got cold feet. Miller was not happy with the adaptation, and not happy with the direction. He felt that Fredric March had been directed to play the role “psycho” – in Miller’s mind it was as though King Lear had only IMAGINED he was king.

The 1951 film, directed by László Benedek, was nominated for 5 Oscars (March, Dunnock, McCarthy, Franz Planer’s cinematography, and Alex North’s score), and it won 4 Golden Globes (March, McCarthy – as “promising newcomer”, Benedek as director and Planer’s cinematography). In 1966, there was a television version (with Lee J. Cobb back as Willy and Dunnock as Linda), and then another one in 1986, with Dustin Hoffman as Loman. And on and on. The play will never die. It will continue to touch generation after generation, due to its compassionate look at the everyday problems of a regular guy, and the world that has passed him by. There have been arguments about whether or not the play is a tragedy. In the classic sense of tragedy, there must be a long way to fall. Kings are tragic, queens, etc. But a salesman? That was one of Miller’s gifts, to present the everyday American dream as potentially tragic, that of course Willy’s fall is tragic, and of course he is a tragic figure. We all are. I saw Brian Dennehy do it on Broadway and although that was a hugely praised production, I felt it was over-praised (Dennehy in particular). The production seemed insecure about the tragic elements, and so needed to underline Willy’s suicide with a huge light-show meant to be his accident, accompanied by huge cacophony, representing the crash, and it was all a bit Cirque du Soleil. You don’t need all that stuff. In fact, it shows you don’t believe that Willy’s end is a tragedy. You are insecure about it, so you need to play it up.

All of that being said, the 1951 version of the film has been out of circulation for decades. It’s not on DVD. It’s not on VHS. It has been an invisible movie, remembered by those who saw it in its first theatrical run, and never seen since. Well, until last Thursday when I went to Theatre 2 at MoMA to see a recently restored print on its one-night-only showing. It was part of MoMA’s annual To Save and Project film preservation series, where rarities such as this one are given a public showing. Death of a Salesman was scheduled for just one night. The theatre was packed. Such moments always give me pleasure, to realize that there will always be a hearty band of art-lovers who need to experience such things, who understand the import.

Fredric March is one of the great American actors, and the thought of him in this role was thrilling beyond belief. March is unforgettable in The Best Years of Our Lives, of course, but he has a moment in Merrily We Go to Hell (wrote about that here) which is emblematic of why I love acting, and why I love actors. The good ones. March has the ability to tell us something about ourselves, our flaws, our mistakes. And also our greatness and our nobility. He’s that kind of actor. Both a leading man and a character actor. Of course Miller would have wanted him for Willy. Who else could have that broken grandeur and play it so fearlessly?

The curator of the series did a brief introduction, informing us that there were family members of both Kevin McCarthy and Arthur Miller in attendance. We all applauded. I was in the second row. The place was packed. Early on, an octogenarian was talking with her friend in the back, and both were somewhat deaf (or must have been) because they were shouting at one another. I felt afraid that this would go on throughout the film, but then the woman shouted, “I AM SO EXCITED TO SEE LEE J. COBB …” Her friend shouted back, “IT’S NOT COBB.” Shout: “IT’S NOT??” Shout: “NO, IT’S FREDRIC MARCH.” “OHH! FREDRIC MARCH!” “YES. FREDRIC MARCH.” Original shouter: “I SAW LEE J. COBB IN THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY PRODUCTION SO I JUST ASSUMED HE DID THE FILM. OH! SO FREDRIC MARCH, HUH? VERY EXCITED.” She had seen that original Broadway production, of which I have dreamt of in my mind so many times. Of course it’s disconcerting when people are shouting in a quiet movie theatre, but that conversation was the perfect launching-pad into the experience of the film.

The film opens with Fredric March, as Willy Loman, in his car on his way home from a sales trip to Boston. Of course, because the play is famous, we already know that his trip did not go well. But even if you don’t know the play, it is impossible to misinterpret the broken air of defeat surrounding this proud man. He pulls up behind his house, crammed in on all sides by tenement buildings, and heaves his two valises (marked with the letters “W. LOMAN”) out of the car, they’re so heavy they nearly drag him down, and slowly, hesitantly, he makes his way up the back steps. March’s body language is eloquent of both exhaustion and nervous anxiety, and because he is Fredric March, elegant and handsome, it is immediately painful to see him defeated. And so in the very first scene, Arthur Miller’s tragedy is almost fully told. March has done all the work for us before even a line has been spoken.

There was a thrill as well to see the original cast, people whose performances live in my mind although the production happened decades before I was born. But I’ve read all the books, I have heard the stories, and there they are: Dunnock, McCarthy, Mitchell. The famous scenes: Biff and Happy in their bedroom listening to their father talk to himself downstairs, the scene where Linda dresses down her two sons (with the most famous lines in the play: “Attention must be paid …”), the scene where Willy goes to talk to Howard, his boss … The adaptation is faithful enough that the play can live and breathe in its new cinematic context. One of the things that was very pleasing was that Benedek did not try to make a realistic film out of what is, actually, a very surreal script. The past and the present flow on beside one another, concurrently, in the script, as Willy is pulled back into the past, yanked back to the present … He stands in his kitchen in the present day and is suddenly pulled outside by a memory that happened over 15 years ago … Benedek does not shy away from these structural realities. And often the film becomes almost experimental in its exploration. Mirrors open up to reveal rooms in other times, other places … a subway station hallway becomes a nightmarish tunnel of looming shadows and past events, Willy’s long-lost idolized brother stalking just ahead of him, just out of reach, Linda and the boys crowding around him, only they’re in the past, and Willy is in the present … Laughter echoes in Willy’s ears as he sits in his kitchen, and he walks into the next room in his house, only to find that he has been launched back in time to the hotel room in Boston where Biff surprised him with another woman. It reminded me of how space was used in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, how Jim Carrey has a painful encounter with Kate Winslet in the book store, and stalks out, the lights of the bookstore going out after him, symbolizing the light of hope going out inside of him, and he walks through a door directly into his friends’ apartment where he collapses on the stair. Death of a Salesman uses space like that. It’s dramatic, charged, symbolic, and fearless. It does not shy away from experimental uses of light and space, Willy’s brother Ben stalking out of the shadows in the yard, in the mirror, saying the same thing over and over again, the same job offer that Willy can’t help but wish he had taken …

One of the things that really struck me this time in hearing these words was the hope that Willy had placed in Biff, and the burden that that put on the son. This is, of course, key to the play but it was the way March played it, the way his whole face changed at the merest mention of Biff, that really drove home the point that Willy was doomed in this love. Miller felt that March had been directed to play the role as too psychotic, but I saw that March’s Willy – so convinced that Biff, despite all the evidence, was meant for big big things – was delusional, and that his delusions of grandeur shielded him from intimacy, from happiness, from enjoying simple things. That is his tragedy. The other things, losing his job, that is just adding insult to the original injury, which is that he has two great sons, one of whom he believed to be a star, but nothing has worked out. He is not happy and grateful that he has two healthy sons, who love each other, are good men. That is not enough for him. He wants to be a big shot. He thinks America owes him that. He doesn’t understand where things went wrong. He doesn’t’ see that it is HE who was wrong, that it was HE who bought the lie, who also lied to his sons about being good upright honorable men, while all along he was having affairs with floozies. That was the injury done to Biff, the thing that could not be unseen. Biff gave up on his own life when his father came down off the pedestal. And neither of them can speak of it.

Kevin McCarthy is tremendous in his part, both infuriating and infuriated, trying to break free of his father’s hopes, and unable to please anyone. He has enjoyed working as a cattle hand out on a ranch. He is not meant to work in an office or be a big shot. Is he a failure? Who told him that? Who set up that structure to make that the only possible interpretation? His pain, as he confronts his father, is palpable. He is a phenomenal actor and it was a great privilege to see him in this part.

Cameron Mitchell is great, too, as Happy, the womanizing son who takes things easy, and is, honestly, the only one in the family who has his head on straight, at least in terms of what he thinks life owes him and what he owes it. He has a good time, he doesn’t feel bad about it, he tries to take care of his father, and be kind to his mother, and doesn’t worry too much. The famous scene between the two brothers, a staple in any acting class where there are two men, was a joy to watch. You believed these two were siblings, they had grown up together, they had the same history, only now they were men. The rules had changed. There are secrets there. There is something haunting this house. And both of them realize that they have been a disappointment to their parents. It’s disconcerting. What the hell went wrong?

And Mildred Dunnock has such authority in this role that it is no wonder her performance in that original Broadway production is still celebrated, despite the fact that it happened so long ago. She has some pretty major speeches here. Famous words. She doesn’t over-act or underline. She is not concerned with making an impression with her performance. No. She is too busy making her points. She is in a struggle between life-or-death with her husband. She sees what is happening, she does not know how to ease his sorrow, she does not even know where his sorrow comes from. As always, a great performance is evident in the details. When Willy starts to talk about the past, you can see her whole body language change. She reaches out to stroke his shoulder, soothing him, calming him down. It is automatic. Linda understands her husband and she knows that when he starts talking about the good old days she is in for a long and anxious night. This is a very subtle emotional situation, one that other actresses might have missed. The literal words “Member the good days” are actually signposts towards disaster, one of Miller’s implicit points about nostalgia, and how we fool ourselves. The past really wasn’t all that great, and rose-colored glasses are okay for teenagers, but looking back with wistful longing to the past is a red flag, and Linda knows that, and the way Dunnock reaches out to touch her husband’s shoulder, repeatedly, when he is tugged back to the past, shows us everything about how she has been living for the past 10 years. Their entire relationship is in that automatic gesture.

Her sons, used to treating her like a maid, are kind with her, but also impatient. They think it’s still okay to complain to her about their father. She lets them know, unforgettably, that that is not okay. When she says to Biff that he cannot only have a relationship with her, that he will no longer be allowed to come home if he is going to aggravate his father … that they have to grow the hell UP … it’s shocking, you can see the shock on Biff and Happy’s faces. They always thought they had an ally in her. Mildred Dunnock draws the line. It’s an excellent scene.

While the ending of the film is tragic, the moment when I started to lose it was when Willy goes out into the tiny back yard in the middle of the night to plant a garden. He had said earlier to Linda that maybe he could grow some carrots and beets, and wouldn’t that be great, to have some greenery out there, to have some sense of space, and by God, I’ll plant a garden! and Linda laughs with delight because her husband seems happy and hopeful. But when he finally does go to plant the garden, everything has changed by then, and Willy is a ruined man, and the truth is out between him and Biff, and he has nothing else to do but go out there with a hoe and a shovel and sprinkle seeds into the dirt. “What’s Dad doing out there?” asks Biff, uneasy. Linda replies, stoic, “He’s working in the garden.” The shot of March, rumpled and stiff, on one knee, trying to rip open the packet of seeds and spilling them every which way into the dirt, was the most poignant and awful shot in the picture. I never really recovered.

The print is as pristine and crisp as if it had been filmed yesterday. There’s no fuzz, no flaws. It looks fantastic. Hopefully this print will find its way towards a proper release. People need to see this film.

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2 Responses to Death of a Salesman (1951)

  1. My baby brother has been Willy twice, once in a well done high school production, once a couple of years ago at age 60. As age appropriate Willy, he did something at the end I’ve never seen before (I’ve seen ’em all and hope to see Fredric). As he leaves the kitchen to commit suicide, he gives the old refrigerator a loving pat. That got me. I love me some Death of A Salesman.

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