Transfer: Excellent / Extras: Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: March 11, 2014
Synopsis: Vivid film version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Louisiana politician’s transformation from an honest man to a cruel demagogue.
Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mercedes McCambridge)
Robert Rossen’s film adaptation reportedly drifts a little from the narrative of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the rise and terminal fall of corrupt Louisiana Governor Willie Stark (patterned after the state’s real-life Governor Huey P. Long), as seen through former cub reporter / Stark’s future aide Jack Burden.
The screenplay’s structure is an easy-to-digest, linear form, but it remains the most potent and affecting English language film version of Warren’s novel, boasting taut pacing and meticulously adapted characters that never drop from the narrative for long suspicious chunks. It’s also near impossible for any actor to deliver the same powerful performance as Broderick Crawford, who masterfully portrays Stark as an earnest spokesman for fellow disenfranchised “hicks,” and a closet demagogue who genuinely believes his methods are for the better good of the people and the state.
Corruption seems to bleed from every scene – if not from direct actions, then characters harboring damaging secrets which ultimately emerge with acutely destructive timing – and yet Rossen’s film doesn’t paint any one individual as a caricature or black & white stock figure.
The script’s classical structure introduces the main characters in their early years,
allowing audiences to absorb the slow hardening of once-moral Jack Burden (a very young and wiry John Ireland), and the polarizing Stark as he evolves from a hick farmer to civic lawyer, providing for his teetotaler wife and adopted son (young John Derek), and eventually finding his own voice during a protracted campaign in which he was originally engaged to divide the hick vote to benefit another candidate.
It’s a trajectory that allows audiences to understand Stark’s drive and resentment of authority, his hunger to shore up his own power base so as to never return to that poor life, and to see how power corrupts when any safeguards against abuse of power are ignored or flattened from influence by favours or threats of violence.
Rossen also exploits the power of the media by showing Stark as a savvy politician: his visits to his old ramshackle farm are pure propaganda, helping him maintain the illusion of still being connected to the average Joe. There’s also the strategic photo ops with his aging father, his doting mother, the long-suffering wife (herself not blind to Stark’s illicit affairs), and his son whom he lauds in public for the papers but continues to use as a media prop after a terrible football accident restricts the former high school star to a wheelchair.
Warren’s story is filled with a variety of deep moral tumbles and acts of self-annihilation, and it is remarkable how the script gives even minor characters enough material to resonate to ensure their absence from later key scenes doesn’t render them as pointless or as mere props – something Zaillian wholly lost in his attempt to be more faithful in his meticulously produced but grand remake.
Zaillian’s film isn’t fully awful, but its jumbled structure, striving at times to be almost impressionistic with early flashbacks and montages, is really the death-blow for already truncated secondary characters.
The biggest casualties among the cast are Stark’s female aide / occasional lover Sadie Burke (she becomes a straightforward spurned lover / whiner in her few scenes); Adam Stanton and sister Anne (both appear in a flashback and are kept out of the narrative for almost an hour, with scenes tracing Adam and Jack’s friendship being virtually non-existent); Judge Stanton (appears as a plot device who becomes a father figure to Jack only after his demise); Stark’s wife Lucy (three scenes with minimal dialogue); son Tom Stark (needle-dropped past the film’s midpoint, and seen playing football once before virtually vanishing from the film).
Lesser figures also suffer in Zaillian’s film, including Stark’s stuttering muscle / gun-packing Sugar Boy (shorn of his stuttering, lacking any slight backstory, and reduced to a loyal human pistol); and Tiny Duffy, the corpulent figure who lured Stark into politics (after a few significant intro scenes, Tiny becomes just a big guy seen eating a lot while Stark chatters in the foreground).
It’s unclear if Zaillian shot the novel and struggled to reduce his epic translation during the editing stage, but the final film remains trained almost exclusively on the peculiar relationship between Stark and Jack because theirs is the novel’s most complex. Interestingly, Rossen never explains their attraction nor provides reasons for Jack’s decision to accept a role as Stark’s aide, and pocketbook historian – scribbling the names of enemies and Stark’s devious deeds in his old reporter’s notepad; Zallian, however, returns to the quandary and attempts to have both characters ponder and voice their own reason for co-existing in one intriguing but ultimately fuzzy scene.
Both filmmakers captured the weakening of Jack and Stark’s moral centres as their association transforms both from idealists to men inured by illegalities and cruelties from grey and outright improper transgressions, but only in Rossen’s film does Stark become a tragic figure: by showing him genuinely caring for his wife and son during the film’s first third, it’s still affecting to watch him become increasingly drunk and emotionally cruel towards his wife, son, and Jack’s ex-love Anne. One can see the evil corroding Jack, and ultimately pushing Anne’s brother to assassinate Stark – probably the only solution to ending the tenure of a well-insulated demagogue blessed with a predatory cat’s nine lives, and his own private militia.
The 1949 film also maintains its vaunted status because it’s so well acted. With Rossen’s script compacting Warren’s prose (and adding some savvy observations on politics and media), the cast has a lot of substance from which to be inspired. In Zaillian’s film, Sean Penn clearly patterned his physical performance on Huey Long’s own mannerisms, but he doesn’t create a memorable version of Stark because it’s a weaker script, and he’s surrounded by either strong actors trapped in perfunctory roles, or British actors whose differing native accents warp their attempts at southern authenticity.
Jude Law gets better in his later scenes, but he plays Jack as emotionally numb, whereas John Ireland captures the character’s seething inner turmoil, yearning for his life-long love, and the slow chilly distance that occurs with his surrogate family (the Stantons) after he joins Team Stark. Unique to the 2006 film, though, is Zaillian retaining the novel’s twist that Judge Stanton was Jack’s father – a cruel revelation which effectively destroys Jack by the film’s end.
Warren’s story is filled with nasty, emotionally goring conflicts that leaves no one unscathed. Its nihilistic trajectory is remarkable, and yet Rossen’s film is not dissimilar from the bleak finales typical of film noirs where corruption (from greed, sex, murder) destroys major players.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a sparkling HD transfer of Rossen’s film, preserving the beauty of Burnett Guffey’s docu-styled B&W cinematography, and offering a rare chance to hear Louis Gruenberg’s rich orchestral score in an isolated mono track. Gruenberg scored few films – besides a few WWII propaganda films, he also scored Arch of Triumph (1948), and the suspense film Quicksand (1950) before apparently switching to stock music – and his Americana-styled score is exceptionally effective in covering the furious transitions within the lives of Stark and Jack. (James Horner’s use of a strong main theme does aide Zaillian’s film, but the score is too elliptical, and it’s glaringly designed to constantly transmit to audiences a cyclical sense that ‘something bad is looming on the horizon.’)
Twilight Time’s BR features also features a trailer and Julie Kirgo’s insightful essay, whereas those wanting more background on the novel will find details in the making-of material in Sony’s DVD and Blu-ray of the 2006 film. Perhaps the most informative chronology lies in Ken Burns’ 1985 PBC documentary, Huey Long. Long’s life was also dramatized in two TV movies: The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish (1977) starring Edward Asner, and Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long (1995) starring John Goodman.
Robert Penn Warren’s novel was also adapted as a live teleplay for Kraft Television Theatre in 1958, and a 1971 Soviet TV mini-series, Vsya korolevskaya rat (1971).
© 2014 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review