Death of a Salesman (1966)
"America's full of beautiful towns. Fine, upstanding people. And they all know me."- Willy Loman (Lee J. Cobb)
Stars: Lee J. Cobb, Mildred Dunnock, James Farentino, George Segal
Other Stars: Edward Andrews, Albert Dekker, Marge Redmond, Stanley Adams, Joan Patrick, Karen Steele, June Foray
Director: Alex Segal
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:47m:21s
Release Date: 2002-04-16
DVD ReviewNot too long ago I found myself in (God help me) a Starbucks, and heard from one of the overstuffed armchairs in a corner a sniffling and a crying. I turned to see a young woman—fifteen, maybe, with hair dyed blue, her tongue pierced, her nose, too, close to sobs, her nose in a book. We made eye contact, and as best I could, one stranger to another, I tried to communicate silently: Are you all right? She held up the book she was reading, so I could see its front cover: it was a well-worn high school copy of Death of a Salesman.
All that's been written about the play—and there has been reams—can lose sight of the fact that it is a tremendously powerful, emotional piece of theater. This incarnation stars Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, the original Willy and Linda Loman from the first production, on Broadway in 1949.
"A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."—Charlie
The image of Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman has long been both a powerful and elusive one. Unlike, say, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cobb didn't reprise his role in the film version shortly after the original Broadway run. (Frederick March played Willy in a 1951 Hollywood version that doesn't do justice to the material.) In many respects Cobb's is the great unknown performance, not unlike Ethel Merman's in Gypsy—circumstances led to their not doing the original films, but the legend persists of the titanic power of the originals.
There's something rather oversized in Cobb's screen performances, something a bit too theatrical—even at his best, in 12 Angry Men or especially On the Waterfront, he's very good, but seems in the wrong medium somehow. (It's sort of a theater prejudice, I admit, but there's something downright jaw-dropping for me about On the Waterfront when Johnny Friendly and Terry Malloy face off. I can't help thinking that it's the actors who gave arguably the two greatest performances in Broadway history in the two greatest American plays, it's Willy Loman versus Stanley Kowalski.)
I've seen a couple of other Willys—Dustin Hoffman's hardscrabble one in the mid-1980s, and Brian Dennehy's volcanic Willy on Broadway just a few years ago—and while they were both tremendously effective (Dennehy especially), there's a ghost haunting any actor who signs on to the role, and that ghost is of course Lee J. Cobb.
And so with that in mind, dedicated Salesman fans will feel a shudder of excitement at the opening of this version, at the sight of Cobb as Loman weighted down by his two oversized sample cases, returning home after an abortive road trip. This production was made in 1966, for broadcast on CBS, and was shot at Television City in Southern California—all of which means it's three thousand miles, nearly twenty years and a different medium away from the Broadway debut. But this still seems to be the best single record of Cobb as Willy, an opportunity for those of us too young to have seen him on stage to get a glimpse of just what the original Willy Loman must have been like. (It's also the only Salesman available on DVD.)
It's not really fair to consider this an accurate rendering of what the play or Cobb's performance must have been like during its original run, but it's not hard to see the power that Cobb must have commanded, at turns imperious and crumbling, victim and bully. It's when Cobb is hitting the high notes that the tragedy works best—it's just heartbreaking to hear him contend with his being discarded: "You can't eat the orange and throw away the peel. A man is not a piece of fruit." But still, I wonder if Cobb didn't try to "improve" his performance with the years, not adhering strictly to the demands of the play, but going for the heartstrings when doing so wasn't always justified. Cobb didn't beat his performance into the ground in the manner of, say, Yul Brynner in The King and I, but it's difficult to imagine that, seventeen years after first playing Willy, there isn't a certain shopworn element in the work Cobb turns in here.
"Be liked, and you'll never want."—Willy Loman
The principal event here is of course not Cobb's performance, but the play by Arthur Miller. So many high school papers have been written about it—I know I did my share, and I bet you did, too. It's a work that's been celebrated as the great American tragedy and dismissed as a maudlin though effecting profile of a particular moment in the national economy. I lean toward the former, and in reconsidering the drama now I was struck by the manner in which it's both squarely in the nineteenth-century tradition of the well-made play, and grasping for a more unconventional, nonlinear way in which to tell its story. (It's a manner of storytelling that took root more in film than on stage.) And while Salesman certainly isn't without its moments of being overwrought and too self-conscious—Charlie in the Requiem seems particularly overdone ("Nobody dast blame this man")—it is, for me, anyway, unquestionably a drama full of pity and terror. (Let me also cop to the fact that I am the son and grandson of salesmen, so the personal resonances for me are deep.)
Since this version was produced for television, the play was abridged to accommodate a two-hour running time, with commercials; the material suffers, and lacks some of the cumulative power it retains on stage. Especially hard hit by the cuts is Mildred Dunnock, who plays Linda—besides appearing in the original production, she was in the March film version. A fine scene at the top of the second act is just lopped off—instead of sending off her boys to battle, she's reduced to a quick phone call with Biff. She has some moving moments, but Linda isn't really at the center of the drama, and though Dunnock is good, her performance points up the fact that Miller always had trouble writing convincingly for women.
George Segal plays Biff, and part of it is the cuts that were made, but Segal doesn't seem like a worthy combatant for Cobb, and so the raw power of the father/son confrontations aren't fully realized. (John Malkovich was a blistering, amazing Biff in the Hoffman production.) This was made the same year that Segal gave what may be his best performance to date, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; I don't know if it's that he doesn't have the chops, or that he's made some unfortunate choices to underplay certain aspects of his character, but when it's time for Biff to go toe to toe with the old man, somehow the fireworks just don't happen. (He's certainly not helped by the knickers he's forced to wear in Willy's flashbacks.)
James Farentino is serviceable enough as Happy, and a couple of familiar faces turn up in smaller roles—Gene Wilder, playing it straight, is Bernard, the bookish boy next door who grows up to become a successful lawyer; and Bernie Koppel, your ship's doctor from The Love Boat, is Howard, the boss who gives poor Willy the heave-ho.
"Will you take that phony dream and burn it, before something happens?"—Biff
I can't help but think that's what's missing is the steady, sure hand of Elia Kazan, the director of the original stage production. The sense is almost palpable here that Salesman has moved from being merely a play to powerful cultural icon, and hence there's almost a museum-like quality to the proceedings. It's not just that there's a good bit of telegraphing—even if you haven't seen or read the play before, the title is a pretty fair tipoff of how things are going to end—but more there's a sense that we're being shown not merely a play, but a masterpiece, and a bruising commentary on the cultural condition. Death of a Salesman may well be both of those things, but first and foremost it's a drama, and has to succeed on the personal level before it can reach to any others.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The DVD transfer demonstrates the limits of the technology at the time; resolution isn't at all impressive, and the colors bleed terribly. There's even an opening crawl, mentioning the parameters of the source material. What's here is a pretty fair effort.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: As with the image, the audio is bound by the shortcomings of the original tracks, though hissing only pops up now and again. Cobb at full volume seems to test the limits of the microphones at Television City, and that's where you'll hear some buzz.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
- Highlights from the Broadway Theater Archive catalog
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsA first-rate theatrical production still seems like the best way to experience Death of a Salesman, and while that's obviously not always possible, this version with the original Willy Loman is more than worthy. Still, it seems like a palimpsest more than a red-blooded Salesman in its own right; it's worth seeing for Cobb's performance especially, but the most profound levels of the drama aren't captured on screen here. Maybe they can't be, as ultimately they are in Willy's head, and in ours.
Jon Danziger 2002-05-14