Death of a Salesman

May 8, 2020

deathofasalesmanCBS has provided an unusually top-drawer production of the newest version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It boasts one of the world’s best­-respected film directors (Volker Schlondorff), a great cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus), and a veteran composer (Alex North).

And the cast, much of which is retained from the successful 1984 Broadway revival, contains some of the best stage actors around.

Even with all those credentials, the production’s single biggest drawing card is Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the American Everyman, Willy Loman. Hoffman dominates the play, but only so far as he is meant to; there’s no upstaging or grandstanding going on in the production that will air at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7.

As Miller has said, Willy “cannot bear reality, and since he can’t do much to change it, he keeps changing his idea of it.” Willy has just been taken off salary by the sales company he has represented for 34 years; and he is greatly disappointed by his sons, in whom he tried to instill ambition by telling them, “Start big and you’ll end big! You got greatness in you, remember that!” He contemplates suicide as a last means of providing for his family, via his life insurance policy.

Willy’s final 48 hours are filled with revelations and fantasy, as he­ gropes (through reminiscence) for some kind of answer to what went wrong. His life has been filled with denial: He boasts to his sons of his popularity in his New England territory (“Be liked, and you will never want”), and a minute later turns to his wife, Linda, (Kate Reid) and announces the bitter conclusion that “people don’t seem to take to me.”

His oldest son, Biff (John Malkovich), swallowed all of Willy’s the-world-is-your-oyster booster­ism until Biff’s faith was finally broken. Because he never learned how to work for people, Biff is unable to function in the world. He floats from job to job, with vague dreams of going West and making his fortune. The other son, Happy (Stephen Lang), carries on Willy’s attitude of looking out for Number One, but he spends more time philandering than paying attention to his father. (Both sons are beautifully played.)

Schlondorff, the German director of The Tin Drum and Swann in Love, would seem an odd choice for this all-American play. But Schlondorff and Hoffman get a greater sense of the overwhelming sadness of these lives than any production of Salesman I’ve ever seen. The production is almost wholly without villains. And there’s no feeble hint that somehow “society” is to blame, either; everyone does what he thinks is best, but the efforts are tragically miscalculated or misinterpreted.

Schlondorff’s direction of the scene in which Biff hatches a scheme to go to his old employer and make something of himself is superb. The dynamics are always shifting as each family member tries to create his own reality, until finally they’re all sitting around the kitchen table in a fleeting moment of emotional and visual togetherness, that is immediately shattered by a blow-up between Willy and Biff, at which point the circle is broken.

Sometimes Schlondorff’s touch is too obvious – as is Hoffman’s. Willy is a large character, and Hoffman gives it a busy interpretation. It’s the sort of performance that usually works better on stage than it does on the small screen.

But even when Hoffman does fall into actorish ticks, it fits Willy’s character (after all, Willy is as much an actor, trying to create an elaborate illusion, as Hoffman is). Over the course of three hours, Hoffman’s heartbreaking performance works brilliantly.

From the first moment he wearily walks into the little Brooklyn house that he has almost paid off, Hoffman imbues the role with all the sadness and defeat that have come from 60 years of disappointment. Interestingly, Hoffman was at first reluctant to take the role when Arthur Miller (Hoffman’s Connecticut neighbor) suggested it. Hoffman thought he might be too young for the part.

But Miller pointed out that when Lee J. Cobb played the role in the original 1949 production, he was younger than Hoffman is now. So Hoffman put on the old-age makeup, and lowered his voice to a growl; but Hoffman’s keen powers of observation, not his makeup, are what make Willy a disturbingly recognizable man.

As Linda says, “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. . . . Is this his reward?” This production can provide no happy answer to the question, and that’s a measure of its integrity.

First published in The Seattle Times, September 15, 1985

This was during a stint I did as the TV critic at the Seattle Times in the summer of ’85. The production was made for television, obviously, but I think it counts. Hoffman did make the most of this, and I remember him saying somewhere that Willy was originally a small man in Miller’s text; we associate him with the largeness of Lee J. Cobb because Cobb happened to be cast in the original, necessitating a couple of script changes.


Band of the Hand

July 26, 2011

For a few years, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting directors, with his TV film The Jericho Mile, the high-tech James Caan movie Thief, and the exceedingly weird sci-fi World War II picture, The Keep. Mann looked like one of those original talents who have to scratch and claw for every idiosyncratic project.

Then he stumbled onto a television show about some “MTV cops,” titled “Miami Vice.” As executive producer, he’s the chief creative force on that very successful show. Now, having garnered some clout, he’s flexing his muscles.

The movie that puts him back in the director’s chair, Red Dragon, will be released later this year. First out is another Miami production on which Mann serves as executive producer, Band of the Hand; the directing chores are handled by a “Vice” collaborator, Paul Michael Glaser.

Glaser’s visual style follows the “Vice” look pretty closely (aided by the increasingly active Risky Business cinematographer, Reynaldo Villalobos); the streets and alleys of Miami are dotted with pink and turquoise, the nights shine with neon, the bad guys glisten with evil.

But the most effective scenes in the film take place in the Everglades, where, in the opening minutes, a racially balanced quintet of violent and seemingly incorrigible juvenile convicts is unloaded. They haven’t been told why, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t want to be there.

A mysterious figure appears: a tough commander (Stephen Lang) who barks orders to them but doesn’t spell out why they’re in the Everglades. He does tell them that they’ll have to learn to survive with the elements—and with each other—or he’ll let them die out there.

Lang takes them through a rough regimen of survival skills, in sometimes compelling sequences. It turns out he’s training them as part of a rehabilitation service. When they return to Miami, he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city.

Unfortunately, once they get back to town, the film becomes as interesting as a subpar episode of “Miami Vice,” but without the black Ferraris. Glaser has trouble with the film’s structure; it goes on for about a half hour after you expect it to end.

And for all of Glaser’s experience on the “Vice” squad, he makes a basic mistake: Too much of Band of the Hand takes place in dull daylight, when the flashy nighttime scenes are what make the TV vision of Miami tick.

The five hooligans are not bad, and Lang, who was superb as Happy in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman, is effective as the strong-but-silent leader. And, as usual, James Remar is adept at playing the kind of big-time psychopath he essayed so well in The Cotton Club and 48 HRS.

But the film is never again as engaging as the early Everglades scenes. Its attempt to provide a showy conclusion by blowing everything up at the end feels desperate. And the Bob Dylan title tune, heard a couple of times, actually creates a more vivid picture of the urban inferno than anything in this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1986

Michael Mann would come roaring back in movies, as you know, and “Miami Vice” did a quick quality-swoon after its first season. Larry Fishburne and John Cameron Mitchell are also in Band of the Hand, plus a scad of 80s hits; I take it the movie’s a camp classic now, and clearly I was a little too respectful in this review; ordinarily when I write a sentence like, “he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city,” I can provide some kind of smirky paranthetical.