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DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid, Stephen Lang, Charles Durning
Director:  Volker Schlondorff
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Stills Gallery, “Private Conversations”
Length:  136 Minutes
Release Date:  January 28, 2003

“It’s funny, you know…after all the highways and the trains and the appointments and the years…you end up worth more dead than alive…”

Film ****

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller has to be considered one of the two greatest American plays ever written (alongside Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire).  It paints a loving, sad portrait of a man for whom the parade has passed by…a man who lived almost his entire life within the illusions of his own grandeur, and for whom reality is finally and cruelly catching up.

That man is Willy Loman, a 60 year old salesman who has been in the business for 34 years and who subscribed to the American Dream, but not the American Reality.  He carved out a living for his wife Linda (Reid) and his sons, Happy and Biff (Lang and Malkovich), but never could see through his illusions of success to the mediocre man he was in a hard, cold profession.  He dreamed of being liked, of having his name and personality open doors for him.  Now, he can’t even drive well enough to get to his few meager appointments.

When Dustin Hoffman starred as Willy Loman on Broadway, it was one of the most talked about theatrical events of its time.  In fact, it was one of those performances that became so famous that nearly everyone thought it a shame that so many of us outside of New York would never see it, and that one day, like so many other great theatrical moments, it would vanish only into the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to see it.  Few such moments are every really preserved for posterity.

But the news that Hoffman and cast would be reprising their roles for television changed all of that.  Death of a Salesman, as captured here on DVD, was one of the most striking TV events of its time.  I can still remember being a high school student and the excitement and buzz surrounding the filmed version of the play, and finally seeing the Hoffman performance that had earned so much press.  I even clearly remember watching it on TV.  It was every bit as good as its hype.

Are we so defined by what we do that when we can no longer do it, we have no identity?  That seems to be the issue pressing Willy, who in his old age can’t seem to do much more than linger in the past.  Over the course of the play, we learn about his heartaches and failures, about how his once firm relationship with his son Biff fell apart, about the choices he made, the moments where pride guided him away from what might have been best for him, and more.  It’s no coincidence that Miller gave him a last name that brings “low man” to mind.

He boasted of success he never really had, he implanted the wrong values into Biff so that he didn’t make the right efforts to follow his dreams, and he ended up washed out when he could no longer do the one thing that defined him.  It’s a heartbreaking scene when he appeals to his very young boss, whose father had given Willy his spot in the company.  “You can’t just eat the orange and throw the peel away!” he pleads…a line of tragic irony, because that’s exactly what you do with an orange.  How sad that it is also done to human beings as well.

The line quoted above about being worth more dead than alive is a pivotal and defining piece of dialogue in the play.  Most who’ve seen it can recall it; few remember his friend Charlie (Durning) speaking the next line, “Nobody’s worth nothing dead.”

The structure of the play brings the world of fantasy and reality into one another, and this teleproduction does the same, with spaces between walls for Willy’s visions to walk in and out of.  More than once, we find the poor man existing on more than one plane at the same time.  His visions of the past seem to bring him moments of joy, but they are actually quite tragic, because they are all about his regrets.  All he has left is to try and realize his failed dreams through Biff, but Biff is beginning to accept about himself what Willy never could:  he’s just a regular guy like so many others; nothing special.  Nothing about him will open doors or make his way for him.  We can only wonder what his future will hold; we don’t have to wonder about Willy, who makes one last misguided attempt to right his wrong choices.

This is a beautiful, heartfelt and sad tale that uses fantasy to paint a colder picture of reality than might have been possible.  Arthur Miller himself said he thought his tale would work better on film than on stage, and this made for TV movie demonstrates that well.  The cast is first rate across the board, but special mention must go to the sad-eyed John Malkovich in his first breakout role, and of course, Dustin Hoffman, whose embodiment of Willy Loman was sheer perfection.  For this televised version, he added an Emmy and Golden Globe to his arsenal of accolades.

But the real star is the text by Arthur Miller, and his creation of one of our country’s great and universal tragic characters.  The enduring popularity of his play is a testament to the Willy Loman in all of us.

Video **

Though a monumental TV event, this print looks like it hasn’t been cared for very much over the last couple of decades.  The 80s are a problematic time for quality DVD, and this presentation adds to that stigma.  It looks it’s age, with slightly soft and faded images, specks and spots on the negative, and mediocre levels of detail and color.  No fault can really be thrown Image’s way, who seems to have done the best they can with the source material, but frankly…it’s time for a little clean-up here.

Audio **

Being taken from a play, the audio is naturally dialogue oriented, which represents with no problems on this mono offering.  Bits of music from composer Alex North are a nice touch…otherwise, this is a standard single-track offering; nothing particularly great nor detrimental about it.

Features **1/2

The main feature is a good one, the 80 minute film “Private Conversations” that takes viewers onto the set of Death of a Salesman and up close to the likes of Arthur Miller, Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich and director Volker Schlondorff…a real treat.  A stills gallery is also included.

Summary:

Death of a Salesman is both a great American play and a singular event in television history, and both have been thankfully preserved on DVD from Image Entertainment.  This is a remarkable dramatic experience that captured for all time a legendary stage performance from Dustin Hoffman…very much worth seeing.