Friday, October 11, 2013

All the King's Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen                                  Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: Louis Gruenberg                           Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Mercedes McCambridge

After having become familiar with the Kingfish through the Ken Burns' documentary Huey Long, this film fails to have the impact it no doubt had on audiences of its day. Having said that, All The King’s Men is still a powerful film and it’s easy to see why it won the Oscar for best picture that year. One of the most interesting things about it is that, other than Broderick Crawford who was a popular actor though not a great one, there were no real stars in the film. Of course, the film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren but, to my mind, the credit for the film’s greatness must go to writer-director Robert Rossen, who began writing screenplays in the late thirties and would make his greatest film a decade after this one: The Hustler.

The film opens with newspaper reporter John Ireland being assigned to cover a small county election in an unnamed southern state. Broderick Crawford is running for a county commissioner seat and is harassed by the current, corrupt politicians when he tries to tell the people the truth. When the political machine running one of the candidates for governor needs to split the opposition vote, they commandeer Crawford in order to do so. But eventually he learns he’s a patsy and decides to run on his own and almost wins. He is helped by former machine member Mercedes McCambridge, who comes over to his side, and Ireland who joins as his researcher, digging dirt up on enemies so Crawford can blackmail them with it. Crawford wins the next election in a landslide and uses any corrupt methods he can to do good in the state, building roads and hospitals and helping the poor who elected him.

Eventually the story begins to shift more toward Ireland. His girl, he finds out, is having an affair with Crawford, and he’s forced to dig up dirt on her father, a well-respected judge that he likes very much. John Ireland, who looks like a bit like Dick York, is not the greatest actor, and the script doesn’t help him much. Though he is the de facto protagonist, he has very little ability to exert his own will and falls into Crawford’s orbit. The film does as well, as Crawford is really the primary focus. Corrupt politician’s are nothing new, and weren’t in 1949 either, but there’s something about the character of Huey Long that was different. Though he clearly relished his role as “king” of Louisiana, he was also decidedly a populist and the graft that he was involved in was in order to do something meaningful for the working poor from which he emerged.

Rossen does a tremendous job in translating Warren’s book for the screen, paring it down to its essentials and keeping it moving relentlessly toward the fatalistic ending. That said, it almost cries out for more characterization, leaving the viewer wanting to know more about these lives and the relationships between the characters. The film’s merits were acknowledged at Oscar time, with awards for best picture--which went to Rossen as producer of his own film--as well as Crawford for best actor and McCambridge for supporting actress. It also earned two more nominations for Rossen, direction and writing, and for Ireland as supporting actor. The film even inspired a remake fifty five years later with Sean Penn in the title role. At the end of the day, All The King’s Men is an Oscar winning film that is worthy of it’s award and while nothing we haven’t seen before, is a powerful story and a worthy of viewing.

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