Death Of A Salesman

Death Of A Salesman


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Arthur Miller's affinity with the common man is expressed in his tragic masterpieces The Crucible and Death Of A Salesman. Comparing one to the other is reserved for A-Level English, but I greatly prefer Death Of A Salesman, primarily due to its knowing domestic sadness and the ferocity of its deconstruction of a sad and empty dream of wealth and status. Miller's writing is stripped of needless chit-chat, with each line loaded with meaning - just waiting for a great performance to bring them to life.

The story tells of the Lomans, a common American family based in New York City. The father, Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman), is a tired elderly salesman, no longer able to make a living based on commission. He is obsessed with realising the American Dream and making as much money as possible, through personal influence and huge ambition.

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He is also convinced that a "well-liked" and "personally attractive" person will do well in business. This does not work out well, and Willy finds himself having to travel long distances and borrow money from his successful neighbour, Charley, to make financial ends meet. Ironically, Willy often dismisses Charley - "He's liked, but he's not well-liked".

Slipping into deep, occasionally suicidal, depression about how his life has failed, Willy is forced to examine his existence at face value. It leads him to do terrible things to his family, forcefully ostracising his sons Biff and Happy when they do not aspire to share his values and begin develop human flaws of their own. Biff (John Malkovich) is a simple sod, deflated after his father's hot-air barrage in his youth, and a kleptomaniac to boot. Happy, meanwhile, is so desperate for attention will come up with any excuse to make people to listen to him - "I'm losing weight, Pop!". Willy has gone prematurely senile - and oblivious to the fact, spends his time talking to characters from an idealised version of his past, or sowing seeds in the middle of the night. His wife, Linda (a startlingly authentic Kate Reid) is a domestic saint and counsellor to Willy, and I'd wager, fully knowing of his unhappy infidelities.

Schlöndorff directs simply, in an unshowy fashion using stage sets. Surprisingly, this lends more focus to the characters and drama. His cast is uniformly superb and deliver performances worthy of being labelled "definitive".

Death Of A Salesman is primarily told from Willy's point of view and is carefully directed to bring us into his mindset. The worlds of Willy's reality and fantasies from years gone by are melded together through the use of simple editing and sound design. When we are given another character's point of view, Willy's dreams are laid bare for the audience, and he becomes a simple old man crying and babbling away to himself. His ultimate, if partial self-realisation of his failure and what he can do for his family remains one of drama's greatest moments - and the movie leaves it for us to digest, without passing comment.

Dustin Hoffman's performance is widely regarded as one of the greatest portrayals of Willy - and with strong reason. His performance is magnetic; Willy is written as a frustrated time-bomb of "massive dreams and little cruelties", and Hoffman lets him explode like a reactor during grandiose speechmaking scenes - I have been waiting for someone to deliver "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit!" line properly for years. Very nearly the equal of Hoffman, Malkovich plays a man committed to finding out the truth about himself, without falling into the quagmire of lies and hot air his father has laid out for him. Like his namesake, Biff, takes his and Willy's failures head on with brave, but disastrous results.

It is a sterling, if uncinematic adaptation, without pretence or frippery which could dilute the potency of performances or writing.

Quite simply, "Attention must be paid".

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2008
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The definitive telling of Arthur Miller's classic play.
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Director: Volker Schlöndorff

Writer: Arthur Miller

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang, Charles Durning, Louis Zorich, David S. Chandler, Jon Polito, Kathryn Rossetter, Tom Signorelli

Year: 1985

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, West Germany


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