All the King's Men catapulted Broderick Crawford from dependable character actor to movie stardom, and rightly so. As fire-breathing demagogue Willie Stark, Crawford gave an indelible performance that earned him the 1949 Academy Award for Best Actor.
His portrayal dominates the film. Adapted from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 novel and loosely based on the life of legendarily corrupt Louisiana political boss Huey "the Kingfish" Long, All the King's Men still reverberates with raw ferocity. In the age of Bill O'Reilly on the right and Michael Moore on the left, the film's relevance is hardly surprising; cautionary tales of populist heroes-turned-demagogues never go out of style (which might explain why writer-director Steve Zaillian has revisited the story with a remake starring Sean Penn).
Our view of Willie Stark in All the King's Men comes chiefly through the eyes of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a newspaper reporter in an unnamed Southern state -- presumably Louisiana -- who is assigned to cover an election for county treasurer. Willie, the challenger, is a tenacious and principled bear of a man determined to take on the corrupt "good ol' boy" network. Jack interviews Willie and his soft-spoken wife, Lucy (Anne Seymour), and becomes fond of the couple. Although Willie loses the race, his ambitions remain intact. He earns a law degree, becoming a country lawyer with a reputation for helping out the little guy.
Willie Stark's political ascent begins a few years later. Political operatives for a gubernatorial candidate named Harrison, concerned about the down-home appeal of their opponent, look for a decoy candidate who will split the "hick" vote and subsequently hand the election over to Harrison. In Willie Stark the political hacks find their unwitting dupe.
Or so they think. Once the man discovers the scheme, his rage awakens the charismatic beast that has been lurking inside. After a night of boozing, Willie appears before a crowd of voters and whips them up with a torrent of snarling demagoguery, vowing to battle the power elite on behalf of his fellow "redneck hicks." Willie loses the battle, but wins the war. He is elected governor a few years later in a campaign slaughter that Jack likens to "Saturday night in a mining town."
As the state's commander in chief, Willie surrounds himself with loyal sycophants such as Jack and Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge), Stark's campaign manager. Tall, burly and thoroughly imposing, Willie is as vilified as he is glorified, a tireless champion of the have-nots who also happens to be thoroughly corrupt. A newsreel muses whether he is a messiah or dictator, but as the story progresses, the messianic side of Willie Stark grows ever fuzzier.
Writer-director Robert Rossen infuses All the King's Men with the same unvarnished power he brought to his other masterpieces, 1947's Body and Soul and 1961's The Hustler. This is butcher block filmmaking, simply told and not exactly subtle. If the second half of the picture tends to overdo Willie's treachery, it remains gritty and engrossing.
Crawford's Willie Stark is a force of nature. In his best scenes -- such as the populist-fueled speech that jumpstarts Willie's political career -- the actor personifies the voraciousness of a man whose appetite for power is without limit. None of the supporting players can hold their own amid Crawford's performance, particularly Joanne Dru's melodramatic turn as Jack's self-serving fiancée, Anne Stanton. No matter. All the King's Men is All Crawford, All the Time.
The picture is presented in its original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I would like to report that the print is in relatively good condition, but alas, there is little discernible improvement over the quality of the movie's previous release on DVD. There are noticeable scratches, nicks and tiny flashes throughout the film. While none particularly compromise one's appreciation for All the King's Men, it is unfortunate that this classic hasn't received better treatment.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is unremarkable, but the dialogue is clear and free of distortion. English subtitles are available.
Let's not kid ourselves about why All the King's Men has been suddenly re-released on DVD. The new package is out to drum up interest in the Zaillian remake, and so this DVD includes a five-minute, 24-second sneak preview of the new film as well as a theatrical trailer for it.
Chalk up this no-frills edition of All the King's Men to a quickie attempt to cash in on the soon-to-be-released remake. Still, a movie this potent (it won the Oscar for Best Picture in '49, incidentally) is always worth watching.