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Writer-director Robert Rossen's 1949 All the King's Men succeeds on all counts. It's a superb adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, an exciting thriller and a searing indictment of American politics and values. Rossen was one of several important Hollywood filmmakers risking the blacklist with controversial political films. In this case, writing and directing a movie critical of the status quo led to an Academy Award for Best Picture.
All the King's Men is an undisguised portrait of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor criticized as a populist demagogue in the 1920s and '30s. Robert Rossen's adaptation alters many story points and invents an interesting new character, but is faithful to the book's spirit.
Born into a wealthy family, idealistic Jack Burden (John Ireland) quits his job as a reporter to become a writer, confidante and special operative for Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a rural politician who with little going for him except persistence. The do-nothing entrenched political bosses feel free to interrupt Stark's speeches and destroy his campaign flyers. Willie loses elections until he discovers a powerful, dramatic speaking style and begins to capture the voting audience. By aligning himself with the downtrodden "hicks" ignored by the state's fat-cat politicos, Willie's previously lame campaign becomes an unstoppable Juggernaut.
Willie's inner circle includes the stuttering Sugar Boy, a bodyguard with a hair trigger attitude, and Jack's fiancée Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), whose brother Adam, a noted surgeon (Shepperd Strudwick) opposes Willie's brand of politics. Handling the dirtiest deals is the bitter cynic Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), and with her strategies Stark is soon in the Governor's mansion. But he now has very different ideas on how to consolidate his power. Promising the public everything, he rules by popular decree under a cult of personality. Jack maintains a book of dirty secrets with which Willie can compromise or suborn politicians that might challenge his authority. Willie's insistence that his son (John Derek) play football while injured leads to tragedy, and an impeachment movement springs up when Willie tries to cover up a particularly heinous crime. Will anyone step forward to put an end to the demagogue's reign?
All the King's Men presents us with a grim set of characters, all of whom are morally compromised. Willie Stark's brutal ambition taints everyone, even our once-idealistic hero. He takes over people the same way he possesses the voters that believe in his populist crusade. Willie says that he wants to do good things, and because the reality he has to work with is uniformly bad, his job is to "make good out of bad." But Stark's ego and hungers know no bounds. Jack loves Anne but Willie sleeps with her behind his back.
Broderick Crawford is terrific. He's good at being humble and even better as an intimidating, shouting bully. Willie Stark is one of the more memorable SOBs in movie history, a backwoods Caesar who made one enemy too many.
John Ireland and Joanne Dru became instant lovers after meeting the year previous on Howard Hawks' Red River. They're okay as the young couple corrupted by Stark's influence but Ireland's Jack Burden soon loses our sympathy. His conversion to dirt-digger for a political creep makes him seem far more reprehensible than the movie admits. The film's most original characterization is Mercedes McCambridge's fierce Sadie Burke, a completely amoral creature who seems psychologically twisted from the beginning. Burke revels in Crawford's abuses and is clearly hurt when his eye drifts to more attractive women.
Rossen's fast-paced show reflects some of the political hysteria of the times. Stark amasses a private police force and gets away with bigger and bigger crimes. The honest opposition hasn't a chance. When Anne's father Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf) steps up to denounce Stark, Jack silences him by uncovering proof of an old bribery scandal. The legislature is intimidated into obeying Stark's commands. The only thing that stops Willie is a traditional Southern 'unwritten law' about family honor. The ferocious violence of the finish is a welter of fast cuts and blazing guns.
Crawford and McCambridge won deserved acting Oscars and the picture took home the big prize for 1949. One interesting thing to note is that the movie is set in the American South yet we see almost no African-American people. The political rallies appear to be segregated, all-white activities.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of All the King's Men is from a Sony/Columbia HD video master, which these days is almost a guarantee of a superb transfer. Veteran cameraman Burnett Guffey's stark B&W lighting comes across handsomely on Blu-ray.
Twilight Time offers its customary Isolated Score Track and an appropriately hard-hitting original trailer. Julie Kirgo's snappy liner notes stress that both the book and the movie of All the King's Men were meant to be cautionary tales, warning of the fascist tendencies in popular demagogues like Huey Long. Kirgo also notes that Robert Rossen's luck ran out two years later when he ended up on the blacklist anyway. Stating that "he had to work", Rossen named names to the HUAC Committee. He re-started his faltering career but never regained his winning momentum.
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All the King's Men Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.