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Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman
Image Entertainment / Castle Hill
1985 / Color / 1:37 / 130 min. / Street Date January 28, 2003 / $24.99
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang, Charles Durning, Louis Zorich, David S. Chandler, Jon Polito
Cinematography Michael Ballhaus
Production Designer Tony Walton
Art Direction John Kasarda
Film Editors Mark Burns, David Ray
Original Music Alex North
Written by Arthur Miller
Produced by Robert F. Colesberry
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A superior production in every respect, this television version of the classic Death of a Salesman will be a tough act to beat for filmed theater. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant, as are Kate Reid & the then up'n coming John Malkovich. Instead of just filming the play, or 'opening it up' as was done in the 50s film version with Fredric March, brilliant designs let the show unspool on sets that are subtly stylized. Image's excellent DVD contains a kicker, a 90 minute making-of feature that gives not just a behind-the-scenes peek, but an intimate view of the production and its creators.


60ish Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman) is at the rough end of an undistinguished career as a salesman, and the pressures of his life are causing him to lose contact with reality. Living partly in the present (1948) and partly in the rosy past (1928), Willy clings to fantasies of success for both himself and his sons, womanizing underachiever Happy (Stephen Lang) and prodigal runaway Biff (John Malkovich). Just as his mania has become so distracting that he no longer feels secure driving a car, Biff browbeats and persecutes his family for not buying into his illusions; his dutiful wife Linda (Kate Reid) tries to keep the peace, but Willy won't let up on Biff. Unfortunately, Willy has forgotten his own lies. He believes he's been promised a secure job, and he's forgotten why Biff left home in the first place.

A sensitive director with a topflight cast, under the supervision of the original author, make this teleplay a shattering experience. Avoiding most theater-to-tv adaptation pitfalls, the emphasis here is on the performances, and they're terrific. Under some excellent age makeup, Dustin Hoffman creates an excellent portrait of a man who's life has become a permanent nervous breakdown, talking to himself in the street, and hectoring the very people from whom he so desperately needs help. Kate Reid gives his wife Linda power and authority and a kind of bitter helplessness. She's aware of Willy's essential madness, but defends him anyway. John Malkovich is very, very good as Biff, a black sheep with a ruinous penchant for petty theft, who nevertheless is the only family member with a handle on the truth; his brother Hap has embraced his father's addiction to convenient lies.

The production design is mesmerizing, nothing less. The worn and paint-chipped Loman home is almost paid for, and seems naturalistic enough, until we realize that the bedroom walls are just partial flats, with equally artificial apartment walls crowding every side. The back yard has a crumbling fence with gaps through which we can see the graveyard of Willy's future. The smiles and youthfulness of the flashbacks don't hide the fact that Willy's success mania is already fully-developed; the stylization permits the reappearance of a long-departed brother, Ben (Louis Zorich), who seems to exist only as a projection of Willy's desires and regrets.

Naturally, the drama turns everything inward, to torment Willy, even as it shows that the solution to his problems could be easily attained, if his soul wasn't already eaten away by humiliation and misdirected pride. His neighbor Charley (Charles Durning) understands him the best, having forgiven his spiteful cheating at cards and his mistreatment of his son Bernard (David S. Chandler). Charley's eulogy is honest and understanding.

For a play that might seem to criticize the success society, Death of a Salesman forgets about indicting anything, and places the fault in the heart of the family, like a classic tragedy of old. Willy is no victim, he's a character with flaws, which he hands down to his sons. If the play or the show were any less fascinating, it would be terribly depressing. As it is, what happens to Loman and his family is riveting.

Linda Kozlowski, who had a short stretch of fame with the Crocodile Dundee pictures, has a small but sharp role. Kathy Rossetter also makes maximum impact as a 'buyer' Willy dallies with in the flashbacks.

Image's DVD of Death of a Salesman is very well done. The bright, colorful photography is splendidly captured, and Alex North's mournful score comes across nicely too. The show was shot on film, flat for televison, and it just looks great.

There's only one extra besides some stills, but it's a lulu. It's an intimate 90 minute docu shot on the set, with the cooperation and candid participation of the whole cast, but especially Miller, Schlöndorff, Hoffman and Malkovich. It's mostly Hoffman's show, as one can imagine with his, shall we say, expansive personality. He's very vocal, and thanks to an extremely well-handled camera, we get to see some major episodes in the production, even the reworking of a scene that looks as if it was directed by Hoffman. Malkovich also expresses some doubts that are convincing. Miller is on hand to keep things going straight, and the director shows the major talent a director needs - soft spoken patience and understanding. Nothing ruffles the guy. Among the VIP visitors to the set is Warren Beatty, who says only one word on camera - "Great."

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Death of a Salesman rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: docu: Private Conversations by Christian Blackwood
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 13, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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