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USA 1949
Directed by
Robert Rossen
1949 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

All The King's Men (1949)

It’s hard to believe that Robert Rossen's film won the 1949 Best Picture Oscar although no doubt it was its content rather than its execution that won it the award (Best Director went to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter To Three Wives which was also nominated for Best Picture).

Based on Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it is a trenchant condemnation of demagogic politics, something which is evidently much more a reality of the American experience than it is of ours in Australia (it was based in part on the real life antics of Huey Long who was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932).

Broderick Crawford, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his work, plays Willie Stark, an uneducated but smart hick who bridles against the local power machine who run his home county as if it were their personal property.. Word of his grass-roots campaign spreads and newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) is sent to write about the "only honest man running for office".  Jack, our erstwhile narrator, ends up on Stark’s payroll when four years later the now Machievelli-worthy Stark wins the governorship with a combination of backroom deals, rabble-rousing rhetoric and physical intimidation.  As a self-proclaimed man of the people he pushes through reforms but at the same yime gets further and further embroiled in the pursuit of power for power's sake and the corruption that goes with it in what is a kind of inversion of the Capraesque Depression-era fantasy of the little man triumphing over City Hall.

Whilst the themes are potent the film doesn’t cohere dramatically. This is particularly so in the case of Jack's sweetheart, well-bred Anne (Joanne Dru) who throws over Jack and her blue-ribbon upbringing and starts an affair with Willie. How this came to pass is never explained whilst equally, the cuckolded Jack simply rolls over and mysteriously keeps being Willie’s gimp. This is only the most flagrant example of the cursory attention paid to making the characters credible (Anne Seymour 's Lucy, Willie's wife is another character who simply appears and disappears on cue).

Broderick gives the performance of his career as an unsophisticated but cunning bully-boy duped by his own self-interest into a life of lies whilst Mercedes McCambridge, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, stands out as one of Willie’s inner circle. John Ireland however is a lack-lustre presence and the rest of the cast make little impression. Whilst the film may have much that resonates for an American audience, out of that context is a relatively crude affair.

FYI: Rossen was blacklisted by in 1951, named names in 1953, and went on to direct the Paul Newman classic, The Hustler (1961).  All The King's Men was re-made in 2006 with Sean Penn in the Crawford role.




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