All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Wow, well, this was exhausting. I would say I was disappointed with this film — the typical cinephile line on it is that it’s one of the more prescient and cynical Oscar big-winners — but I’m not totally convinced that’s what I’m feeling. But one thing I can say for sure: it made me want to read the book, Robert Penn Warren’s scathing Pulitzer novel, because it seems to me that the bare skeleton of a story that’s rapidly run through in Robert Rossen’s fragmented film adaptation might be compelling and revealing in print. You can sense something ferocious behind the events and dialogue in the very busy, boiling-over narrative here, but it moves so fast and keeps so little time for detail that after seeing it, you don’t really feel as if you’ve seen it. It’s like watching a lengthy trailer, perhaps for an epic miniseries, or more pertinently, for the book itself.
The hard-boiled political thriller is about the corruption of a small-town politician, Willie Stark, who thumbs his way to the top by appealing as a populist to the base impulses and needs of rural voters, then has transformed into what amounts to a crime boss by the time he becomes Governor, operating on the principle that there’s nothing that cannot be bought. The rapid escalation of both his power and his darkness — a shot at the climax of armed men resembling SS surrounding him as he leaves a courthouse is genuinely chilling — is classic American parable, of course, not unlike Citizen Kane. But there’s an important difference: Charles Foster Kane, asshole though he could be, was a sympathetic character, or at least was made to be a human one. In All the King’s Men, Stark’s shown for the first twenty minutes as a good-hearted and docile figure in a happy family life who’d just goshdarnit love to try and make a difference for those around him. The hollowness of this — which, to the film’s credit, is later explicitly undercut — notwithstanding, after Stark loses a local election we (along with protagonist Jack Burden, played gamely if blandly by John Ireland but suffering from the disagreeable problem of a side character being used as the “hero”) leave his side for several years. By the time we rejoin him, he’s on his way to being a nutter and an egomaniac, the town having come to his defense after he correctly predicted the tragic consequences of the low upkeep on a dilapidated schoolhouse. Stark goes off the deep end so fast after that, it’s hard to ever get a handle on what’s happening in the film or why.
Broderick Crawford is impressively multifaceted and believably crazed in the major role here, and he does little to hide the story’s inspiration. Huey Long, unmistakably, was the Hearst to Stark’s Kane, and Long’s blistering four years in power (three more as Senator) — the implications of which still emanate in politics today — are echoed in the fast-moving, fast-talking architecture of Crawford’s performance. But there are also many echoes, deliberate or not, of Kane here, and echoing Kane does no film any favors — no scene of political-scandal confrontation can exist without being compared to Mrs. Kane’s introduction to Susan Alexander, for instance, and the analogous moment here pales. But thanks to the game efforts of the cast, there’s certainly a desire to see more, to investigate further — we just aren’t given time to ponder what’s really going on, and far too little detail for that pattern to retain us. It’s intriguing, and little beyond that.
Among the rest of the cast, meanwhile, Mercedes McCambridge is the standout as an enthused political adviser who achieves as much chemistry as she can with those around her in her limited screen time; regardless, she makes a major impression and seems legitimately to live inside the world of this character, for whom everything is professional yet everything is equally and simultaneously personal. The Academy Awards for McCambridge and Crawford were both well-deserved. The same can’t really be said for Rossen’s film itself, but he does his best, and more than most Hollywood films of the period (Frank Capra’s aside), there is the certain sense that we’re watching something like real life unfold, and with the raised power lines, distant vistas, and throngs of people disenfranchised from postwar progress, he captures America in transition, but this seems merely illustrative of things already established in Warren’s text. The film just isn’t particularly cinematic; if anything, it predicts — forty years ahead — the rapid-fire, dispassionate flood of information of 24-hour news.
Rossen and Warren would likely have had a field day with the nature of politics now and their relationship with journalism in the media, and I suspect neither of them would have been surprised, not least by the near-extinction of American society’s long-term memory. Their cynicism is never marked by any derision toward the masses who flock to Willie Stark’s speeches; we can see in the way their faces are shown that Rossen is on their side. To a degree, that’s what makes the film somewhat maddening — there is such compassion somewhere in it and such energy in its illumination of a manipulative figure like Stark. But that healthy skepticism and populist whistle-blowing is mannered too much by distance from the material, which is an inevitable byproduct of biting off too much. Either the film needed to be longer or it needed to make far more cuts in its narrative thrust. At a certain point, we learn that McCambridge’s Sadie Burke has been sleeping with Stark, out of nowhere, but it’s approached as if we were already aware! And later, Jack Burden’s rich girl pal starts an affair with him too, but we’re so far afield of the lives of those two that we find it hard to muster up much feeling about it either way.
Something else that gets muddled up is the contradiction inherent in Stark’s platform, which should well have been the narrative focus the picture was hung on. A modern reading of a similar idea would be Dogville, which approaches the inclination of a frustrated but privileged woman toward (slightly condescending) compassion toward the poor but finally closes with her gaining of massive power which she immediately lays down hard on the Little People and her own old principles, which have now been tested by the darkest forces of human nature. [2019 addition: note also the Viridiana analogy here.] She’s corrupted, in other words, but so are we, and all to the effect that the real problems of poverty and isolation get lost somewhere along with the empathy that should be helping us survive with each other but never seems a concern in revenge or politics. In Stark’s world, the ends justify the means; he will take money from anyone for any reason to build a hospital and say he’s for the poor. Is this true altruism? Is it mere manipulation? A pity we’re not permitted to know or to even speculate before he’s shot to death. But that’s life, isn’t it?