THE DVD SHELF: "All the King's Men" and "Seven Samurai"

News   THE DVD SHELF: "All the King's Men" and "Seven Samurai"
 
This month's column discusses Robert Rossen's powerful political drama "All the King's Men" and the spectacular new Criterion edition of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, "Seven Samurai."
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Columbia has seen fit to take its 2001 DVD transfer of All the King's Men and add an interview with James Gandolfini, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins; to peddle the imminent remake starring Sean Penn, James Gandolfini, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins; slap on a new cover photo; and send it out again. Thank you even so, as "All the King's Men" — Robert Rossen's 1949 original, that is — remains cracklingly good.

Robert Penn Warren took the tale of Louisiana governor Huey Long and crafted it into the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (also called "All the King's Men"). Warren knew of what he wrote, having been a professor at Louisiana State University during the Long era. Willie Stark is the name Warren gave his demagogue, and Stark is the character he devised. This Willie is one of those men who can get the people to do anything he says, a man who can achieve endless good but. . . well, you know what happens. Huey Long was one of the most powerful and most corrupt politicians this country has seen. By most accounts, he seems to have been even worse than Willie Stark; unlike Stark, Long left the governor's chair (in the hands of a lackey) and moved up to the U.S. Senate in 1932, where he was making inroads on a federal level before being gunned down on courthouse steps in 1935.

The film is presented in noir-ish style, in durable old black and white, and it remains riveting. You can place it somewhere between Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" and Elia Kazan's "Face in the Crowd," which is pretty good company to be in. ("All the King's Men" was the only one of the three to pick up the Oscar as Best Picture.) Rossen, who wrote and directed the film, didn't win either prize; by the time the film opened, he had already been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and was soon blacklisted out of the business. He later made a few more films, notably including "The Hustler" and "Lilith."

After a struggling start during which he is home-schooled by his school-mar'm wife, dirt-poor small-towner Willie Stark is nominated by the party bosses as a candidate for governor. At his lowest moment, he learns that he has been chosen as a sacrificial lamb, to siphon votes from the second runner. Willie comes alive with a magnificent speech confessing that he is a hick, and his supporters are hicks, and – well, fat cats better watch out for the hicks. It is at this same moment that Broderick Crawford, hitherto a low-rank heavy with a scary demeanor, comes alive in the performance that made him a star. Demeanor notwithstanding, Crawford was a Broadway type; his parents were musical comedy performers, who appeared together in such shows as Cole Porter's Fifty Million Frenchmen. (Helen Broderick was an excellent comedienne, best remembered as the comic foil in the Astaire-Rogers films "Top Hat" and "Swing Time.") Crawford gives a powerful and frightening performance, with his pugnacious bulk adding to the effect. He won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts, simultaneously nabbing the starring role in the following year's screen adaptation of "Born Yesterday." But his is not the only prime performance. Mercedes McCambridge, a radio actor affiliated with Welles' Mercury Theatre, made her film debut and nabbed a supporting Oscar; she is absolutely mesmerizing as Stark's political assistant. (This can well be described as the Jean Arthur role, except Rossen gave the character lacerating scars that sear out at us from the screen.) McCambridge is one of the few Oscar winners whose obituary was not headed by reference to said award; her headline came because she provided the voice of the demon in "The Exorcist" (and had to sue for credit).

John Ireland leads the rest of the cast in the role of the reporter-supporter who is ensnared by Willie. Joanne Dru plays the high-society gal who got away from Ireland and into Willie's bed. (On this viewing, I was struck by the way Rossen and his cinematographer literally illuminate Dru's face from the very moment her character meets Willie. She is spellbound, and you can see it emanate from the screen.) Broadway fans will notice two impassioned speeches from an uncredited actor playing an honest politician seeking Willie's impeachment; yes, that is the unmistakable voice of the fine light-comedian Paul Ford.

Here we have someone who doesn't much like cowboy-and-Indian westerns, or war movies, or even rah-rah underdog-misfits-win-the-big-game affairs. And I don't speak a word of Japanese, outside restaurants. So how is it that I eagerly look forward to yet another viewing of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai?

A village of peasant farmers, anticipating a visit by marauding brigands, hires a handful of Samurai warriors to protect them. The best the penniless farmers can afford are, needless to say, a broken down assortment of luckless misfits. It doesn't take a dramaturgical genius to guess precisely what happens. But out of this, Kurosawa creates one of the monumental works of art of the cinema. Kurosawa is to film as Mahler is to music; in no time at all, that minor matter of language seems inconsequential. The director tells his story with his camera and with his faces (or the faces of his actors, principals and extras alike). The three Hs — heart, humanity and humor — come across in a manner that will keep you returning to watch again and again.

Kurosawa, more than most directors, paints with actors; in his hands, they all seem expert. ("Seven Samurai" is awash with innovative filmmaking techniques, but that is — enjoyment-wise — beside the point.) Toshiro Mifune is unquestionably the star, as he was in Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and "Yojimbo." Mifune (1920-1997) was Japan's most famous actor, at least on the international level; and yes, the man is quite something. His Samurai comrades each give highly memorable performances, remarkably so considering that they are non-familiar faces (outside their native country) and they are — after all — speaking Japanese. Seiji Miyaguchi is perhaps my favorite, next to Mifune; he plays Kyuzo, the expert swordsman, although I can probably best describe him as the one who looks like a cross between Buster Keaton and Margaret Hamilton.

Criterion has given the film their grandest treatment, with a stunning transfer; while not filmed in widescreen, this is one film that you'll be glad to watch on a state-of-the-art widescreen TV. The two-DVD film is accompanied by a third disc, highlighted by the two-hour, 1993 Kurosawa interview "My Life in Cinema." Special features abound, with the accompanying booklet including appreciations by Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece among masterpieces is not a movie, really; it is an experience. Leave yourself a good three hours. "Seven Samurai" is to be savored.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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