During the post-war boom period of the late '40s, Willy Loman is an aging, traveling salesman, who despairs that his life his been lived in vain. Facing dispensability and insignificance in a heated, youthful economy, Willy is not ready to part with his cherished fantasies of an America that admires him for personable triumphs in the marketplace. But the reality is far more difficult than that, and the measure of Willy's self-delusion and contradictions is found in his two sons. One, Harold, is a ne'er-do-well gliding on inherited hot air and repressed feelings, and the other, Biff, a mousy, retiring sort unable to reconcile the difference between his father's desperate impersonation of success and the truth.
Ambition is one of the key tools to success. We tend to admire anyone with ambition without questioning them. But left unchecked and unquestioned, ambition can be a dangerous thing. You can forget what is important in life if you never know when to throw in the cards. Much of this can be said for our lead character in ‘Death of A Salesman’ William “Willy” Loman (Dustin Hoffman).
Now, as we all know ‘Death of A Salesman” has always been in some form of production on The Great White Way for as long as we can remember. But what you might not have known is the original play was written by a man named Arthur Miller in 1949, which makes this play sixty-seven years old. The version that I will be reviewing today is a faithful made-for-TV adaptation of the popular play which premiered on CBS in August of 1985. From the beginning, the set design and the narrative is designed to emulate the play. To say William Loman is a washed-up salesman beyond his prime is an understatement. It is also implied that he never reached his full potential to begin with. William is a sad, tragic character who can barely afford a roof over his family's head, yet he continually has delusions of grandeur and projects the image of a younger man still on the rise. But deep inside, William has enough skeletons to fill an entire closet. He is abusive and dismissive toward his supportive wife Linda (Kate Reid), and estranged from his favorite son Biff, played in a hilarious career turn by John Malkovich as a high school football star.
Performances are excellent all around, with Hoffman being a stand out. William is a vain and pathetic character who rants and raves about how he has gotten a raw deal in life, yet Hoffman plays the character with such charm and a kind of nervous energy that you can't help but have a certain amount of empathy for the sad and pitiful man. What helps engender that empathy is the fact that he has gotten senile in his old age and slips into memories of the past when he and Biff had a better relationship. In those hallucinations, William lived vicariously through his high school football star son, and doted on him when he should have been hard on Biff, who is now all grown up and on the wrong path in life. William is definitely directly responsible for his broken home life, but Hoffman is so endearing as he slips in and out of consciousness that it is painful to see him in such a pathetic state. As the movie goes on, you actually see the opportunities he has either squandered or turned down out of pride, and you want to slap him and wake him up so he realizes the error of his ways.
Watching ‘Death of A Salesman’ is an engrossing but heartbreaking experience. You see how this family could have taken a turn for the better if William would just let go of dead dreams and followed a different path. But Pride is this man’s downfall, and he will never let go of his pipe dream and go down another road in life. As an aspiring writer/podcaster myself I can relate with being a man that has life aspirations and a drive in life that I can't even explain. But the difference is, I would never let my family fall by the wayside while I chase a dream that ultimately could never happen. This film is too long and cutting a good half hour out of it would make the narrative tighter. But beyond that, this is a captivating portrait of a tragic man who let his pride get in the way of his family.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings ‘Death of a Salesman’ with a standard hardcover case that opens up to reveal a single layer BD-25. Behind that is an interesting poster for the film that spans the whole length of the case. Interestingly enough, for a Shout! Factory title there are no trailers before the main menu.
‘Death of A Salesman’ broke my heart on Blu-ray with a 1080P MPEG-4 AVC encode that is just not up to par on pretty much every level. I realize that this was a made for television production over thirty years ago, but this barely feels like a High Definition transfer. Framed at its original 1:33.1 aspect ratio, this might be the single softest transfer I have ever seen on this platform. Hoffman has a great amount of prosthetic makeup to give the impression that he is a lot older than he was at the time, and though it could possibly reveal flaws in the makeup, I want to see all that detail, and you absolutely can't here.
The entire color palette feels very muted, even for a transfer of a film that is over thirty years old. The entire film is staged to give you the sense that you are watching a literal play on screen and I want to see these sets come to life in my home. But instead, I am always kept at a distance because these sets are so drained of lifelike color. Film grain is extraordinarily heavy and prevalent here. Black and white levels fare just fine and are the best part of the transfer. I didn't come into this expecting greatness, but what I got was a transfer that just barely felt like a step up from what you would see on a run-of-the-mill DVD transfer, and that is a huge problem. A great film like this deserves much better.
‘Death of A Salesman’ charms its way onto Blu-ray with a mix that is exactly what I would expect from a made for television movie of this age. We don't get a flashy 7.1 mix, or Atmos mix, but that would be a little ridiculous for a production of this stature, and as much as I might have enjoyed at least a 5.1 track, this DTS-HD MA mono track does the job just fine.
Dialogue is crisp, audible, and at such a generous volume that I found myself turning down the volume a few notches. Which is something I can't say for some of Criterion’s 2.0 mixes they had a few years ago, so saying that about this mix is actually quite a high compliment. But like any mono mix, there are a few drawbacks. The big one is lack of immersion. Much of this film takes place inside the Loman home and other interior locations, which is perfectly fine for a mono mix. But when you step outside and William starts his hallucinations, I felt like those scenes would have had more of an impact in beautiful 5.1 surround. With the assistance of cars whizzing by and birds chirping in your surrounds, I feel like in those moments I was kept at a distance. Some tracks aren't designed to wow the audience. They are just there to lightly service the film itself. This is that mix. A plain old vanilla sound mix that is serviceable.
Private Conversations (1:21:19 SD)- If you are only going to have only one special feature on your Blu-ray this is how you do it. This is an in depth look at how the cast and crew related with the story and why they chose to adapt such a well-known play as ‘Death of a Salesman.’ The 80s marked a significant change in our culture, specifically business, and it is interesting to reflect and look back at how salesmen once conducted their business, and the impact it had on them and their home lives. There is almost no narration that guides us through except for small bits of Hoffman’s silhouette giving us reasons why this project was so important to him. His father was actually a salesman and he thought a lot about his father the same way as William is portrayed here. This is an expertly crafted documentary that should be used as a template for other film docs to come.
It amazed me that a television production in the 80s could get an actor such as Dustin Hoffman. Then to find out he was one of the driving forces behind this production, and how personal it was for him, is truly motivating to anyone who admires the art of filmmaking such as myself. Then to see that passion all over the screen in his performance is inspiring and tragic at the same time. It broke my heart to see such a charismatic man just not get what life is truly about and have his entire family suffer because of it. I think the most devastating thing about the movie and the play is the fact that William has reached the point of no return before the first frame of the film. He’s too old to change, and that impending doom looms heavy over this tragic story. The creators and Hoffman won three Golden Globe awards in 1985 and deserved every single one of them. Unfortunately, just as tragic as the film itself is its video/audio transfer. It is a shame that a company the likes of Shout! Factory (a company that I usually praise for putting out stellar Blu-ray’s) didn't put more effort into this Blu-ray as it is detrimental to the overall experience.