All the King’s Men (1949)
Release Date: November 8th, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Rossen Actors: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek, Mercedes McCambridge, Shepperd Strudwick, Ralph Dumke, Anne Seymour, Raymond Greenleaf, Walter Burke
he Chronicle newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) is due for a vacation so that he can properly wed socialite sweetheart Miss Ann Stanton (Joanne Dru). But his editor sends him up to Kanoma County (in an unnamed Southern state) to check in on the courthouse, where politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is running for treasurer. But what makes Stark such a hot subject? “They say he’s an honest man.”
When Burden finds Stark, he’s peacefully speaking to a crowd of potential voters. But the county commissioners, who are opposed to Stark’s campaign, are corrupt through and through, comfortable with their continuous stealing from the public’s coffers. With the sheriff in his pocket, leader Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke) creates random ordinances to stifle free speech, to break up the onlookers, and even to prevent Stark’s assistant and son (John Derek as Tommy Stark) from passing out pamphlets.
“I’m gonna run even if I don’t get a single vote!” Right from the start, the bullying and the political oppression are incredibly heavy-handed. It’s infuriating, as it’s intended to be, but with such a lack of subtlety, the realism is somewhat distant, even if this reflects actual practices. When Jack’s stepfather shares similar views to Duffy, remaining content with his position as a wealthy bureaucrat, and when Ann prods Jack to achieve a job of importance, the story becomes even more typical of those that focus on politically affluent crooks pushing down the little guy.
With notes of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Citizen Kane,” “On the Waterfront” (which would be released several years later), and, of course, some of the key ideas utilized in “All the President’s Men,” “All the King’s Men” is, ultimately, about the rise and fall of a stereotypical politician. While examining the prevalence of shady business in government, the film also focuses on Stark’s steady acknowledgement of the situation (the futility of change against the well-oiled machine of corrupt politics) and his adoption of the very same methods. In time, Willie even has his former enemies – like Duffy – in his employ.
“You throw money around like it was money.” Based on the Pulitzer Prize novel by Robert Penn Warren, Crawford’s Stark is the original anger-spewing speaker of the people, long before Peter Finch won an Oscar for his vociferous tirades in “Network.” Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke is also an exceptional turn – a cynical, severe, bitter but very intelligent campaign assistant and mistress (and an uncommonly authentic, average human character, virtually never seen in ‘40s cinema). Though the performances are outstanding (the voiceover narration gives the picture a hint of a film noir vibe), and the deterioration of morals a poignant study (Stark has a way of dragging everyone down with him), the story plays out with a certain predictability. There are few surprises here, particularly as Stark’s son becomes depressed, acts out, gets in a drunk-driving wreck, and then feels guilty over the ensuing cover-up; when bribery becomes second nature to Stark, who lies about his collusions almost simultaneously as they’re taking place; and when Sadie reveals Willie’s philandering. Even when the idea of murder for political gain arises, it’s not unexpected.
If the end result is good, isn’t that worth any price? As the characters attempt to convince themselves that they’ve sacrificed less of their morals than everyone else, the mood grows progressively more sullen. This isn’t a tale of overcoming odds and beating evil; redemption is a far-off concept. Here, the protagonists devolve into antagonists, until there’s no one left to be the hero, while the inevitability of the abuse of power is matter-of-factly demonstrated. The film does, however, superbly scrutinize an endlessly relevant subject.
– Mike Massie