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Review: All the King’s Men (1949)

All the King’s Men (1949)

Directed by: Robert Rossen

Premise: Rural Louisiana lawyer Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) rises from obscurity to become the most powerful political figure in the state. He begins earnestly trying to improve the lives of his fellow citizens but as his star rises Stark is corrupted by power.

What Works: Motion pictures produced during the Production Code era, which lasted from 1934 to 1968, were by necessity very tame. The Production Code, which strictly determined what content could be shown in Hollywood studio feature films, enforced a dualistic notion of morality. Films were generally expected to promote an uplifting vision of humanity in which good triumphed over evil; empathy with immoral characters was forbidden. That’s one of the reasons why 1949’s All the King’s Men is extraordinary. This is a film made at the height of the Production Code era that is a complex portrayal of people dealing with the ambiguities of morality and human nature. The film is primarily about the way in which individuals are compromised as they try to do good things and how power and privilege poison everyone and everything they come into contact with. This is shown primarily through Willie Stark. He begins as a fighter for social justice who is dedicated to improving the lives of the least fortunate people in his community but in the end he is absorbed by his own ambition, greed, and ego. There’s no clear point at which Stark becomes a bad person but by the end of the picture it is unequivocal that this is what he has become. Stark is played by Broderick Crawford and it is an impressive performance; his transformation over the course of the film is nuanced and even at his most corrupt and menacing Crawford retains a hint of humanity and even pitifulness. Part of what is complex about the character and the film is the way virtue and vice exist simultaneously. Even as he descends into corruption, Stark funds all sorts of public works projects that serve a public good and yet they are tinged by the impression that they were built to serve Stark’s vanity. The corruption extends to everyone else in the film. John Ireland stars as Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter turned assistant, and Mercedes McCambridge is cast as Sadie Burke, Stark’s communications coordinator. These characters try to do the right thing and negotiate with their conscience all the while their association with Stark drags them further into corruption.

What Doesn’t: The editing of All the King’s Men is frequently awkward. When using fade outs or dissolves, the transitions between scenes are often cued too soon in a way that upsets the rhythm of the action. The effect is similar to a song faded out too quickly or cut off at the second to last note. In a similar respect, the structure of All the King’s Men sometimes cuts around important moments. The film takes place over a long period of time and there are several montage sequences in which the movie glosses over major advancements in Willie Stark’s career. It’s an efficient storytelling technique because it allows the filmmakers to transition from one phase of the story to another. But montage necessitates skipping over the critical transformational moments in which a character has epiphanies or makes defining choices. These are often the best moments in a story but All the King’s Men frequently excludes them. But this film is most likely to encounter resistance from an audience due its cynicism. All the King’s Men suggests that power is inevitably corrupting. Every character in the picture is soiled by it in some way. And further, the picture suggests that the masses take what they see at face value and are easily deceived by a populist voice. How a viewer feels about All the King’s Men will probably depend upon how he or she feels about power, corruption, and the disposition of mankind.

DVD extras: The Screen Archives Entertainment edition includes an isolated score track and a trailer.

Bottom Line: All the King’s Men is a disconcerting film because of its bleak portrayal of humanity. But the film is also a fascinating watch because it is so nuanced. The hazards of political power have rarely been portrayed with this level of complexity.

Episode: #621 (November 13, 2016)