The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - PUTNEY SWOPE | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - PUTNEY SWOPE

putney swope review
An African-American man becomes the unlikely chairman of an advertising firm.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Robert Downey Sr.

Starring: Arnold Johnson, Stan Gottlieb, Allen Garfield, Archie Russell, Ramon Godon, Bert Lawrence

putney swope bluray

Making its blu-ray debut in the UK, Putney Swope belongs in that cadre of films that catch a moment of history while being part of the time depicted. The interesting thing regarding this phenomenon is that in becoming the hip must see film of the day, its inbuilt obsolescence is assured. Putney Swope falls victim to this with regards to outdated comedy and sexual stereotypes but still manages to hit some nerves as racism doesn’t seem to have gone out of fashion.

putney swope review

If you pitched the synopsis today there would still be a ring of truth to it as Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) becomes the executive at a Madison Avenue ad agency when the chairman unexpectedly dies. Not because he is the hot new deal in town but because in a board vote where no one can back themselves they all vote for Putney, assured that the rest wouldn’t be so reckless as to hire a black man for the top job.

In a studio's hands you can see this being turned into a farcical but benign vehicle for Eddie Murphy, but in the more radical hands of Iron Man's dad you get a more spiky but problematic beast. Upon taking power, Pitney kicks out most of the white members and radicalises and renames the agency as 'Truth and Soul'. Full of Black Panther revolutionary zeal with a whiff of hashish, things are about to get real. What follows is less a call to arms screed and more a scattershot satire from the pages of MAD magazine. Full of skits and non sequitur ad interludes, it definitely strives for wacky. This structure may be problematic to some as these magazines, outside of certain circles, never really travelled to the UK.

putney swope review

The film has a strong reach, being sampled by De La Soul and also inspiring some of the scenes in Boogie Nights (particularly one character playing with firecrackers), but Downey seems like he's dipping his toe in radicalism and black power rather than having any really investment in it. You just can’t imagine a white director being allowed to make this film anymore and if they did, they would certainly have to answer a few questions. Why Downey’s decided to overdub Johnson, who apparently struggled to remember his lines, is the most important one.

Less a narrative and more a series of interlinked skits, this has the free form feeling of a drug induced writers’ session which has the good (a spot cream advert) and the bad (an execrable running gag with the President and First Lady both played by dwarf actors - just to make things worse, brother and sister in real life) that are involved in shady financial dealings and putative threesomes.

putney swope review

What Downey does do is skewer bureaucracy with a running gag involving the use of an elevator, the corruption that occurs when in power, the cult of personality (Swope in essence becomes a messianic figure) and the way the upper echelons will always try to poison any attempt to forge a utopia. It’s a deeply dyspeptic film shot in black and white with ad interludes in vibrant colour to make the fantasy world of consumerism that little bit brighter.

A flawed film, but as a work of historic note very much worthy of a visit. It can be both incisive and puerile. Bitingly satirical and childishly naïve. You also get Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas) in his screen debut if that helps seal the deal.

Two commentaries – one from Robert Downey Snr and another with film critic Sergo Mimms. A short interview with the director that repeats the anecdotes in the commentary. There are also two audio only extras with Downey; again there may be a lot of overlap with the well worn tales but as he is no longer with us it is understandable and as he makes good company a good story is always worth hearing again. The other audio extra is with cinematographer Gerald Cotts. Add a Trailers from Hell, image and promotion work, and you have the usual high Powerhouse standard. For contemporary contextualisation you will need to watch the Sergio Mimms commentary.
As always the limited edition comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Christina Newland, archival interviews and an overview of contemporary critical responses.

Putney Swope is on UK blu-ray form Powerhouse Indicator now.