Director: Laszlo Bededek
The first we see of Willy Loman (Fredric March) in the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman is a close-up of him behind the wheel of his car at night as the credits roll. After he pulls into the rear yard of his Brooklyn house and gets out of the car, we can tell immediately from his slumped posture and unsteady gait as he walks to the back door that this is an exhausted man. By the time the picture has ended nearly two hours later, again with Willy behind the wheel of his car, this time driving away from his house for the last time, we know in detail the reasons for his exhaustion. And we know that his exhaustion is not just physical, but also mental and spiritual.
The film is based, of course, on the play by Arthur Miller, one of the great works of the American theater. Directed by Miller's close friend Elia Kazan, it opened in New York in 1949, ran for 742 performances, and collected just about every major award, including a slew of Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like so many of the great, enduring plays, it examines in almost microscopic detail the inner workings of a family, probing under the seemingly placid and conventional surface to reveal the turbulent emotions and unacknowledged deceptions that lie beneath.
The Loman family consists of 63-year old Willy, his wife Linda, and their two grown sons, Happy and Biff. When Willy pulls into the driveway at the beginning, he is not coming back from an out-of-town selling trip, but has abruptly aborted the trip after barely leaving town and returned home because he can no longer bear the strain of his job as a commercial traveler. When he arrives, he finds that his estranged 34-year old son Biff has returned for a visit and that his other son Happy, a salesman himself, has come to spend the night to make the occasion a real family reunion. But far from uniting the family, what happens over the next twenty-four hours rips it apart.
The crucial relationship is the one between Willy and Biff (Kevin McCarthy). During the course of the film, we learn that as a teenager Biff had been a promising high school football player with offers of a sports scholarship from several universities. Willy invested all his hopes for the future in Biff, but something happened that derailed Biff's plans. Far from becoming the great success his family expected him to be, Biff is a rootless drifter who has never married and has held only a long succession of menial jobs. Biff and Willy rarely see each other and when they do, they invariably end up fighting, with Willy deriding his son's lack of ambition and wasted potential, and Biff resenting his father's disapproval and attempts to run his life.
This time their reunion is further complicated by Willy's deteriorating physical and mental condition. Willy is, in a word, cracking up. He talks loudly to himself, relives scenes from the past, and repeatedly slips into reveries in which he sees his life more and more as one of disappointment, failure, and regret. Willy's present and future have become obscured by his preoccupation with past mistakes and missed opportunities. When the big revelation of the film comes—that the reason for Biff's failure is his accidental discovery of a shameful secret Willy kept from his family, a discovery that destroyed Biff's image of his father and poisoned their relationship permanently—Willy is forced to confront his own responsibility for what he sees as his son's failure in life, and the pain and guilt of finally admitting something he has so thoroughly repressed for so long both liberates and destroys him.
As moving as Death of a Salesman is as a human and family drama, it is at the same time a powerful indictment of American values, a scathing work that strips bare the American dream that success is within the reach of everyone and exposes it as a myth. At the age of sixty-three, Willy is no longer up to the demands of being a commercial traveler working on commission, and he finds that the buyers and other salesmen with whom he has developed a rapport over the years have either died or moved on. The founder of his company who had years before promised him an office job in New York also has died. When in desperation Willy goes to see the son who now runs the business to get the promised job—his wife Linda has finally convinced him that this is the only way he can continue working—he is treated condescendingly, ignored, and finally fired after being told that he has nothing to contribute to the profitability of the company.
Willy has lived his entire life with faith in the great American belief that hard work and a positive attitude will be rewarded with success. In one humiliating encounter that belief is exposed as a fiction and collapses before his eyes. He finds himself in a business world where profits are more important than people, where productivity is more important than loyalty, where feelings and promises have no importance at all. As he nears the age of retirement, he suddenly finds that the rules of the game, rules he has observed all his life, have been arbitrarily and irrevocably changed. He has been pushed aside, too set in his ways to adapt and too far behind to catch up. This is surely a theme that evokes a powerful response even today, perhaps especially today. Was Arthur Miller prophetic, or are these things cyclical? Or is this sensation of being out of sync with the times universal, something everyone is destined to experience with age?
Willy Loman is a middle-class American Everyman so disoriented by circumstances he can't comprehend, much less control, that he has been driven to the verge of madness. He's one of the great tragic figures of drama, maybe the closest any American playwright has come to creating a character with the scope and resonance of a Hamlet or Lear. It takes an exceptionally skilled actor like Fredric March to capture all the nuances of Willy Loman and elicit the feelings of pity and fear that are the essence of tragedy. In less capable hands Willy could come off as pathetic or even demented, something March avoids in his expertly calibrated performance. There is a fine line between pity and sentimentality and between being haunted by past errors and being mad. March treads that line without misstep, showing us how Willy has fallen because of a convergence of internal and external forces—his own moral shortcomings and his mistaken trust in a system that was bound to fail him.
Throughout his long career, Fredric March divided his time between movies and theater. He was offered the part of Willy Loman in the original stage production of Death of a Salesman but turned it down. So it shouldn't be surprising that he grasps the part of Willy in the movie version with such intensity. It's one of the finest performances of his movie career and got him an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe, and the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. The film version of Death of a Salesman has much to recommend it—imaginative transitions between the present and the past and between external reality and inner reality, creative use of light and shadow by cinematographer Frank (Franz) Planer, uniformly excellent supporting performances, especially by Mildred Dunnock as Linda. But at the center of any version of Death of a Salesman is Willy Loman; from him everything else flows. It is appropriate then that Fredric March's unforgettable portrayal of Willy is the engine that drives this film.
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This post, while not officially part of the March-in-March event at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence honoring Fredric March, was inspired by that event. Visit Sittin' on a Backyard Fence to read more about Fredric March and his work.