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Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter who first hears of Willie Stark when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to cover the man. What's special about this nobody running for county treasurer? He's supposedly an honest man. Burden discovers this to be true when he sees Stark delivering a speech and having his son pass out handbills, while the local politicians do their best to intimidate him. Willie Stark is honest and brave. He's also a know-nothing hick whose schoolteacher wife has given him what little education he has. Stark loses the race for treasurer, but later makes his way through law school, becoming an idealistic attorney who fights for what is good. Someone in the governor's employ remembers Stark when the governor needs a patsy to run against him and split the vote of his rival. The fat cats underestimate Stark; but Jack Burden, Stark's biggest supporter, overestimates the man's idealism. To get where he wants to go, Willie Stark is willing to crack a few eggs - which ... Written by
There are lots of movies about the rise of some obscure person into the celebrity life, and the person turns out to be an ambitious and unscrupulous phony. Some of them are pretty good -- "Citizen Kane," "All About Eve." Some are mediocre -- "Keeper of the Flame." This is one of the best.
The acting honors generally go to Broderick Crawford and he's not bad. He's rather like a switch who can toggle either into thoughtful candor or blustering Hickhood. (He used the latter persona to good effect as a New Jersey junk man later.) He also had a third position, the incredibly dumb goof, which he never used after becoming a serious actor, but see, "Larceny, Incorporated" for an example of what I mean.
If there's a problem with the script it's not his fault, although it involves his character. Hung over, still a bit drunk, Crawford steps on stage and instead of his usual boring "tax" speech he gives a redneck-rousing go-getter. And he never changes after that. Rather too quick a transition.
The direction is very good. There's a scene in which Mercedes McCambridge enters the hotel room in which John Ireland has been cooped up for four days in a depressed state. "Whew, lots of smoke," she says. "And lots of whiskey." The scene is almost perfectly staged, with Ireland crumpled on the bed in the foreground and reaching for his liquor out of the frame, while McCambridge busies herself emptying ash trays in the background and staring at her face in the mirror. "Smallpox," she says. (She's not nearly as attractive as Crawford's new girl friend, JoAnne Dru, nee Joanne Letitia LaCock, a name that could have come straight out of Andy Warhol's Factory.) Everyone's acting is quite up to par. It's John Ireland's best role. He was never Hollwyood-handsome with those squished up eyes, that deep hole between them, and that protruding nose beneath.
But the honors really should go to Mercedes McCambridge. Robert Rossen, the director, allows her a few seconds here and there to be unique. When Ireland slaps her face hard, she doesn't cry. She replies with a mixture of contempt and not entirely displeased surprise at having provoked him to violence. And that little speech about smallpox as she compares her face in the mirror to the glamorized portrait of Joanne Dru.
I won't go on, I don't think. If you haven't seen this, you really ought to. So should everyone inside the Beltway. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's been attributed so often to Lord Acton that I'm beginning to believe he said it.
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