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
While I admit that CITIZEN KANE portrays the corruption of power better than any motion picture ever made, let's also be fair, because any Hollywood movie will suffer when compared with it. A more appropriate comparison would be the recent docudrama of Huey Long, KINGFISH. While John Goodman is excellent as Long and the movie worthwhile, it reveals just how good a film ALL THE KING'S MEN is.
Of course, Robert Rossen's picture has a drab look. It should. It suggests the drab appearance of most U.S. states (anyone who has visited Kansas will know why Dorothy and L. Frank Baum wanted to go over the rainbow) and the use of common townsfolk rather than Hollywood extras adds to this look, as do the drab locations (check out something like the Marlon Brando movie THE CHASE, a movie that should have a drab look, but instead looks like a glossy Hollywood backlot). Thank God Columbia, a studio that loved locations because it had no back lot, financed this movie!
I wouldn't call this film realistic, but I've read the pulitzer prize winning novel, and I wouldn't call it realistic either. Every page brims with beautifully poetic language which the movie often incorporates and which Rossen makes sound more like natural conversation than it really is. Compared to the book, the film, I think, reveals its real weaknesses: it does simplify moral issues and also reduces some of the characters to the level of melodrama (Willie Stark, in the novel, resembles more someone like Andy Griffith's character in A FACE IN THE CROWD: a charming good ole boy you want to love, but who will knife you in the back the next minute). Broderick Crawford, with his Bronx accent, hardly suggests either a hayseed or, as he calls himself "a hick," but he has a bullying power that I think is brilliant for the role. Personally, I'm glad neither Spencer Tracy nor John Wayne (both of whom Rossen wanted) got the part.
And I think this movie holds up very well, even in our post-Watergate era of cynical politics: like the novel, it shows how the populist leader can easily be a tyrant. This message is not in CITIZEN KANE: the lofty Kane was never one of the people; he just wanted to be one of the people. Considering how much Hollywood in the era of Harry Truman embraced the populist sentiment with the films of John Ford and Frank Capra, considering that dictators like a Hitler and a Stalin like to present themselves as one of the people and enjoyed popular support, considering how much Americans love politicians who are charming rather than substantial, I'd say Rossen's film hasn't dated at all.
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