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  • Post last modified:December 27, 2022

Death of a Salesman: Descent Into Madness


Fredric March and Mildred Dunnock. Photo: Columbia

The first screen adaptation of ”Death of a Salesman” made playwright Arthur Miller furious. Not only was he unhappy with how the filmmakers treated some of his best scenes, in his view robbing them of their emotional power. He also thought that Fredric March played Willy Loman like a madman, not as a victim. The worst part of it all? Columbia was afraid that the film might be perceived as anti-American, so they produced a short called Career of a Salesman, meant to be shown before the film in theaters. In it, a typical American salesman was shown as happy and successful.

Miller considered the short an affront to his work and demanded it be removed. Columbia eventually agreed to it. Death of a Salesman remains a dark story about unfulfilled ambition.

Always on Biff’s case
Aging Brooklyn salesman Willy Loman (March) comes home to his wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) one night. His business trip didn’t go so well and now he finds his two sons, Happy and Biff (Cameron Mitchell, Kevin McCarthy) temporarily staying at home. Happy is the younger brother; he has a job and is very committed to his womanizing, but Biff, who was once a high-school football star, has yet to find a good job. Willy is always on his case, seeing in Biff someone who can make the American dream come true. Biff, on the other hand, feels the pressure and resents it. There was also a moment many years ago, when as a child Biff realized that his father is a liar…

Slowly losing his mind
Miller’s most famous play, alongside ”The Crucible”, premiered on Broadway in 1949 and has become an immortal classic, inspired by an encounter that Miller had with his uncle, a salesman who seemed trapped by his own obsession with competition and success. To Miller, the uncle was an irresistible character for the stage. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to turn the play into a movie, but the fear of irritating the wrong people in this McCarthy era made Columbia not only decide to add that ridiculous short, but also to reject the actor who had originally played Willy Loman on stage, Lee J. Cobb. In 1951, Cobb was accused of being a Communist and so Columbia cast Fredric March instead.

It’s not a bad replacement. March knows how to command a screen and gives a powerful performance as Loman, even if I can see why Miller was displeased. It’s sort of the same reason why Stephen King was unhappy about Jack Nicholson as Danny Torrance in The Shining (1980); both Loman and Torrance are men who slowly lose their mind, but it happens too fast in both films for some people’s taste. Still, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of March and he blends well with the rest of the cast, most of whom are borrowed from the Broadway production, except for McCarthy who had played Biff in a London performance of the play; the movie became his Hollywood breakthrough and he’s magnificent.

Alex North wrote his music score for the Broadway production and its low-key nature fits just as nicely here.

Director László Benedek and his team created a claustrophobic set that fits this depressing drama well, using decidedly cinematic tricks to make Loman drift in and out of his memories, at times letting past and present mix in a way that makes us uncertain of the difference. Alex North wrote his music score for the Broadway production and its low-key nature fits just as nicely here.

Denial is a powerful force, driving one man into an early grave, and threatening to ruin his offspring as well. Miller may not have approved of this film version, and it hasn’t really become a major classic, but it is nevertheless gripping in its illustration of the emptiness that lurks behind fine words about exceptionalism. 

Death of a Salesman 1951-U.S. 115 min. B/W. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Directed by László Benedek. Screenplay: Stanley Roberts. Play: Arthur Miller. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Music: Alex North. Cast: Fredric March (Willy Loman), Mildred Dunnock (Linda Loman), Kevin McCarthy (Biff Loman), Cameron Mitchell, Howard Smith, Royal Beal. 

Trivia: The play has been filmed numerous times, including as a 1985 TV movie; in the 1966 TV adaptation, Cobb and Dunnock reunited for the lead roles.

Golden Globes: Best Director, Actor (March), Cinematography. Venice: Best Actor (March).

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