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Death Of A Salesman [DVD] 
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Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Arthur Miller's modern classic. Travelling salesman Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman) has struggled his whole life to win success for his family. Yet in reality, despite Willy's illusions, the Loman clan are falling apart at the seams, with eldest son Biff (John Malkovich) having grown distant from his father due to an incident in the past, and younger son Happy (Stephen Lang) becoming increasingly careless and cynical. When he is fired from his job and forced to live on handouts from a friend, Willy considers the failure of his professional and personal life, and begins to think of a way out.
German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff's 1985 production of Arthur Miller's most famous play Death of a Salesman appeared squarely and quite hauntingly in the middle of the go-go economy of the Reagan-Bush years. Miller's story, set during the post-war boom period of the late 1940s, concerns an ageing travelling salesman named Willy Loman (Dustin Hoffman), who despairs that his life his been lived in vain. Facing dispensability and insignificance in a heated, youthful economy, Willy is not ready to part with his cherished fantasies of an America that loves and admires him for personable triumphs in the marketplace. But the reality is far more pitiable than that, and the measure of Willy's self-delusion and contradictions is found in his two sons, one (Stephen Lang) a ne'er-do-well gliding on inherited hot air and repressed feelings, and the other (John Malkovich) a mousy, retiring sort unable to reconcile--or forgive--the difference between his father's desperate impersonation of success and the truth. Schlöndorff's remarkable cast explores Miller's rich subtext to great effect, though Hoffman--despite giving us a new model of Willy to contrast with Lee J Cobb's definitive portrayal a generation before--is a bit insect-like and shrill in his approach. Malkovich, Lang, and Kate Reid (as Willy's long-suffering wife) are perfect, however, and the production is atmospheric and strong. --Tom Keogh, Amazon.com --This text refers to the Blu-ray edition.
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Dustin Hoffman stars as Willy Loman. This is not really a good thing. The attention of the entire movie seems to be focused almost exclusively on Hoffman. Having read the play I noticed that there are some large cuts in dialogue, however Willy Loman's dialogue remains almost entirely intact. It is Biff who suffers the largest cuts, removing some of the most touching and delicate lines of the play, as he explains the draw of the country, and his constant springtime returns to Brooklyn. Biff's roundedness as a character suffers from these unnecessary cuts. I cannot believe they were to keep the running time down, but more to do with the irresistible performance of one John Malkovich in an early screen role.
Even in scenes where he does not appear, or takes no direct part in the action, Hoffman's presence is forced upon us. As Biff, or Happy or Linda deliver important lines, Hoffman suddenly laughs or shouts off-screen, reducing the impact of the other actors. In one glaring addition, as Biff explains his ill fated business meeting to Happy, Willy knocks on the restaurant window, destroying the rhythm and effect of the speech.
One wonders how much power Hoffman yielded off screen and this is revealed in the special feature making of documentary "Private Conversations," but more of that later.
Hoffman's Willy Loman is an unsympathetic character, tetchy, screeching and staccato. The human equivalent of fingernails down a blackboard. John Malkovich's Biff is a far more accomplished piece. Subtle, brooding and understated, with the perfect balance of fear and anger.
The strange sets are however confusing. It is as if the director was trying to escape from the stage roots of the play, but didn't want or couldn't afford to use real locations. The end is some kind of hybrid unreality, which may be trying to represent Willy's state of mind, but sadly just looks like a cheap set.
The Making of documentary "Private conversations" reveals the source of many of the problems with the film, and I lay it firmly at the feet of Mr. Hoffman. He appears to ride roughshod over the director Volker Schlondorff when it suits him, insisting that things are done his way. He is seen openly criticising the executives making the film and constantly harping on that "for eighteen months on Broadway I did it this way." He even has a scene rewritten in the presence of Arthur Miller because he doesn't like it!
The play is and will remain a classic. There are some fine performances and ideas in this version, but sadly the whole thing comes across as a rather overblown ego-trip.
Hoffman is excellent, as is Malkovich and indeed everyone else. Like all great plays this is open to different interpretive treatments. For me, this version places too much of the blame on Willie's personal failings and insufficient on the way that society is organised. However, that's why art at the level that Miller practised it bears repeated revisiting; because there is always something else to be learnt from it.
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