I didn’t deliberately set out to pick an especially timely and thought-provoking movie to kick off my project — in fact, I’d been sitting on this one for a couple of weeks now. But it was a happy accident. According to Netflix, the main character, Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford) is “a model politician — until he’s corrupted by the very system he tries to reform.” Scandalous! Except I don’t think it’s very accurate. I haven’t read the Robert Penn Warren novel so I don’t know how he comes across in it; but in the movie, Willie Stark changes very little over the course of his meteoric career. Instead of the usual dewy-eyed-idealist-turned-jaded-cynic arc, Willie starts out honest but basically amoral. He never hesitates to use questionable means to achieve his goals, which interestingly remain noble throughout the course of the movie. In fact, the real tragedy of the movie is not the downfall of Willie himself but that of everyone around him, especially Jack Burden, the hunky reporter who narrates the story. Jack and his girlfriend (played by the rather obnoxious Joanne Dru, who clearly thought of that oh-no-it’s-all-too-much head toss as HER thing) both believe in Willie in the beginning and get chewed up and spat out by the political machine.
So I give it four out of five stars. Good story, good directing (I’d never heard of Robert Rossen but he did a nice job), and I always like an old movie where they weave in something that shouldn’t have made it past the censors (in this case, Willie’s multiple affairs). I knocked off a star only because the two female leads chewed the scenery a bit* and because the Willie’s-rise-to-power montages show him flanked by FLAMING TORCHES. Hmm, wait, are you trying to say something about his temperament? No, not quite getting it, the symbolism is way too vague.
*the other one, Mercedes McCambridge, voiced the possessed little girl in The Exorcist! Neat!