Plot: In the wake of the previous leader’s demise, a board of ad executives must vote in a successor and unable to vote for themselves, each devises a plot to ensure their rivals won’t be elected. If a vote is cast for token black board member Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), then their odds will increase, but what none of them planned on was how popular this idea would be. Now Swope has won in a landslide and before his fellow board members can react, he fires them all, brings in new talent, and renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc. He drops the alcohol, war toy, and cigarette accounts and encourages creative, even surreal pitches. The commercials are subversive and break all kinds of rules, but the ads are a hit and as such, new accounts line up with bags of cash to hire Truth and Soul. But can Swope keep this chaotic ad train on track or will he run it into the ground, just in a more spectacular fashion?
Entertainment Value: Putney Swope is certainly a product of its era, but that doesn’t mean it feels dated or has lost its impact, as the movie remains a sharp and creative social satire. The topics explored here remain relevant even decades later, especially race relations and consumer culture, so there’s still ample power left in the punches thrown by this picture. There is a central narrative, though it weaves in and out of the main path, taking us on side threads and sometimes just going off the rails, but there is a connective tissue throughout. Although the narrative is present, I think Putney Swope is more of an experience than traditional story driven movie, especially with how subversive and experimental it can be. I also think it is impressive that the film’s satire doesn’t lose focus or run out of gas, as it is able to keep the bite present, even as it moves between surreal moments. A lot of movies would nail a few skewers then lose progress, but that doesn’t happen here. The visuals are interesting and have an artistic texture, with most of the film in black & white, save for the mock commercials, which are shown in full color. I can imagine some will dislike the unusual approaches taken, but I think for those who appreciate experimental, artistic, and out of the box cinema, Putney Swope is a must.
The cast is in tune with the odd nature of the material, so we have a range of deadpan to over the top absurd, all in line with what is called for. Arnold Johnson has the titular lead role and his performance is a lot of fun to watch, though his voice is dubbed by Robert Downey, Sr. himself. I’ve read this was because Johnson would forget his lines and while the voice provided is off the wall at times, it isn’t a distraction. I do think it takes a few scenes to get used to it, as it doesn’t have a natural fit to Johnson’s persona, but given how surreal the rest of the movie is, it doesn’t stand out for long. Johnson anchors the movie well and brings great presence to his role. I also loved Antonio Fargas here, as he has some of the movie’s more interesting interactions with Johnson, as one of the few willing to criticize Swope’s approach. He has some memorable lines and his banter is a lot of fun. The cast also includes Allen Garfield, Joe Madden, Ramon Gordon, and Luise Heath.
The Disc: Vinegar Syndrome unleashes Putney Swope on Blu-ray in a new 4k restoration that has to be seen to be believed. The print is immaculate and looks pristine, it is hard to believe how clean the movie looks, to be honest. The visuals have a sharp, refined texture and the smallest little details pop up in this edition. The black & white scenes are crisp and well defined, while the color sequences are natural in scope, so across the board, this is a remarkable presentation. The extras include Robert Downey, Sr.’s director’s commentary track, two interviews with the director, an audio interview with cinematographer Gerald Cotts, a second commentary track with a film historian, an archive of promotional materials, a film festival Q&A session, and the film’s trailer. This is a lot of supplements and the insights from Downey, Sr. are invaluable, since the film was his vision and such a personal passion project.