Dir. by Robert Downey Sr. - 1 hr. 24 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I almost feel like I don't know where to start with this one. One problem with satire is that when you use a timely subject to mock, it can lose relevance over time. "Putney Swope" doesn't have that problem. If anything, the heartlessness, emptiness and ubiquity of the advertising world has increased since 1969. There were some things that went over my head (particularly with the character Swope's behavior), but there was also a lot that remained sharp, funny, and topical.
The movie is set in a standard advertising agency, where the boss keels over dead mid-rant in the board room. The other board members lay out the body on the conference table, steal his wallet and jewelry (and contemplate stealing his cuff links), and then set out to determine who will be the new chairman. According to the rules, no one can vote for themselves. Composer Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) gets the bulk of the votes - as it turns out, everyone voted for him because they collectively figured that no one else would vote for him. I'd be remiss in not pointing out that Swope is an African-American; a constant source of humor is the idea of Swope taking over a previously whitey-led company in a white land. Swope cleans house, renames the agency "Truth and Soul, Inc.," and sets about ushering in a new style of advertising (and business practices: the cost of an ad is a cool million, in cash). There is constant conflict with those around him, partly based on Swope's refusal to make ads for cigarettes, liquor, or war toys, partly because President Mimeo (played by Pepe Hermine, a dwarf) wants him to do an ad for a poorly-designed automobile.
Swope's methods baffle those around him, but the results are golden. There's a never-ending demand for his services. There are several highlights in the film, but the ads themselves are consistently great (and they're filmed in color, while the rest of the film is in black and white). It's easy to see this movie's influence on other ones, particularly ones like "Kentucky Fried Movie." The commercials don't really serve the plot in any real manner, other than to illustrate what Swope and his agency are doing. They're more important as self-contained jokes, and it makes sense that other filmmakers would expand on that idea and do movies that sacrifice ongoing narrative in favor of a randomness and continued level of entertainment value. And after watching the Lucky Airlines TV spot, it's not impossible to believe that Bill Hicks drew inspiration for his vision of a Coke commercial from this movie.
This is a rock-solid piece of low-budget film-making from the 60's (the budget was estimated at $120,000), proof that solid ideas can trump money. For it's time, and for being a narrative film, there are some experimental touches, and the point of it remains sharp. Unless I'm missing the point, it seems to say that most people won't get what you're doing unless there's money involved, and that most people do nothing more than chase money around. The very idea of choosing morals over money is ludicrous in the business world, which is completely upside-down. There have been plenty of movies made about the advertising world, but they're usually made with a nod towards the reality of what advertising is and does, but are commercial enterprises themselves. This movie makes no concessions, which is why it holds up well.
4 / 5 - Streaming