‘Putney Swope’ – hilarious, acerbic, and completely at ease with its level of production value

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Putney Swope

Directed by Robert Downey

United States, 1969

Don’t you wish there were more films like Putney Swope?  It’s William Klein meets Melvin van Peebles.  It’s satire that’s garnered nods from the likes of Bamboozled, How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Network.

When the executive at a major advertising firm dies unexpectedly, the lone black employee, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), is accidentally voted into power.  Putney wastes no time: he renames the firm “Truth and Soul, Inc”, fires much of the white staff and takes the marketing world by storm with his unique and absurd ads.

It’s easy to write Putney Swope off as another manic brainchild of director Robert Downey Sr., but unlike his earlier, less successful films – Sweet Smell of Sex, Chafed Elbows this one has real direction.  It’s an out-and-out takedown of Madison Ave-style politics, including a complete racial reversal where the white messenger is forced to take the freight elevator and ends up pulling a gun on the black suits in the meeting room.

Some of the advertisements are unforgettable: a commercial featuring a one-armed, one-legged man limping down a long flight of steps, an interracial, musically inclined college couple in the park, and most memorably, a hysterically overlong spot where near-naked stewardesses jump around and wrestle. The products hawked – insurance, pimple cream, and an airline, respectively – are mentioned only briefly at the end, almost lost in the hyperbolic presentation.  But of course, that’s the point.

Downey shoots the film in black and white, perhaps a necessity at its budget level, and with an oddly cadenced pacing.  The aesthetic feels at once nonchalant and grim.  The commercial spots are in full color, an indication that the saturated, phony world of advertising is in fact more likely to be a reality than the scenario Downey proposes.

Neal Dhand

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