It's easy to look down on TV movies. They share the same stigma as films which go straight to DVD: if they weren't good enough to get a theatrical release, they're not worth anyone's time or money. What this stereotype overlooks is that getting films distributed can be every bit as difficult as getting them made in the first place. What's more, the increased conservatism and risk aversion of Hollywood has driven many great actors, writers and directors to the small screen, where the likes of HBO have been more accommodating and understanding of their talents.
It's foolish to assume that TV films are inherently inferior to films, just as both mediums were once deemed to be inferior to working on the stage. And there are few better proofs of this than Death of a Salesman, a terrific adaptation of Arthur Miller's seminal play which does not allow its small screen nature to inhibit its artistic ambitions. Featuring one of Dustin Hoffman's best performances and intelligent direction from Volker Schlöndorff, it is a yardstick against which all other Miller adaptations should be measured.
The first interesting feature of Death of a Salesman is its unusual staging. While the original Broadway production was relatively realistic, the film is keen to play with the physicality of the Lomans' house, which serves as the only location for a sizeable part of the film. The house is constructed like a film set, with big gaps in the walls and very deliberate crane shots, in which the camera rises and the walls of the house stop, so we are looking right in on them from above. Schlöndorff's background in German film and theatre would lead us to assume that this was some kind of Brechtian device, designed to distance us from Loman and illuminate the artificiality of his worldview. Whatever it is, it seems far too obvious and deliberate to simply be a mistake.
Miller's play is structured like a stream of consciousness, with Willy Loman looking back over his life and struggling to separate the past as he imagines it from the present problems posed to his family. It's fatuous to make direct comparisons with, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Schlöndorff achieves the same seamless wandering between dreams and realities that Michel Gondry managed so spectacularly. The artificial nature of the sets make such transitions all the more seamless: by allowing characters to wander freely in and out, we ask all the right questions about how much truth (if any) is in Loman's memories.
Death of a Salesman is an examination of the hollow nature of the American dream. Willy Loman is driven by the values of his country and the success of his brother Ben, who "walked into the jungle" aged 17 and by 21 was rich beyond his wildest dreams. He has worked hard all his life, selling to provide for his family and seeking to bring up his two boys with a proper work ethic and attractive personalities. Now, as age takes its toll and his selling abilities are deserting him, Willy begins to entertain the possibility that everything he worked for has been in vain, owing to his material poverty and the wayward nature of his sons.
Miller's socialist leanings come through in the script, which characterises Willy as a confused and delused but deeply sympathetic character. Willy likes to think he can charm his boss into giving him a raise, or sweet-talk his customers into buying his wares: he believes that being nice will get you everywhere. We never see the potential customers he encounters, but his employers do not value emotional sentiment, refusing to give him a desk job on account of Willy's relationship with the new manager's father. No matter how pathetic or desperate Willy becomes, we still side with him over the powers-that-be, who are characterised as distant, heartless and unforgiving.
But while Miller's sympathy for the working man shines through, there is precious little political grandstanding in Death of a Salesman. Much of the film deals with the dysfunctional nature of families, contrasting Linda's devotion toward Willy with Biff's contempt for him and Happy's inferiority to him. What makes Willy such a tragic figure is that he seems to have spent his entire life in the service of other people: he sells to earn money for another, and what money he keeps he gives to those he loves. He may crave the riches and great life that Ben leads, but he remains devoted to Linda and the boys, even in death. His final act of suicide is itself altruistic, allowing the family to claim the insurance money on the car.
If Willy is the satirical embodiment of the American dream, someone who is destroyed by the very ideal he embraces, then Willy's sons are the differing reactions to this realisation. Biff's reaction is one of profound alienation for everything that Willy represents: order, patience, hard work in a busy city. He steals because he has no desire to earn a living, he pursues women because he doesn't want to settle down, and he spites his father's travelling because all he wants to do is work with his hands. Happy, on the other hand, lives in awe of his father, to the point that he resolves to follow in his footsteps in the final scene. His womanising is the product of feelings of inferiority: he believes he cannot ever live up to Willy's standards, and increasingly lacks the will to try.
The whole film is anchored by the performance of Dustin Hoffman, who is nothing short of extraordinary. Hoffman was personally approached for the role by Arthur Miller, who was unsatisfied by Lee J. Cobb's performance in the original Broadway run. Hoffman was initially reluctant, having been a fan of Miller's work and Cobb's performance - he likened it to "doing [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] after [Marlon] Brando". Suffice to say Miller persuaded him, and the results are tremendous.
Hoffman is an actor who can blow hot and cold. He often falls into the same trap of his Method counterpart Meryl Streep, of getting too obsessed with technique over truth and thereby coming across as showy. But while this is a very talky part, which involves a great deal of make-up to age him by twenty years, from the second he arrives on screen we only see Willy Loman. There is far less of a conscious emphasis on gesture than there is in his performance in Midnight Cowboy, and when the mannerisms and busyness of the character comes out they feel natural and integral to the performance.
Hoffman is beautifully complimented by the other performers around him. Stephen Lang, in his first film role, is very convincing as Happy. His face has a sad puppy-dog quality to it, which offsets the boisterous nature of his character. John Malkovich may have increasingly drifted into hamming up and self-parody, but he excels as Biff, exhibiting the same menace that he would refine in Dangerous Liaisons three years later. The scene where he breaks down having discovered his father's affair is one of the best in the film. And Kate Reid, best known for her role in Dallas, is a very good foil for Hoffman as long-suffering wife Linda.
Schlöndorff manages to get the best performances out of these actors because his direction is so unobtrusive. Coming from the New German Cinema movement, which produced the likes of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, Schlöndorff places a strong emphasis on the integrity of the characters. There is nothing in the film which feels like it has been tinkered with or omitted to get the film a wider audience; it follows Miller's play almost to the letter, and the director utilises the fast-talking dialogue to root us deeply in their world, from which the various themes can emerge and take hold.
Death of a Salesman is a very fine piece of filmmaking that finds Hoffman and Schlöndorff at the peak of their respective powers. The powerful acting is balanced by good direction which lifts the quality above the bar set by other TV movies of the time, and the whole production has a feeling of integrity to it on the part of cast and crew. It isn't perfect, being slightly too long and with aspects feeling repetitive, but you will struggle to put a better version than this on screen.