Putney Swope (1969)

Director: Robert Downey

I got the Eclipse box set of the elder Downey’s early films ages ago, and being me haven’t got around to it until now. For the purposes of this present run through the Drive-In Delirium list, I’m only watching this one for now, but HOLY SHIT if the other films in that set are as wacky as this I might just be in for some fun. I gather Downey’s career has been somewhat wobbly—whether in the same way as his son I don’t know—but he had an honest-to-god/dess hit with this kind of amazing film. Apparently Downey’s own time working in advertising, and more specifically his discovery that a black co-worker was being paid less than him for doing exactly the same work, fed into this shaggy satire; set around an advertising agency, the film opens on a boardroom meeting at which the chairman abruptly dies and they have to vote for a new one. Somehow they manage to inadvertently elect the only black board member—the titular P. Swope—to the top job, which entails… changes. Starting with firing all the white men and replacing them with black staff. Putney’s initial high principles—refusing to handle the war toys, alcohol and cigarettes accounts the agency used to manage—gradually wear down as he shamelessly steals other folks’ ideas for promoting products, and the film charts his entertaining decline in fine fashion; I laughed loud and often, though I’m not always sure I did so because it was funny or because I couldn’t believe the film was actually, you know, doing what it was doing when I was laughing at it. I described the film as shaggy, though, and it does have kind of a problem when it comes to the narrative drive, i.e. there isn’t much. Putney Swope inclines to the loose and episodic, and I can’t help but feel that with a bit more tightness to proceedings Downey could’ve made his points even more sharply (cos he had points to make, clearly; the restaging of the aforementioned discovery about his black co-worker, in which Putney “justifies” paying his token white executive less than his black ones, is one of the nicest). Still, some of those points are still pretty strong now; the film is totally of its time in many ways, but it’s aged well, and there’s still something bracing about some of the boundaries of taste Downey punches holes in. If he’d had more big studio resources behind him, Putney Swope might’ve been technically better, perhaps, but I don’t know if Downey could’ve got away with some of the stuff he does.

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