Not that you necessarily needed any, but All the King’s Men (1949) is solid proof that the moralizing, narratively stilted Best Picture recipient is hardly a modern invention. Winner of the big prize and two acting trophies, All the King’s Men often looks the part of a great film, thanks to director Robert Rossen’s flair for noirish visuals. Dramatic camera angles, canted frames and blunt lighting imbue the film with an occasionally palpable sense of dread, but any visual tension is dissipated by Rossen’s thunderously obvious screenplay, based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel. The noir-like qualities don’t really rise above the level of pastiche, and yet they’re easily the film’s most compelling elements.
A what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair, the film tells the story of Willie Stark (Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford), an aw-shucks, country bumpkin type whose downhome, self-taught law experience and rural county seat election are the only qualifications he needs to soon land a spot in the governor’s seat, riding a wave of populist enthusiasm to victory. Once there, Stark descends into all-out corruption, getting his hands dirty with a litany of bribery, intimidation and deception. Most of this is merely glossed over, and the lack of specificity prevents the film from having any real political teeth; Willie Stark is simply a boogeyman. Worse, he essentially transforms into such over the course of a single montage, one of many papered-over transitions that accompany most of the film’s significant narrative developments.
So, even though Crawford is reasonably engaging, his character is never as terrifying or magnetic as the script lets on. There’s potential for more interest in Jack Burden (John Ireland), the newspaperman and audience surrogate who narrates the film. Initially intrigued by Stark as a feature subject, he’s eventually drawn into the governor’s inner circle, forcing him to confront his own ideals as Stark requires increasingly morally dubious tasks from him. Burden’s swings of conscience are wide and erratic, but most of the potentially interesting crises of faith are swallowed up in a subplot that has Burden digging up dirt on the uncle (Raymond Greenleaf) of his girlfriend, Anne (Joanne Dru).
Burden’s relationship with Anne eventually becomes a point of contention between he and Stark, who is presented as a lady-killer in the film’s most unpersuasive overreach. The married Stark has women falling all over him, including Anne and his sassy campaign manager Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge in an Oscar-winning turn). When a film doesn’t bother to explicate its corrupt politician’s corruption, it’s probably too much to ask for it to apply any sense of believability to his level of attraction. The romantic entanglements do provide the film with some unintended comic relief though, as Dru’s head-throwing ultra-melodramatic performance clashes sharply with her slightly more restrained costars.
All the King’s Men seems convinced that “power corrupts” is such a novel message that there’s no need for any further insight into its characters or political climate. The broadly drawn portrait is almost tract-like in its single-mindedness, and its abrupt about-face at its conclusion seems shoehorned in to make a moralistic point about the downfall that such corruption brings. Rossen’s varied camera positioning and strong ability to stage striking scenes prevent All the King’s Men from being a total slog; still, this is a Best Picture winner that would probably play a lot better with the sound off.
Twilight Time brings Rossen’s film to Blu-ray in a 1080p high definition, 1.33:1 transfer that looks exceptional much of the time. Grayscale reproduction is precise and clean, with deep blacks, perfectly balanced whites and plenty of beautiful silvery images. Film grain is fairly light, but present and unhampered by any obvious digital manipulation. Clarity only really suffers during transitional opticals, but is otherwise quite impressive. There are a few specks here and there, but damage is minimal. The uncompressed DTS-HD mono audio is just fine, with clean dialogue and an adequate reproduction of Louis Gruenberg’s rather forgettable score.
That score is the main feature of Twilight Time’s thin slate of extras, as their usual isolated score track is the only significant extra here. I doubt anyone is all that invested in Gruenberg’s score, but on the plus side, this option does allow one to filter out the film’s frequently hackneyed dialogue. The only other extra is a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Twilight Time’s All the King’s Men Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
New Extra Features: *
Extra Features Overall: *
Twilight Time / 1949 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 109 min / $29.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.