Long before there was the genius of Robert Downey, Jr. there was his father, the filmmaker Robert Downey. A pioneer of the 1960s underground film movement, his 1969 satire of American advertising, Putney Swope, created a sensation on its release because of its radical treatment of race issues and consumer culture. Although "sensation" doesn't mean that it was universally applauded while some critics praised the picture's originality and dark humor, many others hated it passionately. The reviewer from the Daily News, for example, called it "vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I've ever seen If intelligent people must see it, take along your retch-bags." Although Downey has continued to write and direct films throughout the four decades since and made a few very good ones, including 1972's Greaser's Palace he never again garnered the attention he received for Swope. The plot is almost non-existent, merely serving as a framework for anecdotal gags when the chairman of a big-time Madison Avenue ad agency drops dead during a meeting, the board immediately takes a vote to replace him. As each member is forbidden to vote for himself, by sheer accident most of the votes go to the board's one black member, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), because none of the execs thought that anyone else would vote for him. Swope fires all but one of the extant ad men, staffs the company with black, gun-toting employees, and changes the firm's name to "Truth and Soul Advertising." Swope's agenda is to change the face of American advertising while refusing to pimp alcohol, tobacco, or war toys. The company is wildly successful, but success brings about dissatisfaction of his radical brethren (including Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas as a motor-mouthed, sloganeering Black Power-type named "Arab"), and the agency becomes the target of government operatives who believe that Swope's ad tactics are a security threat. Taken scene by scene, Downey's film can be quite funny one white ad man pitches a commercial idea as, "A duck hunter walks up to a lady's door. When she opens it, he says, 'In the Forties, it was Mitzi Gaynor and Victor Mature. In the Fifties, it was Christine Jorgensen and James Dean. In the Sixties, it's Smith & Wesson.'" And the film is beautifully composed despite the obviously low budget Downey was working with, shot in black and white with only the commercial parodies in color. But it's a movie made by a director on drugs, for viewers who are also on drugs. A great deal of the picture is made up of stuff that must have seemed hilarious when they were shooting it but, well, we'd like to be in on the jokes, too. Swope's voice is dubbed by Downey himself as a gravelly white man's growl, which is strange but not funny yet the early close-ups of Swope's mouth as he speaks indicates that we're supposed to find it hilarious (on the commentary track, Downey says that Johnson couldn't remember his lines so Downey overdubbed him, then discovered he liked the effect). While a few of the actors are more than competent (Allen Garfield and Allen Arbus appear in small roles), most are painfully wooden in the manner of non-actors who were cast because they're friends of the director. And the cast, the script, and Downey's direction all belie a self-satisfied glee at their own cleverness. As an example of early radical underground filmmaking, Putney Swope is an interesting archival document but it's also painfully self-indulgent, trucking in satire that's dated in the extreme, with terrible acting and humor that's often too surreal to make any sense.
Image Entertainment's DVD release, replacing an earlier offering from Rhino, offers a very good transfer from a very clean source print, and it looks great. The DD 1.0 audio is very clean, too, although volume and clarity is inconsistent due to the makeshift manner in which the original film was recorded. The optional English subtitles feature an alarming number of mistakes, most of them words that, even if misheard by the person in charge of the subtitling, ought to have been obvious from the context during the voting scene near the beginning of the film the word "caucus" is subtitled as "carcass," and in another scene "Shetland pony" becomes "shuttling pony." Also on board is an interview with Downey and a commentary track in both, the director spends a surprising amount of time talking about how unfunny Swope is although, to be fair, he also notes that he doesn't like any of his movies anymore. He does have an exceptional affection for the cast and the process of moviemaking, however, and his detailed comments are interesting. Keep-case.